Address to Secondary Principals' Conference dinner, Wellington, NZ

  • Helen Clark
Prime Minister

I am sure that there is far more which unites the two organisations than in the past has divided you, and I hope that will be evident from your discussions this week.

Over the years I have visited many, many secondary schools, and met many of you and your predecessors. Please keep inviting me! I enjoy coming, celebrating your new developments with you, and speaking with your students.

What happens in our schools is a very big part of shaping the future of New Zealand. By coming tonight, I wish to signal the value I personally place on the work you and your schools are doing and the priority the government is giving to education overall.

I haven't come to spell out the detail of government education policy. Later in the conference, both the Minister of Education, Trevor Mallard, and his associate, Parekura Horomia, will be addressing you on that.

Tonight I want to speak of the vision our government has for the future of New Zealand and how education fits into that vision.

The key values which our government has adopted are those of fairness, opportunity and security.

We believe that the dramatic change which went on in economic policy in the eighties, and in economic and social policy in the 'nineties, contributed to a loss of opportunity and security and to unfair outcomes. Our society at the end of that era was fractured and a lot of damage had been done to individuals, families, and communities.

We have seen our job in government as being one of rebuilding a strong society, based on a stronger economy, and restoring both hope and that sense of fairness which has traditionally characterised New Zealand.

We have focused first and foremost on the basics - investing in education, and training, in health, housing, superannuation, and in industry, business, and regional development. By cancelling the tax cuts proposed by the last government and by increasing tax on the top five per cent of earners, we have been able to make a difference, not only in those core areas, but also in others which contribute to the public good - like arts, culture, and heritage; sport and recreation; conservation; public transport; and policing.

We know we can't change the world overnight, but we do believe we are making a good start.

A key preoccupation for us is how to retain first world living standards. Over time New Zealand has steadily slipped from near the top of the OECD ladder to near the bottom. Our export profile resembles that of a third world nation - not a first world one. It's no wonder we've been sliding.

To change New Zealand's status, we believe it is essential to embrace an innovation vision.

Modern economies and societies these days are driven by education, skill, science, research, technology, and innovation. We must be too.

That doesn't mean abandoning the primary base of our economy. It does mean taking its products upmarket, so that they are increasingly sold as elaborately transformed goods and not commodities. The export of commodities has few jobs in it. The export of high value goods has many.

Achieving our vision requires economic transformation. But it is economic transformation for a purpose. We want our people to be able to lead rewarding and fulfilling lives.

Our vision is broader than just the knowledge economy. It is the knowledge society we aim to build. In that society the intrinsic benefits of education are acknowledged in building a society which is well informed, innovative, tolerant, and interesting. We do, after all, work to live - not the other way around.

Ever since the time of Rt Hon Peter Fraser and Dr Clarence Beeby, our education system has aimed to educate the whole person. I often observe when visiting schools how hard you strive to reach that balance between the academic and the sporting, the arts and cultural, and social development. Overall I believe you do a wonderful job in educating well rounded students who go on to face the world with confidence.

Our aim now must be to extend the benefits of that to even more students. As a government we are keen to see the achievements of Maori and Pacific students lifted in the school system.

Our objectives are simple : we want to work with you to see Maori and Pacific students facing fewer suspensions, staying on longer at school, leaving with more qualifications, and entering further education and training in greater numbers.

If we can achieve in those areas I know we can reduce the differential in unemployment rates. Our latest unemployment figures came in at 5.6 per cent, - the lowest since June 1988, and we can drive them lower still. But to do that we have to tackle unemployment and the causes underlying it in minority ethnic communities.

Breaking down that 5.6 per cent unemployment rate, we find 4 per cent among European Pakeha, but 13.0 per cent among Maori, 11.4 per cent among Pacific peoples, and 8.1 per cent among other ethnic minorities. In the interests of fairness and opportunity, we have to make a difference for these communities.

For the first time in a long time job opportunities are becoming available in regions and in sectors where there has been a lot of unemployment. In Northland and the East Coast, there are emerging shortages of forestry workers. In many regions, there are shortages of farm workers.

Increasingly jobs in all these areas require a sound basic education. Foundation literacy and numeracy skills are essential. I was shocked that an international adult literacy survey conducted in New Zealand in 1996 found that twenty per cent of our adults function at a level where they have a lot of difficulty using the printed materials encountered in daily life, such as understanding a bus timetable. It goes without saying that in the modern workplace, these people will find it increasingly hard to get work.

Last Thursday I addressed a conference of secondary school community education programmes, and suggested that this adult literacy was an area in which they might like to do more work and that the government would welcome that.

What I hope you will see from the government's education policy is that we are practical; we do listen to the professionals; we are not teacher bashers; we are investing in education as fast as we can; we are focused on equality of opportunity through education; and we see the role education plays in building the innovative knowledge society of the future.

We appreciate that through many years of disruptive economic and social change, our schools have had to deal with the fall out for demoralised communities and families. You work with teenagers, an age group which is particularly vulnerable. It hasn't been easy.

What we look for as a government is a three way partnership in education - between us; the profession; and students, parents, and the community. We favour a collaborative system, not a market place, and one in which everyone, student and school, is encouraged to reach their full potential. We hope the changes mooted in the role of ERO will contribute to that.

In conclusion I acknowledge your role as school leaders in building the future through your work with young people. Your contribution is to see them grow and develop as young, confident adults able to reach their potential and contribute to New Zealand and the world. For that I thank you and have pleasure in declaring this conference of secondary school principals open.