ASSOCIATION OF BULK-FUNDED SCHOOLSEducation
Thank you for the invitation to be with you again this year.
This is an exciting time in the education portfolio. In a policy sense more is happening now than has happened for many years. If we can bring these policy developments together in a coherent and constructive way we are in a position, I believe, to offer real improvement and opportunity for the education sector. I feel proud and lucky to be in the position I am now because no investment that we make is more important for success in the 21st Century than the education investment.
For the first twelve months in my portfolio I got a good laugh by quoting a screen-saver message - when you stopped using your computer for a while these words floated across your screen - "God put me on this earth to accomplish a certain number of things. At the moment I am so far behind, I will never die". The portfolio seemed like that. We were crisis driven.
Important changes in the last year have I believe, seen a shift over to a strategic focus - a focus where outcomes, where achievements, where standards will be the driver of policy, and not the old and sterile arguments about structures.
You of course have made the switch already. Often at some political costs to yourselves. The opponents have used the techniques of vilification and innuendo where they can to stop you. Sometimes it has been silly. I saw recently a Trevor Mallard press release condemning your organisation for picking such supposedly 'expensive, luxurious' surroundings as this to meet, at a cost of $400 a day as I understand. What he did not try to publicise was that the PPTA Principals' Council was meeting in the Sheraton Hotel at a significantly higher cost! Is the Sheraton Hotel any less salubrious than the Hotel du Vin? The reason you are subjected to this criticism is simple - petty party politics. Use anything to attack those you hate.
The thing that distinguishes you from other schools is the fact that you have chosen of your own free will to be directly resourced for all your activities. You have chosen to take responsibility for finding the best way of spending taxpayers' money to give us collectively, as taxpayers, the best results for your students - a better result, in your professional judgement, than we would get if you were stuck in the inflexible, nationally-set criteria which means that all staffing, regardless of the needs of the students or the talents of the staffroom, must be delivered in every school on exactly the same basis.
To me, direct resourcing has got to be the logical way forward. Because what it is saying to the teaching profession and to communities is this: here is the resource - here is the outcome we want - we want our young people to emerge from the school system with the skills and attitudes needed to set them up so they can look confidently at their own future in the rapidly changing world of the 21st Century.
The PPTA of course, officially continue to vehemently oppose direct resourcing. They claim that it is a surreptitious method by which the Government will reduce funding to schools and 'privatise' them. That is rubbish. Complete rubbish. I feel sorry that they insist on telling people this is the Government's plan. No matter how many times I correct that point, they continue to make that claim. They persist, I am sure, because their argument is weak. If at the end of the day it was our genuine intention to reduce resourcing for education - which it is most certainly is not - we could do it with central resourcing anyway! But unless they can make people believe this false claim, they have lost the case.
Far from reducing funding going to schools, as the last two Budgets clearly show the Government is looking to increase the amount of resourcing that goes into schools. There is a strong political commitment on that point.
For me, support for direct resourcing is not an ideological question. As I said a moment ago, my reason for supporting direct resourcing is to put the decision-making about how best to spend money to get improved education outcomes for the young people of New Zealand in the hands of the locals - the boards, the principals and the teachers. I think that any professional worth their salt and knowing the local circumstances will quickly see better ways of using taxpayers' money than the centrally set formula.
People sometimes ask me why I am so in favour of putting resources into the hands of the community. Sometimes it is easiest to explain these things by anecdote.
Let me tell you about an enterprising school I was told of that had managed to get hold of a disused former school building. It moved the old building onto its own site. You know what those buildings are like when they have been moved - pretty rough around the edges. They approached the authorities to get the money to do the building up as a classroom. After a lot of argy-bargy and 'to-ing and fro-ing' it was agreed that they could have $30,000 to do up the roof. Being an inventive local community they found a way they could get the roofing iron at mates-rates, the paint cheap, the plumbing done voluntarily, the carpentry carried out by locals and so on. In fact they found they could get the whole building done up with the $30,000 and went back to the a uthorities. The answer was 'No'. The money had been appropriated for a roof; it could not be used for anything else.
From any point of view, that is absurd. We will gain more education, both infrastructure and education output, by allowing the community to take those resources, stretch them as they will and spend them better.
Likewise with teaching staff. Our policy of course supports voluntary bulk funding. The Ministry of Education's national staffing formula applies the same staffing ratio to every school from North Cape to Bluff. Schools can be sure they get that staffing. Bulk funding, as you know, allows schools to take that staffing resource in money and decide for themselves how to gain maximum value.
There is one ingredient we do need, however, before we get open-hearted community support for the idea. We have to build real trust and confidence between central government and local communities.
Once we have that trust and confidence the idea will be accepted.
Your own experience shows you that with bulk funding schools can make their own decisions that suit their staffroom and student body needs. You can recognise and retain good teachers by paying them more - can use this funding to attract teachers to less popular areas. In short, use education funds so they benefit pupils most.
Giving power back to communities is the goal. We can do it through direct resourcing, through increasing self-management over property decisions and though our recently-announced plan to pass to schools, where they want it and have the capacity to work it, responsibility for managing their own payroll. Communities know their own needs better and can react faster than some official in Wellington.
I said at the beginning that we needed to move on from arguments about structures and start looking at improved outcomes for the young people of New Zealand. Let me give you an explanation of why I think that is important.
We are at present considering the introduction of a new employment strategy. Part of that strategy involves us in deciding how best to use the current resource set aside for training opportunities or TOPs programmes. About 35% of the training opportunities programme is spent on sixteen and seventeen year olds. Many of these programmes are instruction in the most basic numeracy, literacy and living skills. Skills that most people in New Zealand would have expected a young person to learn while they were at school. When a young person reaches that age and still has not gained those basic skills, the natural question people will ask is "what on earth happened to that young person in the education system? Surely, it is impossible for a young person to get through our school system without learning how to read or write?", the general public will say. And they will ask me as Education Minister how this can possibly happen?
I make two points in reply.
First, the general public should not think for a moment that these situations are typical of our education system. On the contrary, typically, our education system performs very well. Most young New Zealanders come through with the results that you would expect.
And second, that issue of failure is one that the school system must address, because we as a society cannot afford to have a significant cohort of young people emerge from our schools without those skills and expect to continue to succeed in the very competitive world of the 21st Century. Elements of this issue are ominous for our future. Far too many of these "at risk" students come from the Maori and Pacific Island communities. Improved outcomes for these groups from our education system is vital to a continuing healthy future, not just for Maori but for all New Zealanders.
The Government will shortly be publishing a Maori Education Strategy Discussion Document. We hope to bring Maoridom together in working out a solution to the problem of poor outcomes from our education system for those groups. But in that focus on groups we must not forget that a poor outcome is a poor outcome for any young person, regardless of their ethnic origin. We must look to raise the standards of all.
Often poor outcomes are associated with dysfunctional family backgrounds. We put a lot of effort through our Social Welfare system in trying to address the problems of dysfunctional families. In spite of considerable effort, there is still far too much evidence of this dysfunctionality passing from one generation to the next to the next, to the extent that it becomes an ongoing cycle of disadvantage. I am talking about families where abuse of all sorts has got out of control. Drug abuse, alcohol abuse, physical abuse, sexual abuse. Social Welfare Department estimates that some 5% of our families - a total of about 25,000 families or up to 95,000 children - have a range of serious social problems. For them, schools are amongst the safest places they go.
Values too - or should I say sometimes a lack of values - in the home are part and parcel of a young person's life. In the past we had social institutions, generally churches, that provided that values input. But their influence in addressing this problem directly through their congregations has waned over more recent years. Only recently the Governor General added his voice to the concerns of many others in our community, that on moral issues we may be losing our way. I am sure the types of issues that I am talking about, like building respect for each other, valuing honesty, appreciating effort and hard work, were amongst the values that he would have approved of.
And it does not matter whether you are talking about addressing social problems or building values. What happens in schools will be part of the solution. By this I am not meaning to indicate that I see our secular schools getting into the business of religious education. Not at all. But already I see plenty of signs that schools are teaching values to our young people. I go around the corner and see an "anti-bullying" sign, an "anti-violence" sign, an "anti-sexism" sign, an "anti-smoking" sign. Each one of those signs is trying to instil a value into a young person's mind. Thank God I say, they are doing it, because those are the values that young people will need to keep them safe and healthy throughout their life.
I would like to see all schools take up the challenge of playing their part in dealing with young people from this particular group in their care. We have to see that they, too, can come out of our school system with the skills and attitudes they will need to make their way productively through life.
We have to play our part too, and we will. New policies, be they for early childhood, the compulsory sector or post compulsory, are all designed to better use the resources education can win in the Budget rounds to advance this simple objective. Part of that suite of policies is direct resourcing. We want to empower schools to use their judgement to get the best results from the taxpayers' funds we have available.
As you will have heard, we are currently discussing with interested education sector groups ways we might alter the formula to remove what they see perhaps fairly as the over high level of risk associated with becoming directly resourced. This especially applies to smaller primary schools where the replacement of one teacher low on the scale by another high on the scale can turn the school from being a winner to a loser. And to address the loser school problem, full stop. I can hardly blame a school for resisting becoming directly resourced if it means it will have to reduce its staffing.
When I am in staffrooms talking about bulk funding I begin by making the point that if we want to discuss it we should set the expression to the side. Sometimes words get in the way of sensible debate. A month ago some dishonest official leaked a preliminary draft of a paper that had been prepared by officials to advise Ministers on what should go into a discussion document. It mentioned the word "entitlement". But the people who leaked the document, and who used it for their own political ends, rather than "entitlement" they used the word "voucher". This word is like the word in your title "bulk funding". The expressions themselves have become the problem. There is automatically an emotional reaction to them. To me it really does not matter whether you call it "bulk funding" or "direct resourcing" or "man in the moon" funding. What matters is the issue. What does it mean - how does it work in practice?
When I do discuss the issue in staffrooms, and I do often, once I get past the emotional words and people start to think about it I find the reaction rapidly changes. Many teachers can see the advantage of being able to work out for themselves the best way of distributing their time, their energy and their talent to get better outcomes for the young people in their school. When we have talked it through and reached that point, it then comes down to the nitty gritty issue of why people do not like it, and it is simply this. They say "we know you, you are from the Government, you will set it up generously and in a couple of years time you will start screwing us down".
My answer to those people is this. I understand your concern, but right from the moment that I have been in this portfolio I have put a huge amount of effort into developing trust between myself as Minister, between the Ministry under Howard Fancy, and between the school sector. That we are open, we can talk to each other about issues, that we can work problems through.
I have said we will adjust the Operations Grant so as to keep the value in place, and we have done so. It does not matter whether you compare it to the CPI, to the Reserve Bank Underlying Inflation Index, or to the Producers Price Index. It does not matter which index you use, the amount of money that is going for operations into schools is greater than the rate of inflation for the period up to our 1997 Budget.
It fell behind in the early years of the nineties when this country faced a fiscal crisis. Everybody was asked to tighten their belts. But with the improvement in our economy we have made adjustments in both of the last two Budgets that now have restored the total operations money going out to schools for boards to spend, to give a real improvement since 1990.
I was disappointed with the School Trustees Association report put out last week, produced by someone who allegedly considers himself to have some expertise in these matters, that challenges the point I just made. Not because he disagreed with what I have just said, but because the report was shallow and wrong. I invite you to read that report. It is a very weak piece of work. I suspect it was designed to make a point, not answer a question.
For example, the key conclusion in this report excluded from school operations funding Targeted Funding for Educational Achievement - TFEA. Targeted Funding for Educational Achievement is additional funding paid to schools serving lower socio-economic areas to cover the additional operational costs arising because of the difficulties associated with the income groups of the young people they are dealing with. There is plenty of evidence to show these schools need more money to turn out an education of a similar quality to schools in better off areas. Likewise Targeted Rural Funding. This funding is paid to small and isolated rural schools to meet the extra administrative and operational costs they face because of the distance and isolation. But clearly it is schools operations money. To say that because it is targeted, as the STA report did, it does not count as operations money is to my mind, disingenuous if not plain dishonest.
I want to make it clear to the public, very clear, that objective research available from the Ministry for anyone who wants to look at it, shows that we have now, with the two recent catch-ups, brought the Operations money going to schools to ahead of its real level in 1990. And we will continue to look at it in each Budget round, to make sure that the level of resourcing going for school operations provides adequately for the reasonable needs of schools.
And even as you take into account these figures, you cannot ignore the fact that we are proposing to spend between $150-$200 million over the next three years on putting in place a new Special Education policy. And there is the additional money for truancy, for teacher professional development, for drug education, the list goes on and on. All this money is spent in schools. I know there will always be calls for more; no matter how well we do in the Budget rounds people at the chalkface could do with more. But being realistic, we have done well and we must show we can use the resource we have well.
I would like to briefly add a little more on special education. This is an area where I have taken a personal interest. I would like to see New Zealand with the best special education policy in the world. It is a tall order, but it is one that if we work constructively together - myself as Minister, the Ministry of Education, the boards of trustees, the special teachers and the general teachers - if we work together, it is one we can achieve.
As I said when I began, we have a window of opportunity to achieve some big changes in our education system. We must not compromise on this effort to achieve success. I want those who are committed to a successful outcome to join in this effort on behalf of the young people of New Zealand. If we work together for the best interests of the young people we can achieve so much.
We want to unite the various educational interests in the new drive to raise standards in schools; be advocates for the spread of good practice to achieve higher standards; to keep abreast of best practice nationally and internationally; work with all involved to improve national outcomes for literacy and numeracy. We want to put aside the divisions and conflict of the past. We want to spread what is working from one school to another. We want to encourage greater involvement from parents; without them we will only be partially successful - with them, we can really make a difference.
Setting these as our goals in every school is simply good common sense. We want to single-mindedly work together to benefit those for whom all our efforts are intended - the children of our country. We want no one, no sceptic, no cynic, no energy sapper, to erode the enthusiasm and the hope that currently exists. The message is clear. To those who constantly talk about demoralisation and by doing so, demoralise not only themselves but others, I have one clear message. If you are not with us, then step aside for there is no room in the education service, at whatever level, for those who do not believe that we can do better - and are truly willing to try.
I ask everyone to now look ahead and join in this effort.
Thank you very much.