• Wyatt Creech

Thank you very much for your invitation to address your annual conference again this year. I welcome the opportunity to speak to you today, and wish you the very best for a successful conference.

New Zealanders place a high value on education. To most New Zealanders a decent education is regarded as essential.

It is worth reminding ourselves that the 1989 reforms of the state schooling sector, Tomorrow's Schools, were in response to the Picot Taskforce conclusion that New Zealand's state school sector was over centralised, overly complex and in need of extensive reform. That Taskforce, if I could be a little political but note an irony - a Taskforce set up and implemented under a Labour Government - interesting when you now see how they position themselves on this system now - recommended that any new administration for education should be based on choice, the meeting the needs of parents and the community, express cultural sensitivity, equity and be characterised by good management practices. Since taking office in 1990 my party in any of its forms as Government has supported these reforms and built on them.

Education is all about investing in the future and as Minister of Education I regard it as my highest priority to act for and on behalf of the young people of New Zealand and all others seeking qualifications to see that they get the qualifications, motivations, attitudes and values that they need from our education system. It is vitally important that we all think of those broader interests rather than our own narrow vested interests as we consider what is the best future direction for education policy.

I appreciate this opportunity for discussing a range of relevant issues - some controversial, some not. Above all I hope I can leave you with a sense of purpose. We need to get passionate about addressing the needs of young people. The best educators are those that care about advancing the young and can relate their caring to the young people themselves. We have made it this far to benefit the young people of New Zealand. That stands above all else.

The Government has four clear goals for education. The first goal is to continually lift the quality and standards of all parts of our education system. The reason for that as a key goal is obvious. We live in a competitive world, the standard of living and the quality of life for the future will depend on the kind of skills and qualifications that our people have. Unless we match that applying in the rest of the world, the quality of life in New Zealand will inevitably fall.

The second clear goal for us in education decision making is to see that our policies involve parents and communities in the education of their children. Research exercise after research exercise show that parental involvement helps. In fact you don't even need research to understand that - all that is needed is for people to think about it.

We need parents and communities to be involved. The whole basis of Tomorrow's Schools' is to devolve important operational decisions for our young people's education system to parents and school communities through boards of trustees.

Our third clear goal is to prepare young New Zealanders for the inevitably technology-rich skills-based 21st Century. I have already mentioned that improved skills and knowledge will be the basis for a better life in the future. What we teach our young people must be relevant for what they will need to know.

Later next month - 28 and 29 October to be exact - there will be a conference in Wellington at which we will release our information technology in schools strategy paper. This does not mean more of the subject of computers or computing, but using technology to extend what the teacher can do. This strategy paper is being produced by a team headed by Carol Moffatt (until recently the Principal of Oxford Area School) - a person who has developed considerable expertise in the whole area of using information technology as a teaching tool.

Some schools in New Zealand - unfortunately not too many - have really grasped the mettle of what information technology can do to help teachers engage young people in their learning. Many are working on it but in an "ad hoc" way. The efforts are not being coordinated. More needs to done. This new strategy will provide a way to bring together many strands of work currently being done in the broader education sector into a coherent package for the way ahead.

But meeting the challenge of the 21st Century is not just about better use of information technology. The whole curriculum must be future focused.

That point made, we also need to recognise that there are certain core skills that we all need, to make it in the modern world. No-one is going to make it if they cannot read and write. Basic literacy and numeracy skills are at the core therefore of any learning and we must do more to make sure all young people have those skills. I intend to work with my colleagues over the next month or so to make sure we give due emphasis to that point.

That links neatly with our fourth goal. That is to better address the needs of at-risk students. The general public are often scandalised when I tell them that we spend about $65 million through the Training Opportunities Programme on programmes for sixteen and seventeen year olds. A fair whack of that money is spent on basic literacy, numeracy and life skills courses. How, they will ask me can it possibly be that after eleven years in our public education system, students can emerge without those basic skills?

Already we have a number of programmes happening within the education system that contribute to addressing the needs of the at risk group.

Special Education 2000 is a good example of a programme the Government is emphasising. In the 1997 Budget, we allocated up to $200 million for Special Education 2000. It was a huge commitment. It gives the education sector an opportunity to really do something about it when it comes to special education. Needless to say there have been spots of bother along the way as the new scheme was introduced. For a while when the Ongoing Resourcing Scheme was first introduced there were public spats and arguments. There will always be some dispute in an area as sensitive as this but thankfully now it has mostly settled down.

The heat currently is coming as we are moving to implement an equitable system of resourcing for those with higher special needs throughout New Zealand. The focus at the moment is on attached units. Some of the criticism that is being thrown around like confetti is cynical, politically motivated an utterly unfair. Who anywhere will argue that it is good public policy to say that if you happen to live in place x, you should get less assistance that if you live in place y. And yet that is precisely what has been happening for years. No Minister of Education can hold their head high and not address that disparity. I cannot justify to myself providing different levels of resource to people with the same problems in different parts of New Zealand.

I acknowledge the new system for resourcing students is causing concerns among some parents as they wait to see how decisions will finally come out but I can say to parents that where there are the student numbers to justify units they will be kept. That has been that the situation for years. Units have been abandoned when they no longer have the students necessary to justify themselves. Cabinet will soon consider a transition package that will help deal with the concerns being raised by parents and I suggest that before too many more go off on this point they take a deep breath and find out what is actually happening.

We aim to ensure that all children in New Zealand have equitable access to special education resources. Not only is it adding $200 to Vote: Education, it is adding over 500 equivalent full time teachers to the teaching workforce. While the majority of these teachers will come from the variety of existing special education teaching positions, we have added an additional 210 new positions to provide for consistent national coverage. For many areas in New Zealand this is the first time that they will have access to such a resource.

I hear the criticism though from those schools who in the past have had an entitlement way over and above that applied to many other students in New Zealand. As I said above and repeat, it seems to me to be fair and equitable to make any resource like this nationally consistent so students with the same difficulty get the same amount of help. While I fully expect to hear cries from those who feel that they have lost as a result of this move, what I ask them and all in the education sector to do is to take off their own narrow institutional blinkers and look at the big picture. While there is some heat at the moment I don't apologise for what we have done. It is motivated by the best interests of the education sector and all young New Zealanders.

Inevitably as the Minister of Education I face controversy. It seems to be part and parcel of this portfolio. One of the areas of controversy is the degree to which schools should be self managing. They have been self-managing for property more or less since day one, and as I travel to school campuses I have no doubt that the devolution of decision making to the school level has given much better outcomes for the education system than happened under the old arrangement.

There has been much more reluctance, often because of teacher union resistance, for schools to self manage their staff. I could understand the reluctance of schools to enter direct resourcing under the previous formula in that for quite a number of schools the staffing resource that they were paid was less than the actual staff cost. It would be to a certain extent irrational to enter into such a arrangement under those terms.

But that no longer applies. The Government decided to review the formula to remove that anomaly and came up with the Fully Funded Option. I know that there are a lot of political arguments around this matter. But to me this is not a political question at all. What it is saying is that there should be a clear and transparent mechanism for establishing what the direct resourcing grant should be. We have done this by tying it to two publicly known reference points - the top of the teacher pay scale and the staffing entitlement. In simple terms, by multiplying those two together you get a Fully Funded Option Grant. If either of those reference points are adjusted, the grant going to schools will be automatically adjusted.

But the money is not the real issue in any event. I support direct resourcing because it enables schools to take control of their own structure for education delivery. Those schools like yours with experience in this area overwhelmingly point to positive outcomes as a result of the flexibility and freedom they have.

With the recent surge of new entrants, now just over a quarter of all pupils in New Zealand are covered by the directly resourced schools. I spoke to a principal recently who has been in the scheme for just over 12 months. He told me he was amazed at how quickly they were able to modify their arrangements to better meet their students' needs. And I hear that story again and again and again. Directly resourced schools don't have to wait for Wellington with all the lobbying and associated vested interests carry on to make changes within their schools that meet the needs of their pupils. If a school wants to hire additional administration staff to lighten the load of the principal so be it. Done. If they want to hire a sports co-ordinator or counsellors to lower the pressure on their teaching staff, again, so be it. They can quickly respond to the priorities of local communities. I heard of one case where a school just entering direct resourcing had a discussion between the teachers and the staff. The whole school community quickly became involved - staff included - in developing recommendations about ways to use the funding for better results.

I want to take advantage of this opportunity to refute categorically suggestions that there is any hidden agenda behind the Fully Funded Direct Resourcing Option. These sort of conspiracy claims are easy to make. The media love them and the gullible public will too often pick them up. We will not "slash funding" as the PPTA claims. Neither is it an industrial relations issue, and we will not allow it to be incorporated into any sort of employment contract discussions.

Moving on then I should note that education at the moment is alive with new initiatives. If I could be lighter for a moment, I could report that my staff at one stage gave me one of those screen-savers; the message that comes up when you haven't using your PC for a while. This one was particularly apt for the Education portfolio. The screen went blank and then slowly a message came across it said "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". Sometimes life seems like that in my portfolio. One of the initiatives that we are bringing forward is called Strengthening Families. This is a strategy designed to ensure that where it helps, education, health and welfare are pulled into one common coherent effort. In this case we want to improve outcomes for families at risk. For too long service delivery in these sectors has been driven by agencies focussed on their own agendas without recognising the relevant needs and contributions of other agencies. It serves no-one's purpose. And while agencies naturally tend to protect the resources allocated to them, at the end of the day it does not belong to them; it all comes from the one source, from the taxpayers' pockets. It should be used for the collective benefit.

An example. We are currently reviewing dental clinics. This for years has had an interface problem with Vote: Health. The arguments between health and education go on as to who was responsible for what; where does maintenance end and capital begin. This debate has consumed heaps of paper in elegant arguments between these agencies but at the end of the day what really matters is where the children's teeth are fixed. That is what the public cares about. So bringing agencies together to achieve clear goals makes a lot of sense.

Special Education 2000 is another case in point. There is little purpose in us investing huge sums in addressing a child's behaviour problems in a school if the progress made at the school during the day is lost by the child going back into the same environment that caused the problem in the first place once they go outside the school gates after school. Health, Social Welfare and Education need to work together to address that larger need. This coordination role within Government is reflected in the Prime Minister's decision to bring together a number of departments under a single Minister in the recent reshuffle. We want good results from Government.

One of the areas where we will be looking to provide good results is in Information Technology in Schools. I mentioned earlier that Carol Moffatt (the former Principal of Oxford Area School) has been seconded to the Ministry to lead an Information Technology in Schools Project. There is $14.5 million set aside in the 1998 Budget for this purpose. Carol and her team are currently developing a strategy document that will be released at a conference to be held later next month. I really want to see Information Technology efforts in our education system coordinated and driven by a common goal to get better outcomes for young New Zealanders. I have seen what can be done in navigator schools in Victoria in Australia. New Zealand must be up there with the best and we aim to make this Information Technology in Schools Project meet that test.

While mentioning Information Technology, I should also reinforce the Prime Minister's and Minister of Information Technology's statement of earlier this week that computer problems associated with the Year 2000 risk are manageable and serious disruption can be avoided so long as remedial action is taken now. All in our sector should make sure they do their bit to make sure that their software is Year 2000 compliant.

Much of the current education legislation is very prescriptive. This causes rigidity; the legislation restricts the ability of our schooling system to be respond quickly to changing student needs. We are right now looking at the legislative and regulatory framework for the schooling sector and considering options for the future. We want a less prescriptive more enabling framework; schools are not the same from North Cape to Bluff. We want a framework that allows that diversity. And we must acknowledge that for some communities - not that many actually - this system has not worked as well as it should. The Far North has recently been the subject of public discussion in this regard. We must never be afraid to move away from the specified model if another system would work better for the young people involved. The overall goal is not say to any community that you must keep the current arrangement. Rather where school communities want to look to other options they can work in their local variations through their individual charters. "One size does not fit all". It is intended that this be discussed fully with both school managers and governing bodies. Details of the consultative process are yet to be finalised but you will be hearing from the Ministry of Education about this shortly. We will welcome your input.

In order to assess the effectiveness of our teaching programmes the Government has identified the need for quality information on students' achievement and progress.

Under the requirements of the National Education Guidelines and the National Administration Guidelines, teachers have put in a huge amount of effort in developing measures against the learning outcomes of the curriculum statements. However, there are few, if any, tools which will allow any external referencing, any comparative data against national norms. We do have Progress Achievement Tests but they are not based on the learning outcomes of the national curricula. In other words, there are gaps in what there is available for teachers to use.

The Green Paper on National Assessment has proposed to enhance the Assessment Resource Banks so that these items can be used by teachers to develop their own measurements. These items would be in concordance with the learning outcomes of the curriculum statements and would be normed within broad bands. There are a number of areas in the curriculum which it is difficult, if not impossible, to evaluate through traditional testing means. It is proposed that exemplars are developed to provide benchmarking for teachers to use in their assessment of their students. I am thinking of such areas as oral language and art. There are already a number of measures which have been developed which meet the tests of reliability and validity but of which many schools are unaware. It is proposed that the existence of such measures is communicated clearly to schools so that they might consider them within their own assessment policy and practice. I refer to such tools as the Otago Fitness Test.

The package also proposes the development of diagnostic tools which may signal where children are having particular difficulty and where prioritised emphasis might be placed in any future programme. The national testing proposal should be looked on as a validation process. It will enable the efficacy of a teaching programme to be validated against externally referenced standards.

Tomorrow's schools has been in place now for 10 years. Many changes over the last decade have strengthened the delivery of education for students, through increasing the range of opportunities open to students and parents, and the ability of schools to respond to meet their needs. While we have made major strides we need always to be looking for ways to make it better. It is time to look ahead.

I wish you well with your conference. Thank you.