Closing Address to Secondary Principals Assoc of NZ

  • Wyatt Creech

Thank you for the invitation to be here today.

I have some things I want to say to secondary principals. Not everything I say will be popular, but they need to be said.

First I should mention the secondary teachers situation. There seems to be something of an industrial jinx attached to me speaking to the SPANZ annual meetings. I've done it twice before and both times some problem loomed or hung in the air.

The upcoming PPTA strike has been read very negatively by the public as evidenced by media editorials up and down the country. Last Thursday's Evening Post called this early strike action "brutish and cavalier". Reactions like this reflect a deep public concern. Our education system is too important to the future of our young people to be treated in this way. A smart profession would stop industrial action and stop it quick.

Let me tell you this so you can pass it on to your staff. The strike will not improve things for teachers. It can only set the case back.

I know there are dissatisfactions too within SPANZ at the processes that have been used to date in relation to resourcing your incomes, though I put them in a very different bracket than the aggressive actions of the PPTA. Your Executive brought their concerns relating to the Joint Working Group to me last month. As members of that delegation will have noted at the meeting, officials from the Ministry strongly defended their actions in the process when challenged.

Clearly many here believe the process itself was the major problem. From the outside I can easily see that there has been too much talking past each other. I did however undertake to look into the issue, and I will.

Principals' contracts are not with the Ministry, they are with your individual Boards of Trustees. But I acknowledge the need for you to have confidence that the Government will regularly review the level of resourcing available for those contracts. I know you have concerns about the process followed this year to do this and I have asked the Ministry to map out with the JWG how the process might work differently in the future.

Neither has the unified pay system been universally popular in the secondary sector. The Government made the decision in 1995 to shift to an integrated teaching service with a unified pay system. The considered view was that we could no longer justify educationally a base salary difference between those who taught children up to Form 2 compared to those who taught children Form 3 and up. All teachers contribute to a child's learning. To allude to the parable, without the foundation, the structure falls down.

But this does not mean there will be no differences in teachers' pay. What it means is that differences have to have a deeper justification than "you teach in the primary sector therefore you are paid less".

There are also concerns about the implications of the fixed term contracts.

Before outlining the Government's view on the issue, I would like to set the context in which we come to our views. The Government's responsibility in education is to achieve the best possible education outcomes we can for the young people involved. For that we are accountable to the electorate, and you can expect us to work tenaciously to achieve that goal. Our position on any of the issues involved, including our commitment to the unified pay system, should be seen in the context of that goal.

We feel there is a very strong educational justification for our proposed approach. There is plenty of evidence to demonstrate that principals play a crucial role in achieving our education objective. No doubt Boards will, at the time they first select a principal, choose the best available person for the job. But over time the needs of schools and relevance of the contribution of individual principals can change. Term contracts give Boards the opportunity to, from time to time, review their original decision to be sure the person serving their school in this crucial role still meets that original test. It would be wrong to conclude that this is merely a matter of competency. If a principal is incompetent, they should be removed from the position immediately and not appointed to such a position again.

Obviously this change may be seen as threatening to security of tenure for incumbents. But threatening security is not our objective; we have an educational goal in mind. To recognise the concerns that have been raised and therefore assist in achieving acceptability to incumbent principals, we have already agreed to an extended transition and the inclusion of clauses in the contracts that clearly state there is no limit on the number of times a principal can be re-appointed to their job. In addition the Government will propose to Parliament an amendment to the State Sector Act that allows Boards the discretion to choose not to advertise a position which is due to expire and instead to proceed directly to re-appoint the incumbent.

Our objective is to see that all policies within the education system are consistent with the objective of seeing that schools provide children with the best possible educational opportunity. School management and leadership can make or break a school as you all well know. With the new unified pay system salary package for principals we have tried to reward the job as it is meant to be rewarded, recognising the managerial skills and performance required at this chief executive level. In contrast to some critics' claims, our policy shows that we genuinely value principalship. If we can get the leadership of a school right, education will benefit.

Since I became Minister of Education I have spent a lot of time listening to concerns from teachers, from principals, and from boards of trustees about where improvements could be made to the resourcing and structure of our school system. I have put a lot of effort into fixing the problems. There are still problems to be fixed and I will continue to work on them.

But they should not be the whole debate. Organisations like this will lose their public credibility if they do not reflect widely on educational issues but become consumed with remuneration issues alone. We need to focus on standards and achievement. We need to focus the centre of our attention on the needs of the young people we are all here to serve. We need to give them the skills they will need to foot it in the new century.

The greatest challenge we face is that of giving every child in this country a world-class education. This means first, not only high standards, but also high expectations and high levels of accountability of students, parents, schools, teachers and communities.

Meeting the challenge will not be easy. There is no quick fix; there is no single proposal that will magically give all our children the education that they need and deserve. Ultimately, the answer is what goes on in the class, between the teachers and the students, supported from the home by parents.

Similar sentiments are being expressed in other countries. The Prime Minister of Britain and the President of the United States, to quote just two, have recently been on record making just the same point.

In years gone by it was possible to ignore the proportion of students who came through our school system with very little to show for it. In the 21st Century that will no longer be good enough, as the manual low skilled jobs that assured that group a lifetime income are no longer there. Our world has changed. Almost every job today increasingly requires a combination of individual motivation and an investment by the individual in the knowledge and skills required. Our time in the school system is the one chance most of us get to build those motivations, and build knowledge and skills. They need to be supplemented outside the school system, but that is the foundation place. The general public is rather staggered by the fact that we spend $65 million on basic literacy and numeracy catch up for 16 and 17 year olds who theoretically have spent 11 years in our education system.

Perhaps the teaching profession should set clear targets for itself. We could ensure that every 8 year old can read and write, that every 12 year old is technologically literate, that every 18 year old can go on to further study or training, and that every adult can continue to learn for a lifetime.

While the Third International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) reflected well on those senior students who study these subjects, it identified concerns with the performance of 8 and 9 year olds.

The Maths and Science Taskforce found that there was a need to raise expectations of success, lift the underachievement of Maori and Pacific Islands students, lift the skills and knowledge of teachers, provide 'hands-on' materials for educators, and give classroom teachers extra training (professional development) to use the new materials.

As I look to the future, it is pretty clear to me that the focus will be on movement towards individualised learning - removing barriers to learning for all. Interestingly, the recent research report on participation in post compulsory education showed that cost is far from the most important barrier - the major barrier is personal attitudes.

We see a need for greater flexibility in resourcing, staffing and teaching practice. Schools will need to build on their strengths. We have to realise that what is in each school now can not always bring out the best in students - schools will need to be able to be flexible and help students tap into other training whether it is in the tertiary sector or from specialists from a range of disciplines coming into the school.

We need to have all 16-19 year olds working towards meaningful qualifications. Our challenge is to create a learning environment in schools which encourages the greatest level of retention into the senior years.

We need to do what we can to be sure public education fails no-one. We are increasing our effort to make public education work well for those attending schools in South Auckland. Similar work is being done on the East Coast of the North Island.

Truancy initiatives have been beefed up and are working better. New money has been set aside to educate young people about drug abuse.

Special Education 2000 is being put in place. I should note that there is concern in some parts of the school community about how Special Education 2000 will work. This is one of the reasons it is being phased in. This year the two key components are the Ongoing Resourcing Scheme and the Special Education Grant.

I have read a number of stories in the Auckland newspapers hyping up the concerns about the Special Education Grant. It disappoints me that people continually put up 'what if' scenarios to criticise.

Education lives in a fishbowl. The credibility of a good overall policy can be undermined by the way the media seizes on an isolated incident and blows it up as if the whole policy was going off the rails. Personally I think we get further when we work things out without the inevitable oversimplification and distortion we see when stories hit our cynical media. I am reminded of the old story about Goff Whitlam. He had organised a press conference on the lawn at the Lodge in Canberra and took a short cut walking on the water over the lake to meet the assembled journalists. The report in the paper next day that covered the incident read: "Goff Whitlam can't swim".

As you all know, the Special Education Grant is new. It funds schools to provide for the low to moderate learning and behavioural needs of their students. It was introduced last year to replace the old SEDA individual assessment scheme. It was introduced because the administration costs of a scheme that individually assesses those with low and moderate needs often exceeds the cost of a programme to fix the problem - the resource gets consumed in administration. We have doubled the amount going into the grant this year - so students who were at the edges of the ongoing resourcing scheme and other students with special needs, have much more resources to work with. The Government trusts schools to use it for what it is intended.

The Special Education Grant and Ongoing Resourcing Scheme will be complemented next year by behaviour initiatives and speech language initiatives.

SE 2000 is a complex new policy. It will take time to settle down. But huge sums of extra money are going in. I fully understand that there will be complaints as the policy beds in. I trust that once people get to grips with how the system works the process will be a lot smoother. Special Education 2000 will help students, schools, parents and communities respond to those children with special education needs.

I have been impressed since I have been the Minister at the number of new school-community links springing up all over the place to strengthen families, communities and schools. On a purely practical level the Government is pushing this hard. We are forcing departments to stop being territorial so that they can hook into the work of other departments to do a heck of a lot more to help a student than they can acting alone.

My portfolio brings out the need for the social policy debate raised by the Code of Social and Family Responsibility, as much if not more than any other. Allow me to explain. No matter how much taxpayer resource we put into education, no matter how good our schools are and how good our teachers are, if children come to school tired because they have watched videos or TV all the evening before, have ignored the need to do homework and prepare for classes, or in the worst cases, hungry because no-one has made them breakfast or prepared them a lunch. Or worse still, they come to school stoned and that happens to from time to time; no matter how good a job the education system is doing, those children just will not reap the benefit they can from the education system. If we are to solve our social problems, everyone, Government, schools, community and family all have a part to play. Without family backup we can't stop parents abusing their children, we can't stop children from taking drugs or getting suspended from school and we can't force children to go to school.

You only need to look at some of the statistics to realise how important it is to address the issues.

Approximately one in 20 families are seriously at risk of their children not doing as well as they could.

14 children a day are either seriously abused or neglected.

More and more children are being suspended from school.

By the age of 16 years, at least 15% of children either attempt suicide or say they think of doing so.

Last week the role of schools in teaching values came to the fore. Already schools are teaching values - I continually spot anti violence, anti racism, anti sexism and anti smoking posters as I walk down school halls. We need to reinforce that. Honesty, integrity, the need to treat others as we would like to be treated - these are the values we all need to subscribe to if we are to bind ourselves together as a community.

There is a further reason why we need to build a sound base of common values. Perhaps I should explain this by analogy. Last year Parliament decided not to proceed with a Bill aimed at blocking telecommunications companies transmitting pornographic data on the Internet. Now no-one in Parliament supports pornography, but the Bill was dropped. Why? The problem was simple. The advent of fibre optic cables with their multiple compressed and encoded and digitalised messages zapping in both directions thousands at a time makes it technically impossible for a communications company to analyse and identify a single undesired message. Technically it just can't be done.

What that experience demonstrated is that using the law as a means to control undesirable behaviour is increasingly being eroded by new technology and the forces of globalisation. In traditional terms, we would say that our sovereignty is weakened. That gap can only be filled by individuals taking more responsibility for themselves. To do that, we must build those values that we need in all our citizens and the best place to start is when they are at school.

Our approach is underpinned by our commitment to building a performance culture in schools where parents and communities have a strong voice and where teachers and schools have the flexibility and responsibility at the local level to make the professional judgements on the best way to use that resourcing to advance their students.

And that finally is the key. Our education system is there to advance the needs of students. I hope in spite of occasional hiccups SPANZ, and I can continue to work together over the coming year to advance the interests of young New Zealanders.

I'd like to finish by acknowledging the work of John Tait and Elizabeth Forgie in SPANZ. I have found the relationship with John and Elizabeth to be a constructive one, which has always had the best interests of education at its heart. I wish them the best for the future.

Thank you very much.