THE EDUCATION AGENDA - PRIORITIES FOR 99

  • Nick Smith
Education

Prepared for Closing Address to Secondary Principals Association of New Zealand Conference

ROYAL LAKESIDE HOTEL, ROTORUA

THE EDUCATION AGENDA - PRIORITIES FOR '99
Thank you for this opportunity to address you. It is a privilege. I bring the best wishes of my predecessor, Deputy Prime Minister Wyatt Creech who probably wishes he were here and not amongst the medics. His loss is my gain. Education is the most important area of social policy. It's about shaping our nation's future.
There is a new generation of Minister calling the shots. We know that in a world where knowledge is power, education is king. We come with a vested interest. The public want the best for their children and we want the best for ours.

This is my first major speech as Minister of Education, and I have given it a lot of careful thought. Since my appointment six weeks ago, I have listened intently to the various voices of the sector and to the advice of the Ministry. Today, I want to give a sense of the vision I have for education in New Zealand. I want to spell out my priorities and the why. It will not answer every question of every detail. Education is just too vast a sector to do it justice in this way. But it will give you a flavour as to what I believe is important. Nor today do I focus alone on the concerns of your own secondary sector. I want to give the big picture - my agenda for the year.

In the smorgasbord of Education, this year's main courses are Literacy and Information Technology and you are going to hear a lot of them from me. It is a one meat, one vege main course. Literacy, because it is the basis for all learning. Without it our children are starved of knowledge. I.T., because it is the way of the future: It has been an educational hors d'oeuvre. It is time to make it main course.

re my top two, but they are not my only priorities. Today I also wish to discuss the important issues of improving teacher quality, confronting social issues impacting on schools, better assessing pupil learning, sorting out school qualifications, meeting the needs of special education students and enhancing school self management. It is quite a mouthful - in fact quite a meal.

Let me get one thing straight. It is my belief that NZ has a top class education system. The facts speak for themselves. International surveys of school leavers show that in reading literacy NZ ranks 4th out of 31 countries, in math 9th out of 21, in science 6th out of 21. When we're beating powerhouse economies like United States, Germany, Singapore and even Australia, we have much to be proud of.

This didn't happen by accident. New Zealand education has been led by bold and innovative thinkers. A central theme for over a century has been a core belief that every young New Zealander, regardless of wealth, status or location has the right to a quality education. I am as committed to a free public schooling system as those pioneers who opened the first free public school in Nelson in 1843.

To stand still though, is to betray that heritage. Every hour of every day, we must continue to search for that innovation that will keep our children in front.

Tomorrows Schools is the latest chapter in this history of innovation. It's a success story. When I compare management of schools with those of a decade ago, it is a different planet.

When I was cutting my political teeth, I dated a lovely young education board cadet, now my wife. Such was the ridiculous degree of centralised control, that her job was to issue schools with a set schedule of sports equipment right down to how many soccer balls, cricket bats etc each school got. It was a system characterised by frustration and waste. It was a nonsense. May it rest in peace.

But Tomorrows Schools has been about far more than who buys the sports equipment. It is about giving parents a real stake in their children's education.

There are those who did, and still question the merits of parental governance of our schools. They argue it can't work in poor areas. Bollocks. There are schools in very difficult communities that are delivering stunning results. Sound professional leadership backed by community support has beaten the intellectual arrogance of the paternalistic centrists hands down.

The recent fiasco at Colenso High School is an indication that some have still not accepted the basic tenet of Tomorrows Schools. The issue is not direct resourcing. It is who governs the school. The teachers at Colenso sabotaged the Board's decision by making the school unmanageable. It was a disgrace and has cost us a good principal. Just as I won't tolerate parents interfering in the professional role of teachers, nor can we tolerate teachers usurping the governance role of parents.

It is not ideology that leads to me supporting Tomorrows Schools - it is practical common sense. To suggest that I, or the ministry, can make the best decisions for 2700 schools from my Beehive office is sheer fantasy. Every school is different and I have far more confidence that taxpayers funds will be put to the best use when determined at the local level.

But don't confuse my enthusiasm for dogmatism. Tomorrows Schools is a good model but I am not blind to the fact that some schools are failing. In the past, the Ministry has been too pure and reluctant to support a school deeply in trouble.

I'm a pragmatist. Every day a school is left in turmoil, a child's education is compromised. There comes a point where the Ministry must get hands on. You will find me encouraging School Support to intervene earlier in future.

The last point I'd like to make on issues of style is the need to consult and be in touch with the sector. My first act as Minister was to spend a day in a classroom. Cabinet, by comparison, is a stress free zone. One of the most enjoyable parts of the job is visiting schools. The teachers I meet are enthusiasts, our school boards are positive and I continue to be impressed by the leadership skills of principals.

One walks a fine line between consultation and vacillation. Education is too important to wallow in the morass of indecision. I'm not one to walk away from the hard decisions.

This morning I want to talk about the eight key areas of work where I will focus my energies over the next 12 months.

1. Focus on Literacy

Already I have said that my number one priority is literacy. Earlier I referred to international studies on NZ literacy levels, noting that NZ ranked in the top few nations in the world. That was the good news. The bad news is that NZ had one of the highest proportions of students with very low scores. In short, our best are the best, but our worst are also the worst.

NZ has a proud record on literacy. The need for the renewed focus is not that we've got worse. It is that whilst in days gone past there was a place in society for those who could not read or write. Now there is not. We see them now in the social and prison statistics. Some are stranded in TOPS courses where, after 10 years in our education system they still cannot read and write. This is not just an education issue. A glimpse at prison rates of illiteracy tells the full story. In a year in which everyone is beating the drums for more police and tougher penalties, the answer lies more in confronting issues like literacy.

The Government has set an ambitious target of having all nine year olds able to read, write and do maths by 2005. A goal in isolation is meaningless. It must be backed up with clear accountability measures, a refocused curriculum, and innovative programmes in the home, school and community.

The first challenge is to give real meaning to the goal of "read, write and do maths" by deciding exactly what is meant. The Literacy Taskforce will report to me by the end of this month on that, and on the development of resources to assist teachers and schools in meeting our goal.

We can't let ourselves be constrained at the school gate in tackling the problem. The new entrant assessment data, released just a fortnight ago, shows the home environment is a huge influence. We have to get parents, grandparents, Whanau, caregivers, Uncle Tom Cobbly and all excited and involved in feeding young minds. Books in Homes is the sort of smart initiative we have to encourage.

I'm going to spend a lot of time this year raising New Zealanders awareness of the problem and how they can be part of the solution.

2. Information Technology (IT)

My second priority is IT, and making sure we equip our young people for the information age. The pace of change is awesome, and our schools are not keeping up. IT is no longer an optional addition to the curriculum, and it is not enough to have a computer studies class. IT must become part of the students experience in all learning areas.

Last year saw the launch of 'Interactive Education - an information and communication technologies strategy for schools,' The plan was backed up with some specific-funding. It is a start and we must proceed a pace in implementing the programmes for professional development and infrastructure. Next week I will announce the 23 schools which will lead the professional development of over 300 other schools. It's a significant step, but only a start.

I've had advice overdose in this area in recent weeks. Some in the trade have urged me to fund a computer for every classroom. Others want me to purchase a laptop for every teacher. Some want me to develop and provide suitable software and others have pushed for networking. Any of these approaches would be a mistake. Centralised decision making didn't work for cricket bats and soccer balls, and it won't work for computers.

It also misses the biggest challenge. The best advice I've had on this issue came from Australian technology guru Doctor Dale Spender, who last week opened Nelson Polytechnic's new library and learning centre. She promotes the notion that for every $1 spent on new technology, $2 needs to be spent on the professional development of staff. She is right.

I want to give IT in schools a big nudge. The difficulty is that schools are in such different spaces. We've got everything from Star Trek to Horse Trek. The Information Technology Advisory Group (ITAG) found that only 43% of Primary Schools and 53% of Secondary Schools have an IT plan. Funding is part of the issue. The Ministry advise that technology existed at the advent of Tomorrows Schools in 1989 and some provision for it is included in the operations grant. That's half true, but technology has moved light years since 1989. The cost of schools keeping up with technology expectations has ballooned. But so it has also for other sectors. Neither the farmer nor the supermarket has been able to put their prices up to fund their IT needs, but have had to think smart about better using their resources. Schools have to do like wise. We have to do better than funding IT from cake-stalls and school fairs. I want to help. One of my biggest challenges is rattle some cash from the Treasury tin.

3. Teacher Quality

The most important factor in the success of our education system is the quality of the person standing in front of the classroom.

Despite my ambition to push teacher standards higher, this should not be taken as any lack of confidence in our teaching professionals. Almost without exception, our teachers have their pupils interests at heart, put tireless hours into the job and are serious about their professional standards.

There are four fronts to this issue on which I want to make progress. The first is in the early childhood sector. It is here that we can make some of the biggest gains. It is a sector that has evolved quite recently and expanded rapidly. The degree of professional training is a mixed bag and we need to move to requiring formal qualifications. We must be cautious of dismissing experience and only recognising formal studies. We must also carefully manage the transition. This issue has been round for years and I want to nail it next month.

Issue number two on the teacher quality front is professional standards. You will know that I'm as keen as mustard to get a settlement in the current secondary pay round. The Government has put serious money on the table. If you want good teachers you've got to pay for them. I'm particularly determined to see the start up salary for graduates substantially increased. We are not going to get the quantity or quality of teachers to cope with big increases in secondary rolls without a more attractive salary. I must also make it plain that better pay has to be linked to professional standards. I want an end to salary increments being based on time served. On this I am resolute, and the Government won't budge.

Teacher training I must confess is an area of considerable concern. It is the most common complaint both by new teachers, and principals and boards when discussing teacher quality. I am told it lacks intellectual rigour, that our colleges are bastions of political correctness and that the preparation for practical classroom teaching is inadequate. I'm not a teacher, and I don't claim to have the professional skills to judge the veracity of these remarks, but I find them disturbing. My preference is to use the expertise of the Education Review Office to comprehensively review Teacher Training.

The process for approving teacher training programmes is a dog's breakfast. Universities get approval from the Committee on University Academic Programmes (CUAP), which in itself is a sub committee of the Vice Chancellor's Committee; the Polytechnics have their teacher training programmes approved through the New Zealand Polytechnics' programmes Committee (NZPPC). Colleges of Education obtain approval from the Colleges of Education Academic Committee (CEAC). Private training establishments have to get approval from the NZQA. I've got CEAC, PPC, CUAP, and it is a bunch of CRAP. We need one robust approval process in which the sector has confidence.

The fourth and final issue in regard to teacher quality is the Teacher Registration Board (TRB). It is a very crude and basic system of registration, and its powers need updating. The conduit for complaints is too narrow and it is hopelessly limited in having the choice of de-registration or nothing. The teaching profession stands tall alongside doctors, nurses, lawyers, accountants and professional engineers, yet all of these bodies have powers to put members of their profession under supervision, to require ongoing training, to be fined or suspended. The industrial relations role of the PPTA and NZEI is a legitimate one but it does hamstring their ability to set and maintain professional standards. I am keen to explore an expanded role for the TRB and welcome their first step along this road in developing a code of ethics.

4. Confronting the Social Issues

It is a truism that the social problems in our community walk in the school front gate every day. It is not my expectation that schools can solve these problems, but the reality is that schools have to manage them as best they can to be able to get on with the job of educating.

For many of our young people who come from dysfunctional families, schools are the one haven of security. But it is no good to them if they are not there. The truancy initiative begun by my predecessor is working well, but needs your continued support. My focus will be on those who have been suspended or expelled.

Schools face an awful dilemma with these young people. Allow them in the classroom, and they disrupt other student's learning. Boot them out, and you put them on a road to nowhere. My ambition is to have every New Zealander under 16 participating in a school programme. This is not going to be achieved by dropping standards on issues like drugs and violence in our schools. We need to intervene earlier, before the problem gets to that point. We need to have clearer and more definitive rules about suspensions and these are in the pipeline. We have also got to accept that some young people cannot survive in the traditional classroom or perhaps I should say, the traditional classroom can't survive some young people.

Correspondence School is not the answer. We are just kidding ourselves if we think suspended pupils are getting a meaningful education with what comes in the mail. We need to provide alternative centres for education with specialist trained staff.

The other big challenge is in getting better co-ordination across the health, welfare and education interface. The strengthening families initiative is sound, and we need to build on it. I am impressed by the pilots of CYPFA social workers in schools and want to see that programme expanded. However, I think we can make the biggest gains in reducing the social problems our schools face through early intervention parenting programmes. I am a strong fan of HIPPY, Family Start and the soon to be launched Whanau Toko i te Ora and want to see them grow.

5. Better Assessment of Student Learning

We spend over $4 billion a year in schools but the measures we have on how well we are doing are quite crude. Whether you are a parent, a board member, a teacher, principal, ministry official or minister, it is very hard to judge how well we're doing. The nature of the beast is that it is not easy. Schools are not widget factories where you can easily measure the product. We need to be cautious of creating a bureaucratic monster which has teachers spending more time assessing than they do teaching. Nor do I believe that league tables or simplistic school comparisons will drive excellence. The challenge for us is to develop a policy that gives parents and educators more reliable information. I don't necessarily subscribe to the view that we need a single standardised national assessment tool. It goes against my strong belief in school choice. However, I do want the information to be cross referenced on a nation-wide basis.

6. Sorting out School Qualifications

The history of our school qualifications is one of piecemeal development. School Certificate was designed for a time when most left school at that age. We've seen UE, Bursary, Scholarship and Sixth Form Certificate join the array of school qualifications. The system of unit standards has been highly divisive. Millions of teacher hours have been consumed. The difficult dilemma has been providing meaningful qualifications for the broader mix of pupils in senior secondary school, whilst at the same time challenging and stretching our brightest talent. Achievement 2001 is all about bringing these together into a coherent set of qualifications for senior secondary pupils. I want to see this work through to fruition.

7. Meeting the needs of Special Education Students

No area of education policy is as challenging or as fraught with as much difficulty as special education.

We have been searching to find a system that is both fair and efficient. The problem is that the two are difficult to marry in allocating special education resources. To be perfectly fair, we would need to assess every single student, but would spend most of the money on assessment rather than helping meet students learning needs. On the other hand, automatically divvying the money up to all schools would be efficient but would hardly be fair to the school that has more than its share of special need students. The policy is a compromise, with a mix of the ongoing resource scheme meeting high needs, and the SEG grants the others. Conceptually it's not perfect, but it is the best we will do, and I am committed to it.

The devil's in the detail. We must ensure the SEG and ORS funding keeps pace with costs. We must also closely monitor the verification process to ensure that it is nationally consistent. Schools must keep their part of the bargain and ensure their SEG grant is spent on their pupils with special needs.

There is some hot water into which I am probably unwise to dip my toe. I have never been a risk averse politician. The notion of mainstreaming is now 10 years old. It has had huge benefits but I feel the pendulum has swung too far. Some pupils I see being mainstreamed benefit little, and their needs are so great that I think it is unreasonable to expect the school to cope. I think the policy of parents being able to send their special needs children wherever they choose is too pure and needs revisiting. Wherever possible, a parent's wish should be accommodated, but it cannot be an absolute. We must provide every child with access to a school but sometimes the most appropriate place is a specialist facility.

8. Enhancing School Management

In my opening comments I stressed my commitment to Tomorrows Schools, and I noted huge gains that have been made in the way in which our schools are managed. But there are still improvements we can make. I am constantly amazed at the extent to which we tie schools up in red tape. The Education Act is a mind blowing plethora of rules and regulations. I look at the huge Act and regulations and think of my daughter Hazel who is 14 months old. They are about the same size. I can't find much in the Act or the regulations about the educational development of my daughter to a mature, contributing New Zealander over the next 20 years. I see a whole lot of prescriptive rules, and an absence of words like learning, quality, standards or excellence. Parts of the Act are older than I am. Prescriptive regulations are along the lines of: 'The annual general meeting of each Board of Trustees shall not be held prior to the fourth full moon of the year during which the dog howls, but before the seventh full moon following lent.'

One of my key priorities this year is a complete overhaul of the Act, and I intend to release a discussion document before the end of the year. We have also got work going on about the length of the school day and year, being led by former MP Margaret Austin. The last time this issue was seriously debated, ensuring schools didn't interfere with children's assistance in the cowshed was a key factor.

On this issue you are going to find me a bit of a centrist. I fail to see the argument as to why the secondary and primary years should be different. I also think it's time we were a bit more honest about what defines the school as being open for tuition. Teacher only days should not qualify. We need to get some consistency.

The management of school property is an area where we have to do better. Someone recently noted to me that we run it like a Soviet Shoebox Factory (you might be interested to know it was a senior Ministry official). We need to explore options for schools to have far greater control over how money is spent on their buildings and property. We also have to get out of the annual budget cycle in school property management, and at least have 3 year development plans and budgets.

Earlier you will have noted my high expectations of teacher performance, and the need for the TRB to have wider powers than just deregistering a teacher or doing nothing. There is a parallel with BOT's. Like teachers, most are excellent. But for the non performers we need more tools to fix schools in trouble. I want to explore the options of appointing a professional monitor to a Board, and requiring Boards to engage in particular training or development. Every school that under-performs robs a young person of the education they deserve.

Conclusion

In conclusion, I recall the quote 'so much to do - so little time'. It is the last year of a parliamentary term. I want to get some things done and I want to give a flavour of the longer term vision, should I be privileged enough to be serving in this role in 12 months time. I know my speech today will not have answered all your questions about key policy issues. I hope though, it has given you a feel for the agenda. I state again, this years main course is literacy and information technology. I hope I have given you some food for thought.