INDEPENDENT SCHOOLS CONFERENCE 1997

  • Wyatt Creech
Education

Rydges Hotel, Rotorua

Introductions

Thank you for inviting me here today.

It's a year to the day since I spoke with you at the last Independent Schools Conference. At that stage I had been Minister of Education for just over two months - and I was learning fast!

I'm now much more conversant with the vast range of issues in education. I've had my ear bent by almost every education and pressure group - just about ripped off by some! I've visited scores of schools and educational institutions around the country; I've talked to hundreds of teachers - and I like to think I have many new friends.

I am now well and truly at the reality stage. I know pretty much what has to be done in Education, what would be nice to do and what we can practically hope to achieve. And I am experiencing for the second time the joys of battling for top dollar for Education in the Budget.

I want to talk to you about a theme that I see as a logical advance in this area; one you, I am sure, will naturally tend to agree with. I am talking about choice and diversity in education.

If I said this in some places in New Zealand the audience would already be moving to strangle me, metaphorically of course. To some this is still a controversial issue. But their numbers are declining.

Ten years ago zoning was a major issue in New Zealand. It is gone now. Occasionally I hear a call from the other side of the political spectrum for its return - certainly some still mourn its loss - but realistically speaking I think the public has moved on. Parents have experienced choice and would never want to lose it.

I remember speaking to a public meeting in Ashburton last year. A parent there made the point that they had moved their child from one primary school to another because the child had simply not been progressing at the first school - the parent felt that the teacher was entirely the wrong person for their child. And since the child had shifted it had ``blossomed'', to quote the parent.

Naturally, parents care very deeply about how well their offspring are doing. They will always want the option of moving their child to where they believe it will do best.

Diversity too we should celebrate. Obviously diversity is easily seen with your schools; you are fully independent. But in spite of some who would like to see state schooling as a monolithic continuum, diversity is there too. I can think of two diverse schools in Wellington: Onslow and Wellington Boys. One has uniforms, the other doesn't. One stresses liberal values, the other traditional. Parents have a distinct choice. Both are good schools, well-liked by their communities. Both do a good job for their pupils. Some parents prefer one, some the other. Good for it I say. That diversity makes our school system richer.

Integrated schools add to the richer tapestry of schools in New Zealand. We are currently working on a review of our policy towards integrated schools. I know that does not cover independent schools, but it does represent diversity. If you go back to the early 70s when these schools came in, they were controversial. Now, while from time to time some in the state sector call for their demise, the calls fall on deaf ears. I cannot conceptualise an education system now without integrated schools. That level of diversity is here to stay.

Yours are here to stay too.

We are now into the second year of implementing the funding for Independent Schools that was spelt out in the 1995 Budget. My Opposition colleague Trevor Mallard still manages to grab headlines regularly by railing against any taxpayer money going to private schools, and predicting the death of state education. I want to reassure you that while the Coalition Government is totally committed to a quality, accessible, taxpayer-funded education system, we retain our commitment to a share of taxpayer support for Independent Schools as well. This is a partnership for the good of young people between the Government and your sector.

Independent Schools have a long history and a strong place in New Zealand.

I was intrigued to read a probably little-known section of the Education Act which states, among other things, that private schools must "provide suitably for the inculcation in the minds of students of sentiments of patriotism and loyalty". I am sure that your idea of values is both deeper and wider than that ! The aim of any national education system is to prepare young people for active and constructive participation in society. They need the skills, knowledge, confidence and adaptability to take on further learning and future jobs. This grows from many factors not immediately or obviously connected with the national curriculum. Once upon a time, not too long ago, teachers taught subject knowledge, and the family and community took responsibility for the moral and social development of young people. But now, as a society, it seems we are relying more and more on schools to provide the complete socialisation of young people, as well as traditional subject learning. This can be difficult for teachers. Not only are they not trained social workers, but there is no longer an easily-identifiable set of shared values on which the socialisation of young people can be based. While some parents specifically choose schools for their children because that school's religious philosophy is consistent with their own values, most children attend state schools, which are required to provide `secular education'. The church once played a critical role in promoting values and social cohesion. Sadly overall, because I am sure we are richer if we live by the values organised religion promotes, it has much less impact today. And, for many people, no clear set of values or beliefs has emerged to replace those abandoned along with the church. They are searching - look at the proliferation on late-night television and magazines of horoscopes, tarot, numerology, discovering your own New-Age Angel, listening to animals, c omet-worship and other bizarre beliefs. News reports reinforce the perception that ours is increasingly a value-less and splintered society. Drug and alcohol abuse are becoming commonplace. People, including our children, come up against violent and offensive material through television, films, video games, and now the Internet. Society has, of course, internationally recognised human rights such as respect for life and freedom of speech. But how do we interpret those in practice? How, for example, do we determine when something is free speech and when it is publicly offensive? Life is not black and white, for us or for our children. For any society to function effectively it needs a set of shared values on which to base decisions. In a sense, our legal system provides this. But many feel the need for a personal value system as well. What sort of role models do young people have today? Many parents give positive guidance, but some do not. TV, films and video offer seductive messages pitched outside any values base. So the attitudes of schools become more important if we want to create a decent society which believes in ethical behaviour. Diversity means debate. People express their values differently. Teachers have an important role in helping children to clarify their own values and make appropriate judgements about the behaviour of themselves and of others. This does not mean that teachers foist their own moral position on young people - but they should not have to hide it either.

One of the key values which teachers at any school should demonstrate is the acceptance of genuinely-held values other than their own. And one of the key skills students need to learn is how to evaluate the opinions of others, including their teacher. Even if that teacher is 'inculcating sentiments of patriotism and loyalty' at the time!

One value I hold to is the importance of a professional ethic in professions. It is what distinguishes professions from other vocations. Enhancing professionalism in teaching has got to be a key goal. Professionals in any field are identified by two factors. First, by their competence; that is, their level of skill, qualifications and expertise, and second, by their level of commitment to their job. When you think of the professions that operate in our communities, be they lawyers, accountants, or engineers, when we use their services we expect quality and commitment.

The first, competence of teachers, has been in the news recently with Judith Aitken's comments to the Select Committee. I am sure we all agree that all teachers should have the skill and expertise to meet the competence test. The tests that are in place - the NZQA programme approvals of qualifications and the Teachers Registration Board approval of registrations - are all quality assurance mechanisms intended to build confidence in the competence of teaching staff at any school, state or private.

The second factor is commitment. Assuring this is far more complex, because there is no simple test. Qualifications alone do not make a good teacher. You can have a person with a PhD who cannot get it across, just as you can have a person with minimum qualifications who can really take a class with them. That is the X factor that makes a huge difference.

In our rapidly changing world, the demands on professional teachers are forever changing. There is a need for on-going appraisal and professional development. I am pleased to see that your conference addresses performance management - as I have said, teacher performance and competence is an issue for all schools.

As we move into the 21st century a good education becomes more important than ever. Children are at the heart of our education system. They need to be well-prepared to face the new challenges the next 50 years will bring. Such education is more than stuffing their heads with facts. A good education will teach them most of all to think - to read widely, research, question, evaluate, discover and adapt. It should produce well-rounded young people who are tolerant of differences, open to new experiences and have a code of values to live by.

We have a particular need to concentrate on improving our knowledge of Science, technology and maths. Science is not yet widely-regarded as an integral part of life. Young people still risk the labels of 'nerd' or 'geek' if they show too much interest or aptitude in those areas. We need to change that - change the philosophy and culture if New Zealand is to continue to keep pace with the rest of the world. Independent Schools have a valuable role here - you are widely seen as supporting high academic standards and encouraging excellence. The virtual class is one way of opening up a wider range of teaching experiences for today's pupils. Distance learning technologies are now well established in NZ. Although the classroom is `virtual', the students and teachers are real enough - though the day may come when a `real' teacher is not part of the package, particularly in higher levels of learning!

Oxford Area School in Canterbury was one of the first I know of to use distance technology. I have visited there and seen the many ways they enhance learning opportunities for students. For example, a student there can link to a polytechnic based in Christchurch to study automotive engineering.

Another seven schools in the South join up to provide students with courses that used to be available only through the Correspondence School. Now a specialist teacher in one school delivers that subject to others in the group. I'd like to hear about any of your schools developing similar systems.

One of the major problems facing smaller schools is that their lower number of teachers cannot realistically be expert in a large range of specialised subject areas. Distance learning technologies supplement classroom-based teaching and enable schools to better meet students' individual needs and interests. It helps student motivation immensely. Rural schools in particular find that children who would otherwise have to move off to cities or study by correspondence are able to stay on at their school. Information technologies are leading to considerable changes in the traditional relationship between teacher and student. Teachers have traditionally acted as a mediator between a student and access to learning materials. Modern technology has the potential to change all that. Many students now have virtually unlimited access to a huge range of information through the Internet, including material which would not normally be publicly available, such as the loonier thoughts of fringe sects and other more horrifying ravings. Access to information through technology can only increase. By 1998, it is expected that 98% of secondary schools and 84% of primary schools will have access to the Internet. As there is no differentiation on the Internet between high-quality publications and trash, it is essential that young people accessing all this information are able to critically evaluate it. Teachers have a vital role in assisting students to refine their analytical and evaluation skills. And students need a sound ethical basis on which to make judgements. Without the guiding role of teachers who are not afraid of debating moral and ethical issues, we run the risk that ours could truly become a value-less society.

One subject that concerns all educators enormously - and I know you have a special interest in this from the point of view of excellence - is the Qualifications Framework.

We will shortly be releasing a green paper on the qualifications policy and inviting submissions. The green paper is intentionally inclusive and points towards a way that offers choices that mean it can suit the needs of all students.

The qualifications debate has been testy, not noted for moderate opinions. Hardline advocates of the unit standards format believe it heralds the new future. Hardline critics believe the reverse. This debate rages within educational policy groups - top-flight educationalists hold opposite viewpoints.

Some advocates clearly believe that all student progress should be internally assessed; that there is no place for examinations in schools any more. Those who hold the reverse view believe that only the exam form of assessment tests young people in the environment they will have to succeed in.

It's easy amidst the debate to lose sight of who the framework is actually for. To offer real opportunity to students who will emerge from school in the 21st Century, we need quality-assured qualifications in a wide range of subjects and at many levels, that can be built on over a lifetime. Quality assurance is the primary key. The framework allows users to relate qualifications one to another.

We owe it to all young New Zealanders to put in place a system that is durable, well thought through, and has widespread acceptance and credibility amongst students, parents and the teaching profession.

Proposals in the green paper will be up for discussion. Then the white paper containing definitive policy will follow the analysis of submissions.

I note you have a session on how Independent Schools can help in Maori education. I am very keen to see better outcomes at all levels of Maori education. Improved access to private schools is one way of helping to close the gap - I am pleased to see that Independent Schools feel they have a role here. Though my Associate Minister Brian Donnelly is now responsible for Maori Education I retain a very strong interest - and of course an overview and the purse strings!

The TIE scheme, an initiative of Lockwood Smith's, has had an impact on improving Maori education for a number of individuals. I will be very interested to see the outcome of research into this scheme at end of its three-year trial. Preliminary indications are very positive, from the parents, the students and the schools involved. It will be up to Cabinet to make a decision on the scheme's future early next year.

There is a lot of strength in education sector. News reports tend to focus on the bad - the odd scandal or complaints about resources. But we all know that what we have is mostly good. Independent Schools add to the diversity. You offer wider choice for parents, and a set of values suited to your school communities. In the commercial world, one of the current buzzwords is "added value". In a way, that's what you offer - with one major difference. Schools add value to lives.

For the future, we will focus on some key elements. An Overview paper that outlines the education agenda the Government intends to pursue over this term of Parliament will be released soon.

I hope we can see, over this term of Government, a positive lifting of educational attainment in the compulsory sector. I want an education system where all are able to fulfil their potential. I want to see positive progress in Maori education; real improvements in special education, including better ways to deal with behavioural issues and truancy; and better matching of property facilities to educational needs. We need to ensure there are sensible pathways into teaching for skilled people currently in other occupations, and that all teachers find teaching a rewarding and professionally challenging career.

It is now fourteen months since I became Minister of Education. People frequently ask me if I enjoy the job. It is a hard portfolio - no doubt about that. I suppose asking that question is rather like asking someone if they enjoy beating their head against a brick wall!

Its not that bad really. I enjoy about 90% of the job. It is a highly important policy area. By and large our education system does a good job for our young people. There will always be room for improvement of course, but from time to time we should turn away from the complaints and look positively at what we do offer in New Zealand. It compares well with other countries in most aspects. For balance, we should remember that.

Thank you very much. All the best for the rest of your conference.