New Zealand Principals' Federation Annual Conference

  • Wyatt Creech

The past year has been one of pluses and minuses - not everything that we have done has been popular with primary principals. It is however good to have the opportunity to come here and explain the reasons behind some of our decisions. Even if you don't agree with what is being done, at least you will understand why we have made the decisions.

I have been determined since I have been Minister of Education to use my time in the portfolio to bring forward policies that improve the educational outcomes for the young people of New Zealand. We have won significant extra resources for Vote: Education. During the period of the Coalition Government, well over $1.5 billion extra will be put into education. But with the economic difficulties New Zealand now faces, winning additional resources will no longer be easy. We will have to find ways to use the resources we have better and to ensure the resources are focused on lifting the educational results for all students.

Last year we focused our attention on special education. In the 1997 Budget, special education won $200 million of new taxpayer resources. Special Education 2000 not only addresses the traditional areas that the public understands to be "special education" - services for those with physical, intellectual and sensory disabilities - it includes programmes to help those with learning and behaviour problems. There was nervousness about Special Education 2000 before it started, but I think that as it has been implemented over this year, most people would say that we are seeing significant improvements.

We have just finalised another phase of the comprehensive Special Education 2000 policy, and I want to use the opportunity today to announce it.

First, we have now addressed the issue of staffing in special schools, attached units, satellite units, and for mainstreamed pupils in regular schools. The new staffing system will see 380 more full-time teacher equivalent positions put in place to provide a nationwide consistent support system for students with higher special needs. The key component for students who are part of the ongoing resourcing scheme is another 0.1 full time teacher equivalent for those with high ongoing special needs and 0.2 of a full time teacher equivalent for those with very high needs. At the same time we will bring resourcing in all special schools and attached units including experience units and special classes under the Ministerial Reference Group staffing ratios.

Second, from the beginning of next year we will resource 210 new teaching positions across the country specifically to help schools respond to students with severe behaviour difficulties. The teachers will be known as Resource Teachers - Learning and Behaviour. They will be added to the current pool of Guidance and Learning teachers, Resource Teachers: Special Needs and Experience Unit teachers. All of these teachers will also work across a cluster of schools with students who have moderate learning and behaviour difficulties, and with their teachers.

Third - there will be extra funding and a re-organisation of therapy and specialist support to make it more responsive to student needs. Therapy and support positions will no longer be based on a fixed entitlement regardless of the number of students. Funding will be delivered based on student numbers and used to pay for the right level of therapy and specialist support.

Special schools will gain from this new funding. They remain an important option for children with high and very high needs. Most special schools will receive an increase in resourcing and will have more flexibility to respond to the needs of these students.

In total, this will create 590 more teaching positions. This represents a significant extra resource going into special education. We still have to deal with three aspects of special education - one, the special categories of schools; that is, residential special schools, hospital schools and classes, health camp schools - two, resourcing for 5 - 7 year olds that are currently just outside the Ongoing Resourcing Scheme criteria, and three, resourcing for specific equipment for special needs children. These will be dealt with soon.

This reform is necessary. The current distribution of teaching positions for this group of students is the result of historical placements of special education teachers. Demographic trends over the last 20 years towards the northern and urban parts of New Zealand, especially the Waikato, Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch, have resulted in inequitable access for schools and students to the resources provided by special education teachers. To be fair to these students we needed to make these changes.

I know there will always be complaints around the edges about Government policy, that is absolutely unavoidable, but it is the heart of a policy by which it should be judged. And the heart of Special Education 2000 will prove to be much better for young people. Some of the most touching letters I have received since I have been in politics have been from the parents of children who have special education needs who have seen the education needs of their children far better and more fairly addressed under Special Education 2000.

With the main thrust of Special Education 2000 sorted out in the 1997 Budget, we moved on to the unification of the teachers' pay system. There was never in my mind any doubt that we should do it. I cannot see any logical reason why you should pay people who teach children Form 2 and below 10% less in their base salary than you pay people teaching Form 3 and above.

I hope I do not need to convince anyone here of the merit of the argument but it still is not won in all sectors of New Zealand. It has not been easy winning acceptance of unifying the principals' pay system, either with primary or the secondary principals. Partly this is because not all accept that the same size school will present the same size job. I do not say this to cause antagonism between the sectors, but because I need to point out that there still are sincerely held views that must be dealt with.

In passing I should mention the current problem we are having reaching a settlement with the secondary teachers' union. I say this to primary principals because unlike all previous secondary pay disputes, this time your sector has a real interest. The entrenchment clause put into your sector's settlement to avoid a pay gap opening up between primary and secondary teachers again means any pay increase for secondary teachers will be paid automatically to primary teachers. We actually have an offer approved by Cabinet ready to make to the PPTA. When we look at it, this offer is looking more than generous in the light of the Government's decision to find a further $300 million in savings as an extra buffer to help protect our country's economic security. We remain ready and willing to put it on the table.

We have told the PPTA two things:

One - we will not negotiate policy issues into employment. Deciding education policy is the prerogative of Government - we are accountable to the electorate for our decisions. If anyone wants to control public policy they should stand for Parliament. We are always willing to discuss education policy issues with key sector groups but employment contracts are for pay and conditions matters, not for public policy.

Two - we will not negotiate while industrial action is threatened or happening. The primary sector under the leadership of Bill Noble won a pay increase with the introduction of a unified pay system without a single minute of industrial stoppage. Striking by teachers is now regarded very negatively by the public and as your experience shows, it does not help getting pay improvements through if you have a sound case to make.

Many teachers are asking me what the offer is. We have a legal problem in just announcing it, but to my mind it is good for the teaching profession. My advice to the PPTA is to stop their current course and start working with the Government to improve teachers' remuneration, not as a simple goal in its own right, but as part of being sure we offer our young people the best educational opportunity we can

While I am talking of teachers' and principals' remuneration I should also make this point; I have always held the view that the teaching profession should be a well remunerated profession with the quid-pro-quo of accountability for the educational outcomes of those they teach.

As I touch on this, I recall last Sunday's 20:20 current affairs programme - where a young new teacher really showed what could be done in tuning her young students into the need to learn, and into the buzz of education. Now obviously that was a pretty special case, but it highlighted in blazing lights the impact a really good teacher can have on a student.

One issue around which I know there is substantial difference is our proposal to introduce a system of national assessment of primary school aged children.

Improving student academic achievement is by far the most important and fundamental issue for our schooling system. The results of the Third International Maths and Science Study, better known as the TIMMS study, is one of a number of reports that show we are not performing as well as we should when we compare our outcomes with that of other countries. At the time the report came out I described it as a "wake up" call.

There will be those who say they are convinced their teaching programmes are good and because testing programmes will only show that, they are unnecessary. After considering the matter carefully we are convinced that we need more accountability than that - teachers need objective checks to help them ensure that teaching programmes are working for the young people concerned.

Most surgeons would believe that they do top class surgery but I hardly think the public would be happy if there were no independent checks by other eyes to see that that was the case. Would the public want to fly on a plane whose pilot's skills were not being independently assessed? Some people might, but I certainly wouldn't. Many people would want to see proper external checks to ensure that those who control the machines and fly them know what they are doing. They won't just take the pilot's word for it.

A number of the critics have focused on the national tests that are included in the Green Paper as if that was all there was. But what we are proposing is far more than just tests of groups of students. We seek a way to ensure young people get the most out of the national curriculum and are in the best possible position to learn now and in the future. Assessing students through national tests linked to the curriculum and giving teachers the tools and ability to assess them is our answer.

One of the fears of the assessment package is that it would lead to the publication of league tables that compare schools, playing one school off against another. I can say here and now, that we have no interest in this idea and the Government will not be publishing league tables. The information collected under the proposal would not rationally support the publication of any sort of comparison between schools. It is too narrow, it is too limited. Any kind of comparison between schools has to take a comprehensive look at the schools, not just be based on a very narrow range of subjects. The aim of this whole package is to improve teaching programmes. No more and no less, and the evidence shows that we do need to do that.

Since student achievement is correlated with background factors such as socio-economic status, information in relation to national norms is not enough to tell a school how effective its programmes are. A school with low socio-economic status would seem ineffective, and a school with high socio-economic status would seem very effective. This may not reflect the true picture.

Some low SES schools are superb, and some high SES schools are just cruising. What is important for a school to know is how well its students are doing compared with similar students in other schools.

A report from the Education Review Office to be released at this Conference tomorrow by Dr Wayne Edwards examines the performance of schools and how their socioeconomic status impacts on that performance. It is called 'Good Schools, Poor Schools'. I suspect the title of the report will raise the ire of some in the education sector - but in fact schools serving poorer areas can be very good schools. I've read the report and a couple of things really stood out. It highlights the fact that there is no national assessment framework which complements the national curriculum, within which teachers can locate and manage their own classroom based assessment activities. The report sees this as a major problem because teachers and principals have very little ability to monitor the rate and quality of their own students' learning against the rest of the student population. Concerns are also expressed about the lack of opportunity for schools to assess how best to adjust their own management, teaching and training programmes so they can tell others of their strengths and address any gaps in their student learning.

The report shows that schools can and do make a difference to student achievement. Some of the schools in the lowest ranked socio-economic regions are providing quality education. But ERO notes that in order to assess fully the contribution that low SES schools are making to student achievement, a framework for recording achievement needs to be developed which measures the value added by schools to individual students; their educational attainments and the extent to which improvements occur over time. Such a framework could cause a shift in the way in which some low SES schools are popularly perceived and would recognise and reinforce the efforts of board members and staff who succeed in providing a high quality education to educationally disadvantaged students.

In the past I think we have been too inclined to simply claim that our education system is the best in the world. That TIMMS study showed that there are others moving ahead of us. The education we offer the young people of New Zealand today will be a far larger determinant of their standard of living and their quality of life than the education was in the time I was at school. It is now the key to success.

The policy development work on the assessment package is being done by my colleague Brian Donnelly, who is a person with many years experience in the school sector, and prior to coming into Parliament, was the principal of an intermediate school. As part of the process of policy development, he is to travel to both Canada and Britain to have a close look at the way national assessment type proposals have worked in these two places. In Ontario the programme has been widely regarded as very successful. We want to take aboard the lessons learnt in other parts of the world.

I visited Victoria in Australia recently. They have their well established Learning Assessment Programme in place. At the time it was introduced it caused all sorts of anxieties amongst teachers' organisations. That was four years ago. That situation is now reversed. I met many teachers who told me that it was a big help for them to know how well their teaching programmes were going. The criticism that came out at the time it was introduced has now vanished completely.

If we do it right, I am very confident the assessment programme will not cause the problems that the critics fear. It will help improve teaching programmes, of that I have no doubt.

While on the subject of keeping New Zealand up with the rest of the world, I should mention another area where we propose to move soon. That is the area of Information Technology. Until now, Information Technology has been coming into our education system in a rather uncoordinated and ad-hoc way. Many within the sector see the possibilities that the use of modern technologies can give in improving educational outcomes for young people. In this sense, computers and computing is not the end in itself but the means to the end. The end is better learning outcomes for our young people. Again this is an area where New Zealand is behind those leading the world.

A short trip across the Tasman to Victoria, such as the one I made recently, will show you examples of just what I mean when I say that. It is an area where I think we need a common strategy for the whole sector. It is not the panacea to all our ills but it is a way that we can significantly improve learning outcomes for young people. Those of you who followed the Budget announcements will know we set aside $14.5 million as a contingency for this purpose.

All the wisdom about how we can best use Information Technology in our schools does not lie in the New Zealand Ministry of Education policy section. We need to bring in outside ideas. The Ministry of Education has now formed a Reference Group with people both from the education sector, the Government sector and the private sector who have made commitments and have knowledge in this area. Some New Zealand schools have really pushed the frontiers. People here will know Carol Moffit, the Principal of Oxford Area School. She has been appointed by the Ministry to be the Project Director for organising the Information Technology in Schools Programme.

I strongly believe there are real merits in getting those people in the school sector together to work together on an Information Technology Strategy for schools. The best way to do this is to hold a conference on the role information technology can play in our education system and for our students. I complement Nola Hambleton in the work she has done in this area. I have written to her pointing out my interest in seeing the Ministry of Education working with the Principals' Federation and others to see that those people with an interest in the subject in the school sector are invited to contribute. It is vital that any strategy is based on what we can achieve and that will improve education outcomes for our young people.

While on the subject of conferences, I should also mention the Ministry of Education's Full-Service School Conference. Already in New Zealand, schools are extending their services beyond the traditional bounds by running after-school programmes and so on. The whole thrust of the Tomorrow's Schools system is for schools to become self-managing community facilities that meet community needs. It sees parents and the community deeply involved in the school's management and operation. I encourage every school to take that view of themselves.

When I visit a school and see the hall, or the grounds or the rooms or the equipment being used for a community activity, I applaud the principal and board. That is what it is all about. The assets might belong to the Crown, but they are for the community.

Each school should look at its community and decide how it can better serve the people for whom it exists. Tomorrow's Schools sought to simplify and remove bureaucracy and empower school communities - educators and parents.

If I could refer back to that Victorian experience for example, and a school called Apollo Parkways Primary School. The school determined that most families in their community had both parents in paid work. Because they had to leave early and were home late, they had to find a creche or other child-minding service to take care of their children between the time they left home in the morning and arrived home in the evening. The school saw an opportunity. Rather than the children going to the creche they can go to the school - the canteen even prepares them breakfast. Once the official school day ends the students are then looked after in an after-school programme. The parents would meet the costs of a creche, so the school can provide this service on a user pays basis. It has all the facilities there, and what's more being a navigator school pioneering the use of Information Technology in education finds that many of the children occupy themselves with what under normal circumstances we would call "study", working on their computers. But for them it is fun and they are engaged. For the parents, they have heaps of confidence in their school as the place where their children are at that time when they must be at their work. All in all the system works very well and the school is popular.

Our Strengthening Families programme is designed to bring schools, welfare and health services together so we no longer regard ourselves as separate delivery areas. Instead our schools and other education facilities are there as a way to collectively deliver a better deal, a better outcome for the families and children for whom we are responsible.

The future holds many possibilities. That perhaps is the reason why I see schools managing themselves as the way of the future. This should not just mean narrow competition. The future should be where you can work together to give better outcomes for the young people. That is the way to go.

Our Special Education policy requires schools to cluster to deliver learning and behaviour assistance schemes to the schools concerned. This is in areas where no school is big enough to provide the service all by itself, but by working together they can.

Perhaps I should end by making a final plea. For too long, the arguments in the education sector have been input focused. When I became the Minister, it seemed to me that the sector was crisis driven, that every day the job of the Minister of Education consisted of addressing this fire or that fire somewhere within the system. We see much less of that now. The move now must be to focus increasingly on improving the outcomes, on better results. This means less of an argument about the mechanics by which we deliver education and more focus on where our young people are when they come out of the system. I say this because I am convinced that the quality of education we offer our young people will, as I said a moment ago, be the largest determinant of the quality of their lives. We owe it to the next generation of New Zealanders to do all we can to get the best outcome possible.

Thank you for the opportunity to talk to you today.