NZ School Trustees Assn Conference

  • Brian Donnelly
Associate Minister of Education (Early Childhood Education and Maori Education)

Those of you who have been active in this organisation for some time will know of my connections with this organisation. As a principal , it was unusual for me to be involved in the way I was with NZSTA, but I genuinely believed that the greatest strengths of "Tomorrow's Schools" would derive from close co-operation and genuine dialogue between the professional and the lay wings of educational administration.

Therefore I can say that I have attended three of these conferences sitting where you are and it is somewhat strange to be addressing the conference from this side of the podium. Given some of the outstanding addresses I have been honoured to hear, it is also extremely daunting.

My involvement with STA derived from a genuine belief in the need for quality dialogue between teachers and parents, it is extremely apposite that I should commence my own address with some insights into the process occurring over the Green paper on Assessment.

As you will be aware I have recently returned from a fact-finding tour of Ontario and Britain, looking at their cohort assessment systems and the effects these have had on education. Both of these systems were at different stages of large scale reforms of education. It became clear that whilst our own system might be informed by the experience of others, there is no way that what is being done elsewhere could be imported holus-bolus.

Assessment systems have to be designed to dovetail with the curriculum design unique to each particular system.

However, it became clear to me that the imposition of cohort assessment programmes in both places has come about as part of larger educational reforms in which parents are attempting to wrest back some control of their children's education. It became clear to me that the political agenda was being driven by a very real sense of alienation and powerlessness felt by parents.

At the same time in Ontario, education administrators were using this energy for a slightly different agenda. They continued to talk about establishing "quality conversations" between parents and teachers. It was a strongly held belief that the two groups were talking past each other, that they were not using a common language or shared set of understandings.

I must admit I have felt this incapacity to genuinely engage in dialogue in the debate over the Green Paper on Assessment. Certain groups have taken the view that the real reason for the recommendations are to create league tables and therefore are opposed to the proposals. Indeed this has led to minds being closed and conversation essentially being cut off. I have been amazed at inaccuracies in the statements made by the leaders of some of these groups. A great deal of ignorance about both existing assessment tools and the curriculum has been displayed.

If the public discussion between government and such groups is fraught with such suspicion, such inherent hostility, with such a resistance to any two-way dialogue, how then can we expect constructive conversations to occur between parents and teachers.

If teachers and parents are saying entirely the opposite about the green paper, then we have serious "talking past each other problems". And if principals are at this stage suggesting the taking of militant action to get their own way (they are talking of boycotting the tests), then it has to be asked who is running our schools. The trouble that I see with such "dog in the manger" behaviour is that it is likely to lead to the sort of response as in England where politicians are dictating not only what must be taught but how it must be taught.

My trip overseas did confirm for me that the publication of league tables has many negative educational effects. It has confirmed the position that the government has taken in the green paper that there should not be publication of league tables.

The proposals in the green paper need to be seen as a package. All too much attention has been focused upon one component of that package without recognising that the national testing is just one part of the jigsaw.

The government recognises the need for quality information on students' achievement and progress. The National Education Monitoring project provides information about how the system as a whole is operating. It uses a light sampling at Grades 4 and 8 and operates on a four year cycle.

Therefore statements that NEMP provides schools with information on how well their children are doing and the quality of their programmes are errant nonsense.

Under the requirements of the NEGS (National Education Guidelines) and the NAGS (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 PATs 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 government believes that when it comes to assessment, teacher assessment should predominate. However, how does a teacher validate his her her own assessments? How does a parent validate such assessments, how does a Board of Trustees validate any analysis of such assessment? The Green Paper is proposing some validation mechanisms. It is proposing to enhance the Assessment Resource Banks so that these items can be used by teachers to develop their own idiosyncratic measurements. The items would be in concordance with the learning outcomes of the curriculum statements and would be normed within broad bands.

Secondly 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 some benchmarking for teachers to use in their assessments of their students. I am thinking of such areas of the curriculum 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.

Finally the national tests. If teachers are universally opposed and parents largely support this part of the proposal then I would suggest we do have a serious "talking past each other" problem.

The national testing proposal can be looked on as a validation process. It will enable what is being communicated about the progress of a child, or the efficacy, of a programme to be validated against externally-referenced standards.

Because of the narrow range of skills which will be able to be tested the information will only have meaning alongside a rich supply of assessment information from a teacher, both from professional judgement, school-created measurement tools, and externally referenced tools such as suggested in the green paper.

As I have said earlier, I am seriously concerned that whilst we lay claim to the fact that our system is predicated by the need for partnership, quality conversations may not be taking place.

This organisation has an important role in creating that quality conversation and I certainly can pay tribute to your President, Janet Kelly, for her efforts in this regard.

For those of you from secondary schools, the focus of attention on the Green paper on primary assessment has not diverted the government from proceeding with work which will rationalise evaluation systems at the senior secondary level. I can assure you that such work is proceeding as quickly as possible.

The government has a number of instruments at its disposal to help meet its objectives in education. These include providing funding, owning a network of schools, and developing legislation, rules, guidelines and policies. The interaction of these instruments forms the regulatory environment for education.

The government has a responsibility to promote the best possible educational outcomes for New Zealand children. More specifically, the Government wants:

similar educational opportunities for families regardless of their circumstances;

appropriate quality standards in respect of teaching, the school environment, child safety and the curriculum; sound educational decisions by parents that reflect the best interests of their children;

the effective use of public resources in order to enhance the wider social benefits of having a well educated community;

and to meet its broader obligations under the Treaty of Waitangi to enhance access by Maori to education of a type and quality that accords with their aspirations.

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.

The greater scope for parental involvement in school governance afforded by Tomorrow's Schools has strengthened linkages between schools and the communities they serve.

Charters have provided scope for more de-centralised decision-making while retaining a degree of accountability to the Crown.

Operations funding provides schools with some flexibility to organise their resources in a way that allows them to meet to the needs of students, parents and communities. Many schools have opted for additional flexibility in respect of teacher salaries through the Fully Funded Option.

But we know we don't have everything right. For example, we are currently developing a strategy for Maori education, and working our way through various exercises aimed at strengthening education in specific areas, including in South Auckland and the East Coast. About 10% of schools are in School Support. We can do better.

That means it is time to revisit the regulatory environment introduced with Tomorrow's Schools, to build on the strengths and address issues that have arisen since the reforms.

Much of the current legislation is very prescriptive and is derived from legislation first drafted in the 1960s. We have to ask whether legislation designed for the situation in the 1960s leaves us well placed to address the challenges we face as a nation today.

So what are the likely challenges to which New Zealand must respond over the next decade and beyond?

They include:

New Zealand's population structure will change with the 'echo' effects of the 'baby boomers'. This will lead to temporary pressures (to which a dynamic system needs to respond) which will reverse as the population ages.

However, even this represents a challenge, since the fiscal pressures that will arise from an ageing population will intensify the need for an increasingly productive workforce.

Family and community structures are changing. For example, the trend towards one-parent families and the effects of recent higher immigration. These changes have implications for the type of services schools offer.

Boundaries between different types of learning will become increasingly blurred. The transition between formal education in the primary, secondary and tertiary education sectors will become less distinct, as will the boundary between formal and informal learning. There will be increasing demands for general and cross-occupational skills.

Technological and economic developments are profoundly affecting the skills demanded by employers and the nature of labour market relationships. For example, people are changing careers or employment more regularly. There will be increasing pressure for the education system to deliver internationally transferable skills in an increasingly integrated world economy. Other countries are not standing still and are exploring new ways of improving educational outcomes.

Technological developments will also affect how education services are delivered. The faster and more efficient storage and transfer of knowledge will have important educational implications.

There are a number of questions that need to be asked about the current system:

Are accountability mechanisms right? Are schools being held accountable for the right things? Are schools sufficiently accountable to their communities? Do communities have enough information to discharge that responsibility of holding schools accountable?

Do we have the right environment for schools to deal effectively with a diverse range of needs, including the needs of children at risk of educational failure? Do we have the diversity within schools and between schools needed to cater for the rapidly changing demands of society today and in the future?

Are we giving schools enough self-management in areas that are critical to meeting the needs of students, particularly those who are at-risk? Could we let schools have more control over some things that would allow them to better organise themselves to meet the diverse needs of their students?

In the current regulatory environment for example:

Some Maori communities have expressed frustration at the absence of sufficient choice and diversity within the state school system to cater to their children's needs and aspirations. A runanga may be a more effective body to manage state schools in a particular area rather than each school being governed by its own board of trustees.

There is little encouragement for schools to enter into co-operative arrangements with each other to share resources, governance or administration, or to merge with other schools.

It is difficult for different types of schools to become established.

Sanctions for poor performance are often weak, while good performance can be inadequately
rewarded. For example, there are few prior steps that the government can take in respect of a struggling school before it dismisses a board of trustees and appoints a Commissioner. By the time such sanctions are necessary, significant damage may have been done to the educational prospects of students served by the school.

We have asked officials to look at the regulatory framework for the compulsory education sector and consider options for the future. Our thinking is that we want a less prescriptive, more enabling model. This should not be news to any of you. It was set out in the Coalition Agreement in December 1996.

The overall goal is to build on the strengths of existing arrangements and address identified weaknesses. This does not imply that the existing system needs dismantling, nor does it assume that there are widespread problems that need to be fixed. Rather, it reflects the fact that existing weaknesses reflect poorly designed interventions that assume "one model fits all".

This is a significant piece of work, and it is intended that the shape of the regulatory environment is 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 need your input.

National strategy for Information technology

This leads me to the development of the first national strategy for information technology in New Zealand schools. The 1998 Budget contained a contingency of $14.5 million over the next three years for implementation. A project manager, Carol Moffatt, from Oxford Area School was appointed in July and she leads a team of officials who are to report to Cabinet later this year.

In developing the strategy, the government is planning to build on the exciting and effective initiatives of lots of schools and supporting organisations, Government agencies, industry groups, providers of information technologies, and educational advisers. It is essential that input from these groups is fed into the development process and integrated in a coherent way to provide a framework on which to build future initiatives and respond to future technological developments.

The outline of the strategy prepared for Cabinet, will take account of ideas from the various stakeholder groups and Victorian and other best practice internationally. The broad outline will incorporate areas of infrastructure, curriculum support, and professional development.

A series of visits and consultations have been planned to optimise the development and implementation of the strategy. Two reference groups met this week to discuss the requirements of a national strategy. The first comprises principals and other school practitioners, and the second includes other advisers on information technology issues for schools. The groups had the opportunity to hear some of the proposals made by potential providers and discuss these in light of the draft strategy outline. The School Trustees Association, principals groups, industry groups and several schools will also be visited during August.

The government wants a comprehensive five-year information technology strategy that:

reflects a balance between central direction and devolved decision making, recognising the need for schools to have the opportunity to make decisions about information technology use in their own school;

endorses the great strides that many New Zealand schools are making in the integration of information technologies into their general curriculum and management functions;

recognises the importance of Maori medium education in New Zealand.

While infrastructure at the school level remains the responsibility of individual schools, at the national level it can be supported by central Government initiatives. Possible new central initiatives include the establishment of a Digital Resource Centre that would act as a "one stop shop" for schools and provide a mechanism for delivery of materials to schools.

The proposed Digital Resource Centre could include initiatives such as:

support services;

administration resources;

curriculum resources that enabling access to relevant, high quality multimedia materials to enhance
teaching and learning and support curriculum delivery.

Special Education

This brings me to the fourth strand of my speech today: special education. The Government has made a significant commitment to "getting special education right". Until 1996 there had been no policy development in this area for many years. Mainstreaming and the philosophy of inclusion had been introduced but decisions about resourcing and support for children with special education needs had become unpredictable, inconsistent and unfair.

Special Education 2000 was introduced in 1996. It is an integrated package aimed at supporting students with high and very high needs through individually targeted resourcing and ensuring that schools have supplementary resources to manage students with more moderate needs. Allocating funding to schools gives boards more flexibility and an ability to be more responsive in meeting the needs of their students.

The Government wants all schools to be able to support students in their community. In 1997 the Special Education Grant was allocated to all schools. It is based on schools' decile ranking and roll numbers. Although initial reports showed that some schools were not aware they had a Special Education Grant, recent reports show that most schools have a good awareness of this grant and are using it appropriately to meet the needs of students in their community.

The second phase of Special Education 2000 was implemented at the beginning of this year with the introduction of:

the Ongoing Resourcing Scheme for school students who have high and very high needs that are likely to be ongoing throughout their schooling;

the Speech-Language Initiative for students with high and very high communication needs; and

the Severe Behaviour Initiative for students with high and very high behaviour needs.

Just before the holidays Mr Creech announced an additional $70 - $80 million to be spent on new Resource Teachers:Learning and Behaviour and further teaching positions for Ongoing Resourcing Scheme students. This will significantly enhance the quality of provision for students with special education needs and assist schools in developing high quality classroom programmes.

Special Education 2000 is supported by a significant programme of professional development for all teachers and principals which begins this term. Boards of trustees will also have an opportunity as part of their training to have a module on special education. There is a video to go with the training which I urge all boards to view. This clearly lays out boards' responsibilities and provides some guidance in the development of school policy for management of students with special
education needs.

In conclusion I want to pay tribute to Janet Kelly who is standing down this year from the position of President. Janet has been a most effective president. Her calm, measured approach has been extremely effective in putting forward the issues that concern boards of trustees. Her views have been readily sought whenever education issues concerning the school sector have been discussed. You are rightly proud of her strong, steady leadership and her total commitment to the role parents have in working in partnership with principals and teachers.

My thanks, Janet, for your dedication and best wishes for whatever it is you will be undertaking next. My thanks, too, to all of you for being prepared to meet the challenges of trusteeship. Without your input "Tomorrows Schools" would not be the success they are proving to be for our country's children. I wish you a stimulating and thought provoking conference, and a very successful time in office.