Opening Dinner, OECD Education Conference

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

To all the participants in the conference, my warm hearted greetings. I think it is a marvellous opportunity for educators from around the world to share their expertise in the challenges of overcoming educational failure - or to put it more positively - to ensure educational success for all.

On reflection, New Zealand has always drawn upon the international scene to inform it in its educational decision-making. Out 1877 Education Act, which made primary education free, compulsory and universal, was strongly influenced by Britain's 1871 Fosters Act and even more significantly influenced by Prussia's economic and military success, which it was argued was because of its education system.

More recently, our early childhood policy has been very strongly influenced by research from overseas.

At the same time, New Zealand has no doubt influenced the rest of the world, most particularly in the field of reading.

One of the arguments often put forward to encourage public investment in education is that the nation needs to be economically competitive and therefore we need the highest level of skills within our workforce. I therefore find it ironic that on the one hand we talk of competitiveness and on the other we have conferences such as this in which we share our experiences and help each other to improve our performance. And yet, this is very much in the nature of education. It crosses international boundaries. We look to each other for ideas, to check innovations and outcome of methodologies and public policies. I can't imagine the All Blacks sitting down with the Springboks the night before a test and saying, "Let's share each other's game plan se we can have a more successful game." And yet that is exactly what we are doing in the field of education. That is why it is such a fascinating area to work in.

As we near the end of the 20th century we can look back on the world-wide development of universal schooling. It could be argued that this phenomenon is a defining feature of the 20th century, which began with many nations with embryonic universalised primary education systems. Over the century there has been the evolution of junior secondary and now senior secondary schooling occurring and I believe that we are witnessing the process of the universalisation of tertiary education. This process is inevitable as a result of the exponential growth of technology and the increasing complexity of our societies. But it creates huge challenges for policy makers.

The theme of this conference marks out one of the critical areas of challenge which all of our nations face. If education is an investment in society, and if, as most nations do, governments are spending significant proportions of their GDP on it, then it becomes imperative that that investment is quality investment.

Until recently, New Zealand had a fairly draconian public examinations system. At the end of Year 11, New Zealand school students would sit a national examination. Fifty percent passed, 50% were labeled as failures.

Those who passed went on to the following year and sat another set of examinations in a quite narrow range of subjects. Once again 50% passed, 50% failed. It was a great culling system, possibly reflecting the fact that at the time we had just over three million people and more than 60 million sheep.

At the same time, we had virtually a zero unemployment rate. Our job markets absorbed the so-called 'failures' into manual and unskilled jobs.

As a consequence of this tragic under-investment in our human capital there has been much pain over the past two decades. The changing nature of the job market meant that the New Zealand economy was unable to absorb such a proportion of under-skilled people, leading to what we consider unacceptably high levels of social disengagement.

The challenge to ensure that every member of our society has the skills to participate fully in, and contribute fully to, our society is a daunting challenge that educators and politicians must grapple with with urgency.

And there is an international dimension. To take liberties with John Donne, "In the modern world, no nation is an island unto itself." The success of each nation's education investment will impact upon all others.

That is why it is so fitting for educationists from many nations to be sharing knowledge at a conference such as this, hopefully for the benefit of all of our nations.

However, before we can even begin to contemplate the questions surrounding the notions of combating failure (or creating effectiveness) we really need to reflect on some of the underlying issues. Before we can thing about combating failure we need to have a clear idea of what we are talking about. Otherwise we run the danger of "talking past each other." And if we are to even start this reflection we need to define what it is we expect our schools to so. Because what we are often talking about is schooling.

Schooling is just a subset of education. We can expand our definitions to all government interventions But we still are not talking about the full range of educational experience.

I believe it is dangerous thinking to start from the premise that government interventions can control all the variables in the education equation. One of the unfortunate byproducts of the universalisation of schooling has been the mistaken belief that the government is responsible for all education. I can remember as a principal the number of parents who would say, "I can't wait for my child to get to school so the teachers can discipline him" (and invariably the statement would be about a "him").

Recent research here in New Zealand has demonstrated that some of the schools considered to be failures on the basis of lower than average pass rates in national examinations are actually our top schools for added-valueness in the cognitive domain, if other factors are accounted for.

The definition of success or failure of institutions is therefore dependent upon what it is we are expecting our schools to do. And even if we do manage to define that role, there will still be different emphases. How do we define the balance that should be given to the cognitive development functions, the personal development functions, the social welfare function of a school? Educational systems also have other functions which are given more or less weight. I talk now of social equity and social cohesiveness functions.

The pursuit of such goals may depress the capacity to achieve other parameters of success such as academic outcomes.

And of course, the big question. Where should the definition of school role and function be made? Should it be at a central level? Most of our education systems are supported through central funding. Or should the locus of definition be within the community? An advisor once said, "A successful school fulfils an unwritten contract with its community." We have tried in New Zealand to turn this into a written contract through the use of charters. However, there are important equity issues and social cohesion issues involved.

Educational policy making is progressed through a dialectical process. We confront questions, make tentative conclusions, turn those conclusions into practical action, assess the results, and then confront the questions again. There is no magic wand.

I am looking forward to the reports on the contributions to be made over the next week. I have no doubt that from this conference will come insights which will have benefit to decision-making within our own country.

Equally I have no doubt that all the nations represented here will be able to benefit. Who can ever measure the impact of these insights into the lives of the many people in all of our countries, in particular the young ones? At the same time, I issue a plea for caution. Practices which are successful in one cultural or national context cannot simply be picked up holus-bolus and placed into a different system with the same results. I have seen schools try to do this with sometimes disastrous results.

Obviously ideas need to be contextualised.

The second plea that I make is to officials. If we are really going to help each other we need to be objective. We need to be ready to communicate the positives and the negatives of innovations which have been put into action. The devolution of decision-making to local school communities has had some real benefits in New Zealand. But there have also been downsides. We need to be able to explore both the positives and the negatives with intellectual honesty. I'm sure this will be the case.

I wish you all the best in the coming days of deliberation. I hope the conference will be a productive, beneficial and enjoyable one for each and every one of you. And I hope that you will forge new and enduring friendships so that educational dialogue will continue long into the future.

No reira, tënä kotou, tënä kotou, tënä kotou katoa.