Undervalued Public Education?

This article, written by Ross Henderson appeared in the Taranaki Daily News- 9/2/2013

“We are told that Novopay aside, teachers and the government are set on a collision course and that it’s a union versus management approach.

Let’s cut to the chase. Apart from the fact that most teachers belong to a union, exercising their freedom of choice and association in doing so, there is no union dimension to the political scraps on education policy. The claim that teacher unions run or ruin the education sector is a National Party mantra, consistent with that party’s life-long hatred of unions and dissenting voices.

Let’s face it, decisions made by politicians on education are by definition political, and usually reflect the bias of the political party in charge. When it comes to Labour and National, their decisions on education typically reflect their historical origins.

Labour sees education as the way to lift intellectual and practical knowledge and understanding, and as enhancing the individual for life, work and citizenship. On this basis Labour has usually tried to make sure that education is accessible to all, so that the influence of wealth or poverty on a person’s life chances is minimised.

National has typically seen education as the means to entrench advantage and privilege. They have always favoured private schooling, affordable to only a few. Last week I wrote about how this government bailed out Wanganui Collegiate, even though the school has been failing.

There was also the decision shortly after it came into government in 2008, to immediately grant an extra $38 million for private schools. State, or publicly- owned, schools got nothing extra. Two years ago they took $55 million out of trade training and are crowing about the fact they are about to put $12 million back in.

And did you notice how the hastily- abandoned policy on larger class sizes last year was for state schools, not private schools?

It’s not popular to say it at the moment, but the truth is that the present government is one of the most politically driven we’ve had in a long time; political in the sense of pursuing the interests of its political constituency above all else. So when National is challenged in its thinking on education, especially by teachers, it resorts to its time-honoured habit of attacking the messenger. Let’s remember that the idea of mass education – compulsory education of all children up to a specified age according to a standard curriculum – is a comparatively recent phenomenon. It only properly started last century.

New Zealand embraced the mass education system with enthusiasm. It fitted our traditionally egalitarian ambitions. But in a world where access to information is gained by a few mouse clicks, and the amount of information available is vast, the rote learning of our forebears is no longer fit for purpose. The most important skill today is critical thinking. This requires young people to be curious, to distinguish facts from assertions and to be able to draw conclusions based on facts. Young people need to be prepared for a world that is changing rapidly. Today we live in a world where learning will never stop.

One of the big realisations of modern education is that people learn in different ways and at different speeds. The challenge for mass education systems is to be responsive to each learner.

But that’s not all. We also know that coming to school hungry or unwell or worried about what is happening at home or feeling vulnerable amidst your peers, are obstacles to learning.

So teachers have to be alert to these factors. These are all factors beyond a teacher’s control, but we have a Government that wants to introduce performance pay as if teachers do control these things. My assessment is that being a teacher today is way more complex than it was when I was growing up. We expect a lot of our teachers. We entrust our children to them. We are right to expect they are properly trained and meet a good character test. Teaching is a profession that deserves respect and support. When it comes to changes in education and the running of the system, we should expect to hear from the profession doing the front-line work. If they speak with one voice through their union, so what?

In the world of work where I come from, the old style of management is top down, command and control. But good managers now accept they don’t know everything and there is a wealth of knowledge held by those in the front line. Good managers have no hesitation in engaging with those doing the work. It’s about making the best decision. National governments come from the old order – they are top down. They don’t respect the front line, never think of consulting with them and are intolerant of dissent.

If there is a clash of ideas in education between the government and teachers, let’s look at the ideas rather than who is saying them. And let’s show a bit of respect for teachers and the amazing work most do.”

I completely endorse Ross’ words.


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