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.


One could be slightly bemused by reading this and indeed many would quite probably bemoan the passage of time that has changed the lot of the lowly teacher!! These are actual “Rules” for teachers, circa 1879.

1.  Teachers each day will fill lamps, clean chimneys before beginning work. (That’s not ‘work’?)

2.  Each teacher will bring a bucket of water and a scuttle of coal for the day’s session. (Oh- so THIS is work?)

3.  Make your pens carefully. You may whittle nibs to the individual taste of the children. (May? You have a choice?)

4.  Men teachers may take one evening a week for vourting purposes or two evenings to attend church regularly. (Again with the ‘may’. Should you choose not to court what are the options?)

5.  After ten hours in school, you may spend the remaining time reading the BIBLE or other good books. (I always thoughts “Ulysses” was a good page-turner!)

6.  Woman teachers who marry or engage in unseemly conduct will be dismissed. (I’m glad they didn’t say ‘other’ unseemly conduct!!)

7.  Every teacher should lay aside, from each pay, a goodly sum for his benefit during his declining years so that he will not become a burden on society. (A woman can just get married to avoid being burdensome to society?)

8.  Any teacher who smokes, uses liquor in any form, frequents pool or public halls, or gets shaved in a barbers shop will give good reason to suspect his worth, intention, integrity and honesty. (Those always wondered about barbers!!!)

So, notice any changes after 135-odd years? smiley face

Unfit Teachers

(In response to newspaper items suggesting the NZ education system is over-populated with incompetent teachers. Not particularly well written perhaps, but this article makes some interesting points.)

“Tip Of The Icecube” By Thomas Lumley
The Dominion-Post is reporting ‘hundreds of unfit teachers in class’. They haven’t made any attempt to scale this by the number of teachers, or compare it to other professions, or basically anything that would make the number interpretable.
The number of teachers employed at State or State Integrated schools in NZ as at April 2011 was 52460. This misses out the non-integrated private schools, but they are a small fraction (4% of students). With 664 complaints over two years, that is a rate of 1 complaint per 158 teachers per year. About half the complaints are dismissed.
For comparison we need other professions where the public can make complaints to independent adjudicators.
• As of June 2008 there were 8230 sworn members of the police force in NZ. In the most recent single year where data are available (2010/11), there were 2052 complaints to the Independent Police Conduct Authority, that is, 1 complaint per 4 police per year. Half the complaints were Category 5, ie, minor, too late, or otherwise not worth proceeding with.
• As of the last Census, there were 4284 people in NZ employed as reporters, editors, or sub-editors. This probably overstates the number of journalists relevant to the Press Council, since it includes technical editors, book editors and so on. The Press Council received 149 complaints in 2010, the last year for which they have published a report. In that year, 65 complaints went to adjudication (1 complaint per 66 journalists per year), and about half of these were upheld.
In all three professions roughly half the formal complaints that make it to the independent adjudicators are upheld and half are dismissed, but journalists are twice as likely as teachers to receive formal complaints, and police are about forty times more likely.
It’s quite likely that the headline is literally true: there probably are hundreds of unfit teachers, but that’s likely under 1% of all teachers. It’s worth trying to weed them out, but not without considering the costs. In any case, the amount of fainting and clutching of pearls the situations warrants is pretty limited.
Note: According to the UMR survey Teachers rank #3 and police #4 on a table of public respect for occupation groups. I wonder where on an extended list journalists would sit (lie?)


…and successful teachers love teaching successfully!

I am so impressed with the young teachers who celebrated a few of their successes in the staff-room at morning interval yesterday.

There are a couple of (disparate really) teachers who are part of a literacy initiative on The Coast which entails them co-mentoring, discussing, planning, implementing strategies and moderating progress of a small group targeted children identified with literacy needs. I am not entirely sure how long they have been involved in the practical aspects of the initiative, (just this year) but clearly they are getting to ‘the pointed end’. One of the teachers (apparently without the knowledge of the other) took the opportunity to share a wee success story. The names of the children are unimportant, but the substance of the story was that child X (Karl) had shown great progress over the preceding several months due to the interventions undertaken (not the least of which, of course was the buy-in of ‘Karl’!) to the extent of raising his writing literacy achievement from a ‘low 2’ to a ‘3B’. Now the story didn’t end here because this improvement seemed extraordinary to both teachers given the child and the time involved, so they decided to seek independent moderation of the child’s work, ‘just to be sure’. Long story short, the two independent teachers agreed that the ‘Karl’s writing achieved a ‘3B’, although they admitted to being very strict/hard in their moderation and admitted a higher score would not have been unreasonable given some of the quality of deeper features in evidence.  Of course the story was greeted with popular acclaim! And why not!!!

As the applause faded another young teacher undertook to share her own success story, this time nothing to do with anything more special than her own class maths programme working for her/her kids. She had for many months lamented young Y (Mark?)’s ability to come to grips with basic facts. Now she wasn’t putting blame anywhere, but was clearly getting to her wits end by the apparent inability of ‘Mark’ to come to grips with what the basic basic facts were or how to learn them. Now ‘Mark’ is an interesting wee tyke who probably has carried a perception of school and learning that is, to a certain extent inherited, but teachers generally carry an optimistic view that children don’t HAVE to suffer from inheritance! SO Amanda (teacher) stuck at her task and thus was happy to share her story with the staff. At the beginning of the year (well, Term 1) ‘Mark’ achieved the truly underwhelming score of 1 (out of a possible of 100). By T2, despite various tricks and inducements, ‘Mark’ showed NO improvement, OR inclination to become a basic facts master- 0/100 (lots of doodles on the test paper!)! Term three? It was a long term, but…? What happened? Amanda was hard-put to explain it herself but she was delighted that, for some yet to be indentified reason, ‘Mark’ switched on, discovered homework, in-class maths, and (obviously) something else, because he, out of nowhere achieved a possible 100/100 in the basic facts test! OUTSTANDING!! Why? How? I don’t care- IT HAPPENED and Amanda was almost in tears telling us about it!

The individual achievements of the children are wonderful, but it’s the pride of the teachers that impresses me. These young people who are dedicated to their jobs, committed to their children, and who do a wonderful job day after day for those children. It pisses me off somewhat when politicians step in and determine that this will happen or that will happen completely without reference to the people who actually do the job they have been trained to do, and who are passionate about the job they do.

Keep up the great work, you wonderful people, despite the political dross that is dumped upon you. Politicians are transitory- you are for good (in more ways than one!)

Kia kaha. Kia manawanui.

Should I Be Here?

Short answer is probably, “No”. I’m doing this at work (yeah, I know- on the boss’s time and all that stuff!) but I don’t have a big pang about this as this is almost part of my job! I am an IT teacher and I am sort of in the process of ‘doing’ blogging with the senior kids, and so while they are beavering away at their world-shattering observations and commentary, I am doing similarly- modelling? Yeah! Right!

Anyway back to my question. I am feeling like death warmed up and have streaming eyes and intermittent sneezes and thus I am probably a walking disaster for those around me. In such a state I suspect it accomplishes very little ensuring regular hand-washing, covering mouth/nose when coughing/sneezing, and any of the other health poster guidelines (although, of course they’ll minimise health hazards as much as is possible!) But our classrooms are very often places where people who really shouldn’t be there spend their days. Kids sent by working parents who can’t (or won’t) find home care for them or teachers who are ill and infectious but who can’t be replaced because relievers are not available (or won’t be replaced because they don’t want someone else running their class.) And, of course hard surfaces that must harbour squizillions of nasties just waiting to spoil someone’s day!

But I am here, and so are at least 3 kids today who shouldn’t be, and I think another teacher elsewhere in the school who would be doing herself and her colleagues and pupils greater service by being elsewhere.

So why are we here? The children’s presence is explained in part by parent’s circumstances, in part by parent’s attitudes, or in part by the desire of the kids to rather be here than at home. But the teachers? I think there are a number of factors here as well- some teachers may have used up their sick leave, some may prefer to not have the potential disruptive effects of less than wholly effective relievers, some may not be well organised enough and a bit afraid of being discovered as being so by another taking over, some may feel that if they could ensure a ‘proven’ reliever would be in charge they’d stay home, some may feel that what is planned for that day requires them to be here, and of course so are just so damned dedicated they think even performing below par is worth the effort of getting out of their sick-bed to be at school. (They ARE NOT here because there is no reliever available- that’s management’s problem.)

So why am I here? Because my role directly effects at least three other teachers’ plans for the day it’s less disruptive than re-scheduling the day another time when I’m feeling better, and because I am not replaced by a reliever if I call in sick it’s simply more expedient and convenient for all if I turn up (so no high principles involved!)

And, actually I’m fibbing. I’m not doing this at school, and I am not feeling like death warmed up with streaming eyes and sneezes, but you get the idea?