Getting the game plan right

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    When the National Standards reporting system for New Zealand schools met an immediate demise at the hands of the new Labour-led coalition government before Christmas, it brought a sigh of relief from, in particular, primary teachers.

    Hustled in before Christmas 2010 by the new National government of the day, the controversial system imposed a ‘straight jacket’ of daily evaluation and constant testing on teachers and a pass-fail regime on students that the 47,000-strong primary teachers union had fought from the start.

    “National Standards narrowed the curriculum, put undue pressure on children, increased teacher workload and weren’t even an accurate measure of a child’s progress,” according to NZEI president Lynda Stuart, while Principals’ Federation president Whetu Cormick said its summary dismissal as the sole arbiter of school progress was a “win for all principals”.

    “We repeatedly said that National Standards were not a valid measure of a school’s performance, would not raise achievement and would narrow the curriculum to reading, writing and mathematics.”

    Six years on, national standards are now relegated to the role of just another tool in schools’ assessment processes and, while schools are still waiting for new guidelines from the Ministry of Education, teachers countrywide are turning back to the much wider teaching focus of the New Zealand Curriculum that was introduced in 2007 before being elbowed out by national standards criteria.

    Internationally, it was hailed as one of the most exciting and innovative curriculums in the world and was taken and adapted by other countries as their models.

    Including by Finland, one of the countries at the top of the current league tables of education that also has a deeply embedded history of providing comprehensive, universal education to its citizens.

    “If we had carried on the way we were going years ago we might be at the top too,” one Bay of Plenty principal noted tartly.  

    He said the narrow focus of reporting national standards made no allowance for subjects such as social sciences, the arts, music and physical education in which children could flourish and achieve success.

    As I’ve got to grips with the National Standards issue, I felt the level of debate it had forced school communities to deal with was extraordinarily simplistic. And repugnant. 

    Partly because I spent ten years on the island’s Te Huruhi and Waiheke High School Boards of Governors as we wrestled with the complicated tasks of splitting the island’s former area school and crafting new schools to fit the island’s complicated, education rich, often financially poor demographic for the Tomorrow’s Schools agenda. 

    Every step of the way was an intellectual, personal and leadership challenge for the wideranging and very experienced teacher and governing bodies, principals, parents, students and the community. 

    Partly the repugnance came from the idea of narrowing down education to pass/fail. It is not fit for purpose. 

    I’ve always said that anyone seeking public office should have a resume that includes at least four years’ training in ego management on a kindergarten or school committee.

    Anyone who has gone on a school camp knows the transformation that can occur when the playing field changes and different student competencies come into play.

    The fresh air that’s been let in as schools redefined their goals and updated their reporting methods over summer has already sparked information meetings around the country that will feed usefully into Education Minister Chris Hipkins’ newly announced 30-year review of Tomorrow’s Schools.

    The process he announced this week will be an opportunity to shape the way schools are led, managed and interact with their communities.

    “There’s been a lot of tinkering around the edges since Tomorrrow’s Schools was introduced,” he says. 

    “It will look at how we can better support equity and inclusion for all children throughout their schooling, what changes are needed to support their educational success, and at the fitness of our school system to equip all our students for a rapidly changing world.

    “The review will consider how schools might interact differently with their communities, with other schools, with employers, and with other government organisations, to serve the best interests of our young people.”  

    Especially, it must ensure a schooling system that’s responsive to the needs of Māori and Pasifika children and those children needing learning support “for whom the education system has not delivered in the past”, he says. 

    “Every child deserves the opportunity to be the best they can be, regardless of where they live, or their personal circumstances. ”

     An independent five-to-seven person taskforce will be appointed in April and report back in November this year. • Liz Waters

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