From bulk funding to bean bags

August 2015

 

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After 45 years in boys’ schools, 27 of these as headmaster of St Peter’s College, a Catholic school for boys in Auckland, KIERAN FOUHY offers some candid reflections on the past, present and future of boys’ education in New Zealand.

Bulk fundingAs I head into retirement, this is not a collection of memories for my eventual canonisation (as is the tradition of my Catholic church) but a reflection on looking back in order to look forwards. With 45 years’ experience – 27 as headmaster of a central Auckland school of 1,200 young men – I have some understanding of how boys’ schools work.

It has been 45 years of daily whole-school assemblies where wisdom and pragmatism have intersected. That’s 45 years where each Saturday was a long day – from being part of the U14 B football team at 9am to attending the aftermatch of the First XV rugby team at 4.30pm.

It has also been 45 years of annual school balls where the clock to the midnight finish seems so painfully slow. And 45 years of classroom observations where I have seen brilliant teaching, boring teaching, wacky teaching and teachers who missed their vocation as taxi drivers!

It has been 45 years of teaching boys who own their school community with spirit, pride and commitment. Boys who approach learning differently from their sisters, but with encouragement and coaxing get there in the finish. Boys who need to learn to control their impulsiveness and to delay gratification for future goals.

It has been 45 years of parental support for their son’s school as they adopted the educational mantra: ‘Students can apply, but we only enrol families’. And 45 years of mothers of boys who intuitively, and with wisdom, realise that their sons are different from their daughters. Boys learn differently, move differently and behave differently.

And truthfully (at rare moments!), I have wistfully thought of the benefits of being a headmaster of a school of orphans!

Politics and the funding dollar

But it has been theyears of imposed political ideas on education that has been the most frustrating. Governments and (most centralised institutions) do change poorly. Driven by three-yearly cycles, political survival and the dollar, they forget service is the core of their mission.

Bulk funding was at the start of my headmastership in 1990.It was an excellent idea because it removed the distance of funding and placed revenue closer to actual performance or educational outcomes. It had immense benefits for every student at the school and was a welcome boost to leadership in a school.

But the change was so poorly executed. With the competence skill set of Anzac military planners, they turned an excellent idea into a disaster. It became a contest of winners and losers.

We know that excellent ideas find death hard. The son of bulk funding will come again. It will be called something like ‘School funding for all’ and a new cadre of principals will embrace its obvious benefits. The winners will be New Zealand students and the losers will be entitlement thinking.

Bean bags philosophy

And then came the introduction of the bean bags philosophy into schools at the end of my headmastership in 2015; the idea that thinking should mould to the person in comfort without pressure or effort! At its core is the belief that inherited knowledge of the past doesn’t exist and any learner must discover knowledge again in some co-constructed way.

The numeracy project foisted onto most schools is a classic example of this philosophy. Untested, unworkable, unmoderated. Ask any good mathematician teaching maths. Bad words of this philosophy are: structure, routine, rituals, discipline, respect, accountable, tradition, memory.

And we will know when this philosophy is embedded into New Zealand life when the electrician coming to fix a light has to google Ohm’s Law, or that students think that ‘Shakespeare’ is a pub in central Auckland!

No wonder the Chinese with their Confucian traditions are shaking their heads at the confusion of Western education thinkers as they plough ahead in international league tables, especially maths.

Food for thought

Three suggestions for the education of boys in the next few years:

  • Convene an educational summit on what works in getting boys to achieve and become educated. After all, it makes economic sense that if over half the clientele of the company are not performing then the CEO should at least find out why.
  • In the Auckland market where schools are being built, fund a boys-only (and girls-only) college for years 7–11 with an adjacent co-ed senior college for years 12 and 13. It is time that research into real issues comes to the fore.
  • Devise and establish a philosophy curriculum for secondary schools. This is the counterweight to the dumbed down curriculum of the present day where students are becoming proficient in barista coffee making and travel and tourism without even understanding the basis of their lives and where their Western tradition arose.

Is it wise to throw out the Christian/Judaic tradition upon which most New Zealand institutions were built?

So the end is the beginning and the beginning is the end. Roll on the future. As the Bard would say: To retire ... ”perchance to dream”.


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