‘Step Change' treading on eggshells

March 2010


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The recent inter-party report on school choice does not go far enough, argues GREG FLEMING

One day last winter, in the middle of his sixth year at Primary School, I asked my eldest son Harry what he had learned that day. He replied “not much”. When I pressed him, he said: “Dad, we can’t learn much because there are 30 kids in the class and the teacher has to teach at a level that everyone can understand.”

In the recently released Step Change report the Inter-Party Working Group for School Choice (IPWG) has some good news for Harry should the government accept their recommendations. As long as he can stay in the top five per cent of achieving students then he’ll be provided with a “personalised learning plan” for his education.

As a family we’ll get to choose a “learning broker” who will then work with us in designing a personal learning plan for Harry. We’ll get to choose a combination of education providers, both existing and new ones, who will be paid and incentivised by government to meet the clear and individualised goals spelled out in his plan. The bottom 20 per cent of students will also receive this support. But although a personalised plan sounds nice, in truth the recommendations just aren’t holistic enough to make a real difference for all students.

Make no mistake, there are some good ideas in there: school properties currently used for just 15 per cent of the week could be hired by a range of new providers responding to these personalised learning plans; and experienced professionals without standard teaching qualifications could enter the profession.

But the recommendations are limited in two ways. First, at least in the short term, they’re limited to 25 per cent of students. Second, they just don’t get to grips with the fundamental shortcomings of the current system.

The challenges facing New Zealand education are not confined to the occasional struggling student. As Step Change reports, “educational underachievement of the magnitude found in New Zealand carries the effect of a permanent economic recession”. Schools are often hamstrung and lack flexibility to respond to their pupils’ unique needs, as instead they are forced to focus on ticking the state-prescribed boxes. Parents and students have an illusion of choice of their school, but in reality restrictions like zoning and a paucity of private education providers means that choice is a myth for many.

There are some clear ways forward for New Zealand. The report includes several brief case-studies of schools that have already brought about changes and are eager to do more. A Ngāti Porou language immersion school on the East Coast trains its staff on-site, drawing on people with broad life experience rather than just an education background. TŪ TOA in Palmerston North uses cutting-edge ICT and a personalised learning programme to achieve extraordinary student results. And Macleans College in East Auckland has developed a database which uses student assessment to measure teacher performance, leading to highly competent teachers becoming mentors for other staff.

Even within a system that currently takes a “one size fits all” approach these innovative educators are determined to forge a new way. Just imagine what they and hundreds of others could achieve in a system that actually encouraged such innovation.

This is the vision that we catch a glimpse of in the IPWG’s report. But sadly when it comes to the breadth and detail of that vision they shrink before the impending outcry. It’s as though they can already hear the war drums of the unions drowning out the pleas of parents.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Holistic changes have the potential to not only liberate students from an uninspiring, impersonal model but at the same time restore teaching to what it should be – one of the most revered and sought-after professions in our society.

The last reforms in the 1990s were killed out of fear that schools would employ cheap inexperienced teachers. But in a rigorously assessed, student-centred education system the exact opposite would happen. Schools would fall over themselves to secure the very best teachers. Professor John Hattie made that very clear just three years ago when his exhaustive research showed that nearly 30 per cent of a student’s performance is due to the quality of their teacher, with a child’s background making up another 50 per cent.

Alongside the IPWG’s majority-view report there was another one written, Free to Learn, which is the ACT party’s minority report. Full of detail and compelling international research, Free to Learn is a courageous call for a real ‘step change’ in New Zealand education. It takes up the challenge to bring creativity, choice, innovation and flexibility back into schools. Drawing on the inspiring examples of Ireland, Sweden, Australia and many parts of the US, it fleshes out the Step Change vision, refusing to allow politics and ideology to limit and shape its recommendations.

And this is where the present government needs to be courageous. It has the political capital and the parental support to make a real ‘step change’. One that, per the Swedish experience in 1992, would so quickly gain broad support that any ideological roll-back by a future government would be untenable. To now instead tip-toe on eggshells and play at the margins would be to not only invite inevitable unravelling but to squander this once-in-a-generation opportunity to bring real change for 100 per cent of our students.

Greg Fleming is chief executive of the Maxim Institute.