Seeking the bigger debate

March 2011


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PETER SIMPSON is the new president of the New Zealand Principals Federation.

He talks to GEOFF VAUSE about how he hopes to get the organisation past the national standards controversy and on to higher ground.

Peter Simpson takes over as president of the New Zealand Principals Federation (NZPF)this year, and he doesn’t want the organisation spinning its wheels for the next 12 months transfixed by the national standards debate.

The role is put to the vote each year. Ernie Buutveld served as president for what he termed “the two torrid years” as national standards were introduced. Buutveld’s final piece as president in the New Zealand Principal magazine spoke of almost nothing else. He alluded darkly to national standards really being about “enabling other things that fit with the current government’s agenda”.

Simpson is obliged to carry forward the remits he inherits from Buutveld and the previous executive until such time as the executive and membership sees fit to change them. National standards won’t fall off that list in a hurry. Simpson says the membership-driven federation has principals who fully support the standards and are implementing them, principals who don’t want anything to do with them, and everything in between.

He says even the principals who support national standards and are implementing them fully are not laying down a ‘national’ standard but, rather, a standard peculiar to the structure, catchment and decile of their own school. Local standards. Simpson says this is reinforced by the public position taken by several hundred boards of trustees which have said they won’t use data from the national standards in setting targets as part of their school charters. They are saying they don’t work as a national measurement.

He agrees perception is everything, or almost. The national standards’ objectives could have been quietly built, tested and spliced in to the curriculum under any of a plethora of edu-speak acronyms and avoided a lot of flak. Guidelines. Signposts. Benchmarks. Quality education directions (QED). Anything but national standards – two words that would inevitably alienate much of a profession already proud of its involvement in designing a new curriculum that is considered one of the best examples in the world.

Simpson knows the national standards debate polarised the sector and was quickly politicised, and that serves nobody, least of all the students. He will be looking to move the NZPF forward by helping engender “careful and considered advocacy around that issue”.

“There is a way out. We have other credible measurements – longstanding norm-referenced measurements that can apply and allow national standards to even out and be proven by the test of time. We don’t have to stay locked in this issue, and with leadership and agreement, we won’t.”

He’s looking for a bigger debate, and a way to start building consensus toward defining what the role of a school should be in New Zealand society. If any group should conduct this debate, school principals are it, but perceptions, again, may well be the key. Given the perceived political persuasion of his own organisation, building trust for this discussion could be a challenge.

“It’s a debate that hasn’t been held for a long time,” Simpson says. “We share the intent of policy that aims to lift student achievement. It’s the reason we teach.”

He says the sector had little involvement in the design or implementation of national standards, and this was a mistake in itself. He wants everyone to learn from that, to relegate national standards to a proper perspective and get to grips with a much bigger picture.

It’s not a departure for the NZPF. It fits with Buutveld’s parting words: “New Zealand’s system of public education has been buffeted before and will, over time, find the path that does justice to our students and communities.”

It’s the definition of that path and the place of schools in our community that Simpson wants discussed. “As a country, what do we want our schools to do? What is the role of a school in New Zealand society?” he asks.

Simpson quickly shows his own place in the debate, and admits it is his own agenda when he asks if we want our schools “to prepare children to become valuable members of society who can think critically, form opinions, participate socially, follow their skills and interests in sports, craft, music, etc; or is the role of schools to prepare them to perform academically and in that area only?”

It seems difficult to lead a debate when half the argument is predetermined, or the basic premise is already shaped by what could be seen as mutually exclusive opinions. Simpson attempts to clarify:

“The reason I think this is because we’ve had a New Zealand Curriculum introduced that is recognised world-wide as being quite outstanding in adaptability, its preparation of children for the future, for 21st century learning; we have a change of government and we have a policy introduced saying reading, writing and maths are the most important things for schools, and we then have a programme of implementation around those areas,” he says.

“Personally, I think it’s time we have a debate about the role, particularly of a primary school, about what we want our schools to do. I don’t recall that happening in my time as a teacher and a principal. Here we are well into the 21st century and we’re all saying the world our kids are coming into is going to be different. How do we prepare them for that?”

He cites the Stephen Covey (Seven Habits of Highly Effective People) philosophy – begin with the end in mind. “If we know what we want kids to come out of school like, so they can participate actively, be valuable members of society not only around their academic knowledge but in their social attitudes – if we have a clear idea of what we want schools to do, then we can ask ‘what skills and knowledge do our teachers need to deliver that?’.

“Maybe if we can get cross-party agreement on that, then we won’t have the flip-flops in education that we’re experiencing at the moment, with totally different ideas about what education should deliver. Education world-wide is becoming more politicised. Is that a good thing? Can we get cross-party agreement that these are going to be the core functions of schools because this is what we want them delivering, this is their role?”

“If all parties – the sector, the ministry and the political parties – are involved and contributing to that debate and we can get agreement then I believe it will strengthen our system. The kids themselves, society generally, and the country will benefit from this approach in terms of the type of citizens we are producing.

Simpson agrees there is a shortage of Māori and Pasifika representation in key teacher organisations such as subject associations, and acknowledges that Māori and Pasifika achievement is a crucial factor in the success of the education system and the nation, saying it’s all part of “raising students’ achievement”.

“That is an objective we all share. Part of the debate would be about how that is going to be achieved. Looking at how young teachers come into their roles is part of deciding the role they should play in that (wider) debate.

“My personal philosophy of becoming a principal was that if I stayed a classroom teacher and taught on average 25-30 kids a year for 40 years I could make a difference for 1200 kids. In becoming a principal – my current school for example has 23 classrooms, 23 teachers times however many kids – if I can lead and inspire those teachers to achieve with the kids, then my range of influence around my leadership is much bigger, and that’s the challenge for schools leaders and principals.

“Some people might say, ‘well, who does this guy think he is?’ and that’s fine, but one of the roles I want as president is to heighten awareness around the debate about what we expect of our schools, and I’ll be doing all I can through my executive and through the invites that hopefully come to speak to others, including political parties.

“Teachers are influential in their own communities. It would be good to start having that debate in those communities. What do you want Belfast School to do, for example, and what is the role you want it to play in the development of the children in this community? Then we’ll start to get a picture of what we want schools to do across the country.”