Fire!

2014 is election year in New Zealand, and it would seem that education is going to be one of the defining topics. This isn’t surprising. Education is one of those issues where almost everybody feels invested. If you’re not directly involved yourself, chances are you have children, grandchildren or neighbours who are. Furthermore, it’s about children and the future, both great platforms from which to launch one’s rhetorical missiles. This time round, there’s also a sense that the gap between rich and poor is going to be used by opposition parties to establish a clear point of difference between them and the current goverment, and whatever the solution offered to that particular conundrum, education clearly has to be part of the package. Good schools and good teachers do offer kids from deprived backgrounds a way of breaking the cycle; there’s strong evidence that this happens. Not to the extent that it can be the whole solution, the front end of deprivation also needs addressing, but the best policies are going to come at this problem both ways.

First out of the blocks were National, with a move that surprised most commentators. Their plan is to use financial incentives as a way of spreading best teaching practice through and between school communities. Just shy of $360 million over four years is being put into a four pronged attack. Struggling schools looking to appoint new principals will be able to offer $50, 000 incentives in order to attract top quality candidates. Of the moves, this strikes me as the smartest and most hopeful. An effective leader can do a huge amount for a school, (Makoura College in Masterton is an excellent example that I’ve seen in action) and maybe this is a way of moving talent to those areas where it can be best used. I like that, at the very least, it’s a policy with a focus.

The second move, taking principals who are identified as doing a good job, and then  inviting them to take a leadership role across school clusters, seems to me to be far more speculative. Although relief time is provided to release those principals, it’s not at all clear that removing them from a function they’re performing well, in order to involve them in what could very easily turn into another layer of consultation and bureaucracy, is high risk. Perhaps this level of engagement across schools will lead to better sharing of resources and systems, but my hunch is it’s mostly going to lead to a while heap more talking when there’s work to be done. If this is the outcome, then it will be money badly spent. The detail of how the policy makers plan to avoid this trap is the level at which this should be judged, and that’s something they’re working on.

The other moves, focussing on classroom teachers, I’m even more sceptical about, although I note the secondary union have offered initial support. They would have done better, I suspect, to have held off on their judgements. These moves involve offering pay rewards ($10, 000 and $20, 000 positions, so both significant salary boosts) to teachers identified as being particularly proficient in key areas of delivery. In return, these teachers are expected to share their practice with colleagues, and in the more senior of the positions extend this across neighbouring schools. My reservations here are to do with a mismatch between the problem and solution.

We know where the problem area for New Zealand education is, we have a significant bunch of kids at the bottom end who are not getting the skills they need to participate fully in our society, and the price they’re paying is horrendous. And the thing is, these strugglers are not spread evenly throughout our school system. There are particular schools and particular regions where you’ll find them in far greater numbers. Crudely put, we’re failing Maori and Pasifika students, and we’re failing the children of the poor.

So, it seems to me, if you’re looking to throw hundreds of millions of dollars at that problem, then the absolute priority is to make sure every last dollar of it is put where it’s most likely to at least come into contact with the target group. So, I was expecting, when I heard of these incentives, that they would be specifically aimed at schools with low achievement profiles, but there’s been no talk of this at all. Rather, if I’m reading it correctly, we’re going to see the rewards spread amongst the workforce in a way that is regarded as fair, and the make-up of the steering group almost guarantees that this sort of compromise will occur. And that’s plain stupid. Not only should the money go to particular areas and decile ratings, but it should also go mostly into early childhood and primary institutions, because, developmentally speaking, that’s where you get the biggest bang for your buck (and I say this as a secondary school teacher).

There are all sorts of other fish hooks in this proposal, not least the way these lead teachers are going to be identified, but these are side issues. The crucial thing is that National have come up with the money, but rather than pointing the hose at the flames, so to speak, for some unfathomable reason have decided to squirt the cash about randomly and hope some of it will end up doing some good. There are perhaps good political reasons for doing it this way, but educationally it’s a lost opportunity.

This afternoon the Greens announced their alternative, which on first read looks smarter in terms of targeting, and Labour are surely scrambling to grab their share of the headlines as I type, so maybe I’ll get to talking about them soon.

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