By Andrew Patterson, RadioLIVE Drive host and Business Editor
The government will have been licking its wounds over the weekend after a major political U-turn.
Not only did it have to announce a humiliating back down of its proposed changes to teacher-pupil ratios that would have seen many intermediate schools losing up to two teachers, but a key plank of its education policy announced in last month’s budget now lies in tatters.
Essentially what the government was seeking was a trade-off that would have seen lower teacher-pupil ratios in the first and final years of school and slightly higher ratios in the middle years in order to reallocate up to $50million in funding for professional teacher development.
Prime Minister John Key described the changes as “modest.”
Unfortunately, parents and teachers didn’t exactly see things the same way.
In classic New Zealand parlance, the government “stuffed up” badly on this one.
But the events of the last week highlight a fundamental problem this government is facing and will continue to face in the future.
How do you implement pain free changes at a time of fiscal belt tightening when the electorate is deeply resistant to change?
Well, you could start by communicating your message more effectively than happened with this latest policy U-turn.
Yet again, the government completely failed to sell its message to the electorate in a way that people understood how it fitted into a wider strategy.
When you’re up against the education sector you’d better have your ducks lined up properly and, at the risk of a bad pun, have done your homework properly. As we discovered, Education Minister Hekia Parata hadn’t.
The education sector is one of the last, almost sacred, bastions in New Zealand and has a long track record of being resistant to change.
The education profession it seems knows best and wants to be left alone just to get on with it as they see fit.
In fact, it’s hard to remember any occasion when the all-powerful secondary teachers union, the PPTA, or its primary equivalent the NZEI, welcomed and supported any educational initiative from either side of the political divide; perhaps other than supporting pay rises.
It’s reminiscent of the health sector a few years back when there was huge resistance to change. Yet one only needs to look at the transformation that has occurred in our hospitals and District Health Boards for evidence of its success.
The introduction of operational efficiencies, including performance targets across a range of metrics and significant technology advances that will eventually see iPads as common as stethoscopes has resulted in productivity gains within the health sector that were almost unimaginable a decade ago.
The fact is that NZ has to improve its educational performance for the 20% of students who are leaving school with no qualifications and a similar percentage who are under achieving during their final years at high school.
The country can no longer afford to carry a growing tail of student underachievement that simply translates into increasing numbers of welfare recipients. The cost to the economy is simply unsustainable.
While teachers unions regularly point to New Zealand’s educational rankings as being in the top quartile internationally, they rarely if ever speak about the tragic level of underachievement in many of our low decile schools or offer strategies to address this issue.
I’ve seen the evidence of this first hand when I tutored decile one high school students a few years ago as a volunteer at an after school homework programme in the Auckland suburb of Mr Roskill.
Most of the 15 and 16 year old students I worked with, mainly Maori and Pacifica, had reading levels five and six years below their actual age. They were also unable to do basic maths, such as calculating 10% of a 100 without reaching for a calculator, and many of their homework assignments might possibly have been challenging for an eight year old.
For all intended purposes, the school system had already labelled these kids as failures and the intention was simply to keep them “occupied” at school rather than doing anything to challenge them academically.
For those who have seen that excellent movie The Freedom Writers, the scenario will be all too familiar.
The film, based on the true story of a successful corporate lawyer, Erin Gruwell, who gives up a promising legal career to teach a class of students who had already been labelled “unteachable”, is an eye opener.
Unbelievably, the school where she gets her first job, located in one of the poorest parts of LA, California, had never had a single student go on to college. Without spoiling the story, not only did she achieve the remarkable feat of seeing her entire class of 40 students go on to college, but three of her students went on to complete PhDs.
If you want to see how she did it, watch the movie, it’s inspiring!
So the point I’m getting to is that achieving those sorts of outcomes will only come from investing in teachers who are driven to achieve.
While it’s obviously unrealistic to expect every teacher to achieve outcomes on the scale depicted in the movie, what is important is that a lot more teachers need to be aiming for a level of performance far higher than they are delivering to students today.
That will come from selecting smart, highly qualified, motivated teachers who join the profession for the right reasons and who are then held accountable for their performance along with schools continuing to increase their investment in technology.
Teachers who feel they cannot meet these objectives need to be managed out of the profession. Teaching for life should only be for the very best educators.
One principal at a large Auckland high school told me recently that, for a variety of reasons, up to a third of his staff shouldn’t be teaching. That highlights the extent of the problem we’re talking about here
The education sector should be looking at the health sector as an example of what’s possible when you embrace a vision for better service delivery. While things are far from perfect in our DHBs, you’d be hard pressed to argue that they haven’t at least made some progress in the last decade by embracing change - which is more than you can say for the education sector.
As for the government, it needs to back to studying Politics 101or as teachers would say: do your homework properly before handing in your assignment for marking.