No Mr Key, it is not how MMP works, it is how you work

(Please note: in regard to school charters, this posting follows just one line of development, more to follow.)

Mr Key’s attack on New Zealand schools is unprecedented in New Zealand history.

In an election debate with Phil Goff on Wednesday, 23 November, 2011, three days before an election, a prime minister of New Zealand said schools were letting New Zealand children down. No other prime minister has ever said anything like that about New Zealand schools. No other prime minister has made such a direct and unqualified attack on New Zealand schools. This was not some schools; it was schools, no ifs, no buts. And the matter under discussion in the debate was not even education; Mr Key went out of his way to find an opening to issue his condemnation of New Zealand public schools.

Yes – we have had education panics and calls for change, for instance, the ‘playway’ panic in the late 40’ and ‘50s led by the New Zealand Herald; the Hutt Valley Milk Bar Gang panic in the 50s leading to the Mazengarb Report; and, of course, Tomorrow’s Schools’ call for radical change, but none of these ever occasioned prime ministers to attack schools in such a direct and absolute way.

The latest OECD survey had New Zealand ranked fourth out of 34 OECD countries in reading literacy, fourth in scientific literacy, and seventh in mathematical literacy. As in all past surveys, New Zealand was headed only by ethnically homogenous populations such as Finland, Korea, and Japan.

Ivan Snook in a review of the highly regarded book, ‘The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better’ poses the question: ‘Why does New Zealand do much better on the measurement of educational achievement than its degree of inequality would predict?’ The answer, no doubt, is complex, but certainly contributed to by the place of Maori culture in society, and just as certainly by teachers doing an outstanding job.

In literacy, pakeha students had a mean score higher than any other country.

New Zealand public schools and teachers can do anything, but only if convinced that anything is something in the interests of children. There is a cruel irony in public schools and teachers being forced to comply with cramping bureaucratic regulation, and then being accused of not acting in a freer way. This Kafkan dilemma is intentional, the purpose being to place public schools in a situation to be able to shame, belittle them at will. And mark my words, iwi, Maori Party and the like, charter schools, once the initial glamour is over, will be a disaster for Maori children. I have no doubt that the pakeha fobbing off Maori with the blankets and trinkets in the form of charter schools is about to be re-enacted – oh you about to be gulled once again.

Mr Key’s attack on New Zealand teachers is based on a lie. And if the attack on public schools is based on a lie, then the ostensible purpose of the attack is a lie. So the real purpose is elsewhere.

We know how to help the struggling learner, but this bunch isn’t interested, they are too intent on bringing down the teacher organisations (or turning them into patsies like STA), cutting costs in education through bulk funding mechanisms, and pulling stunts like national standards and charter schools as a diversion from properly funding improved opportunities for children’s learning. In reading, for instance, reading recovery should be available in every school; the brilliant Third Chance programme should be there for the hard core of children who don’t respond sufficiently to reading recovery; the number of advisers should be increased (with an emphasis on those with extensive classroom experience); and there should be a substantial increase in the number of teacher aides for more magical one-to-one reading.  And, national standards should be dumped so that junior area teachers are freed to make unpressured decisions about the timing for the progressions in children’s reading.

The teacher organisations made a huge mistake when they didn’t put forward a list of demands to improve opportunities for children’s learning. That would have focused people on the curriculum and the classroom. They let the government get away scot free on this, letting it retain the initiative.

This posting is a call for teacher organisations and schools to address directly the prime minister’s charge. If it is not challenged it will gain even further status as the truth and from there become a strengthened linchpin and rationale for the further undermining of public education.

I call on the teacher organisations to call a conference or hui to discuss the question, ‘Are public school teachers letting New Zealand children down?’ I call on the teacher organisations to challenge the prime minister through their media releases. I call on teachers, whenever Mr Key hoves into view, to ask, ‘Is such-and-such school letting New Zealand children down?’ or, at a meeting, ‘Are schools in such-and-such district letting New Zealand children down?’ And the same for the new minister.

Mr Key will, of course, try to smarm his way out of it – have none of it – any qualification to his fallacious and unprecedented charge, to be accepted, must be backed up by a change in reasons for justifying national standards or charter schools. Teacher organisations were too slow off the mark with national standards, with the charter school issue we are looking for sprightly and imaginative action.

The sight and sound of a prime minister of New Zealand attacking public education, given the internationally acknowledged success of public education, is outrageous. But in the matter of education, the minister of education and the prime minister have been chronic liars.

My overall argument is that eight lies were brought into play three years ago and, with the mad connivance of newspaper editors, have become institutionalised. Those lies were that schools were not willing or able to provide normative information about children’s performances in literacy and numeracy; that many schools had difficulty identifying struggling children (the falling through the cracks myth – good God, every child in a class knows which children are struggling, why wouldn’t the teacher?); that schools resisted education change because they didn’t want to be accountable; that parents wanted national standards; that education is about literacy and numeracy, and narrow versions of these; that the imposition of national standards would not have a limiting and distorting effect on the wider curriculum; that teacher organisations were somehow different in viewpoint from teachers and principals; and, of course, that schools were letting New Zealand children down.

These institutionalised lies have, it seems, become so embedded they are used reflexively as the excuse to lie, distort, and conceal; to scapegoat and deride; and to compel, bully, and impose. Schools cannot change themselves, these lies implicitly convey, because teachers are self-serving, lazy, and inefficient, lacking in real commitment to children. And by focusing on teacher organisations, teachers are made anonymous, depersonalised, allowing the rhetoric against teachers to become virulent, allowing the politicians and parts of the media to forget the people they are criticising are mainly our sisters, mothers, daughters, aunts, and grandmothers; people with a heretofore reputation as caring, hardworking, and inspiring – the people, indeed, who cared, loved, and taught those making the criticisms.

It is not my intention in this posting to touch on the wider political and economic changes that have led to this but to look at one line of events to show how the institutionalising of lies came about.

Let us address the minister of education first. Where could a lie most seriously appear?  I suggest in legislation. And, if you can lie in legislation you can lie anywhere and the minister has, and with increasing temerity.

In the ‘Explanatory note’ to the Education (National Standards) Amendment 2008, (p. 4) there is reference to Progressive Achievement Tests (PATs) and assessment tools for teaching and learning (asTTLe) and the ‘Explanatory note’ goes on to say that ‘Despite the availability of these assessment tools, the Education Review Office reported in March 2007 that 56% of schools recently reviewed were still not using worthwhile achievement data.’

This implies a host of deficiencies in teachers: but is a lie. The Education Review Office in March 2007 reported that 92% of schools were using a wide range of assessment tools for literacy and 84% for mathematics.

This legislation was brought in under urgency in the first few weeks of the new National government and without going before a select committee. So the minister of education lied from the beginning and has kept on lying throughout her three years of office.

In fact, she lied about this before she became minister of education because the 56% figure first appeared as a footnote in a National Party election pamphlet. In effect, that lie adds up to Mr Key’s lie that schools are letting New Zealand children down.

She also lied when she said she dispensed with normal parliamentary procedures because it would just be a waste of time as the new government had a mandate for the education changes. As we all know, the real reason why the legislation was passed under urgency and without select committee consideration was because it would have provided teachers with a voice. (Select committees are mainly there to refine bills, not to deny them.)

The lie, however, is given further proof by what is happening in and around the 2012 election with the same manoeuvre being attempted but even more audaciously because no mandate is in question because it was never policy.

Remember, we had Mr Key, unprompted, enthusiastically volunteering, from right field so to speak, that schools are letting New Zealand children down.

Then, a few days after the election, National and ACT come up with a detailed policy for charter schools.

The policy says ‘the parties have … agreed to implement a system, enabled under either sections 155 (Kura Kaupapa Maori) or 156 (Designated character schools), or another section if appropriate, of the Education Act, whereby school charters can be allocated in areas where educational under-achievement is most entrenched.’

In other words, this time, once again, significant education change is again being fiddled to avoid giving teachers a voice.

Look at the lies involved here. First, the lie that schools are letting New Zealand down as proclaimed by Mr Key in the debate; second, the minister’s claim that national standards didn’t justify full legislative scrutiny because the government had a mandate for them – and now they are trying to slip charter schools through, but, in this case, with no being mandate involved; third, that charter schools were not referred to pre-election because they only appeared as an issue, post-election – ‘as part of how MMP works’.

It’s how MMP works, Mr Key said.

No Mr Key, it is not how MMP works, it is how you work.

School charters were in the works many months before the election.

Mr Key will deny this, but he will be lying. Mr Key – you are lying.

Lesley Longstone from England, the new secretary was appointed because she ‘has successfully managed change in large service delivery organisations in challenging circumstances’, in other words, charter schools.

Then, the strange matter of the uncompromising attitude towards the marvellously successful Samoan bi-lingual units: charter schools, it seems, are going to be used as a wedge to separate Pasifika children from public school education.

Three days before the election, Mr Key’s enthusiasm to state that schools were letting New Zealand down, was a sure sign he knew charter schools would be in the agreement with ACT – I challenge him to deny it – his office was negotiating with ACT – it was a set-up. (And if ACT hadn’t been a very convenient pretext, charter schools would have come anyway.)

Mr Key knew before election day about charter schools being in the agreement and, in typical slippery style, had a half story to tell.

And so this line of treachery reaches to here.

Teachers, the enemy, have been gooked.

Pour your scorn on them Mr Key, those pawns of the teacher organisations, butter up to your All Blacks; degrade teacher idealism with talk of competition, retribution, and financial incentives; and teacher pride with your innuendo; be careless of the children, in your talk of teacher betrayal; play up to your Maori Party patsies; push your bullying bureaucrats on to schools to hinder and harass; talk of freedom and choice when it is muzzle and yoke; and smarmily pander to public prejudice and ignorance.

We, though, in turn, must act decisively to turn back this cynical, hundred flowers ploy or be left to lament the loss of something beautiful and distinctively ours: the New Zealand public school system.

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