protest shout

Speaking out on education

When a Whanganui doctor – dressed in scrubs – protested about the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement in 2015, it opened a debate on whether professionals had the right to speak out on issues in areas in which they were experts. Kate Drury reports on speaking-out rights.

The right to speak out has been discussed broadly since the Whanganui case.

For teachers it came to a head when the Privacy Commissioner chastised the former Education Minister Hekia Parata for replying to the school board of a teacher (instead of the teacher) who had written to the minister, in her own time, a private letter about the teacher’s concern about a government proposal to increase class sizes.

In the case of the Whanganui doctor, he was protected by his collective agreement which included specific clauses to protect the right of doctors to engage in public debate on matters relevant to their expertise and experience.

The DHB was criticised for not backing doctors – as medicines were set to get more expensive under what was known about the TPPA at the time.

The teaching profession has a new code of standards called: Our Code, Our Standards – code of professional responsibility and standards for the teaching profession.

The new code applies to registered teachers (and those with Limited Authority to Teach) and outlines professional responsibilities.  There is not a lot about a right to speak out.

NZEI Te Riu Roa’s submission on the draft code last year stated that teachers needed a voice in the public arena.

Not only do teachers need to contribute to the development and promotion of sound educational policy, as is in the current code, they also need to be able to speak out and be a critic of those policies that do not meet the needs of learners or that may have unintended harmful consequences.  This should be included in the code.”

It was not included in the new code. However there were some concessions after a raft of submissions.

Teacher educators’ view

Paul Heyward is an initial teacher educator at the University of Auckland and has been responsible for introducing student teachers to the Education Council New Zealand (formerly the New Zealand Teachers Council (NZTC) Code of Ethics for Registered Teachers.

He and fellow colleagues also made a submission on the draft code.

What concerned Heyward was that he believed that the draft code of professional responsibility eroded the ability of teachers to exercise independence of mind when speaking out on issues of that impacted on learners, whanau and community.

He said that a few things in the old code had been omitted in the draft, such as “commitment to society” – actively supporting programmes that would support equality for all and, by inference, opposing policies that don’t.

Also, under “commitment to profession” which talked about encouraging the profession to contribute to the development education policy and professional culture and under “responsible care” – speaking out on fundamental human rights and for the most vulnerable individuals – “these were gone,” he says.

He believes there was more in the old code to protect teachers and principals speaking out on education policy and on issues they believed in. For example in the old code the principle of truth provided teachers with explicit protection in speaking out as the principle encouraged “teachers to show professional independence of mind and action when that is required”. And while the new code was amended after submissions, he feels it is not as strong.

“However, we can shape it, rather than it being done to us – it is after all called our code.

“We have an obligation to speak out on polices that are not in the best interest of learners and some of the values in the new code such as whanaungatanga – allows for speaking out on issues that affect the community and children’s wellbeing.”

He also argues that the principle of inclusiveness (whakamana) in the code: “allows for speaking out for the children in your class and the need for promoting inclusive practices.

“You can only do that with adequate funding.”

“My position is that there is no way in the world that you can be a teacher and not be political. You are engaged in politics in everything you do….we have the Bill of Rights and we have the right to freedom of expression.

“I don’t think that a code should be about what good behaviour is and what is bad behaviour is [reference to code examples in practice]. It should instead be saying these are the key principles that we need to consider when we are faced with the complex decisions that we make every day.

“While we can use the Code of Professional Responsibility  to justify why we speak out on issues, I think that it is a step backwards from the original Code of Ethics.”

Education Council response on the new code

Education Aoteara: How do teachers’ right to speak out on issues in which they have professional expertise fit into the new code?

Education Council: Our Code Our Standards has been crafted by teachers, leaders and teaching experts to articulate the expectations and aspirations of our profession. The code sets out the high standards for ethical behaviour that are expected of every teacher. The standards describe the expectations of effective teaching practice. Together they set out what it is and what it means, to be a teacher in Aotearoa New Zealand.

The code and standards provide teachers with guidance and examples about the expected behaviours agreed to be upheld by the profession. Teachers and leaders can use these two documents to support conversations about professional learning and practice as well as behaviours.

The code envisages that teachers will be engaging in conversations about developments in education and best practice for teaching and learning and advocating for the provision of high-quality educational programmes for all learners (you will find these statements in the code guidance).

EA: Do you think the new code makes this easier or harder than it was under the old code?

EC: We believe the code and standards makes the profession’s aspirations and expectations clearer. They are the result of over a year of close consultation with teachers and leaders across the profession. We worked with a team of writers to develop these materials in both English and te reo to better reflect contemporary teaching. In particular, we consulted with early childhood specialists and a Māori Medium advisory group to make sure the new standards work in a range of learning contexts.

In March 2017, we received over 2,100 submissions to our six-week consultation on the draft code and standards. We also ran a trial to verify the standards, with teachers in early childhood, primary, secondary and kura, and with both students and teachers in initial teacher education settings.

EA: What is the purpose of the examples in Code of Professional Responsibility – Examples in Practice?  That is, the lists of examples of behaviour that demonstrate a commitment to providing high-quality and effective teaching and those that do not?

  1. In reference to speaking out we refer specifically to: maintaining public trust and confidence in the teaching profession
  2. Could having such lists give the perception that the code is more a “code of conduct” than a code of professional responsibility.

EC: The purpose of the examples is to provide guidance for teachers and leaders who told us that having examples were helpful. The examples came from the development process and focus groups, and were tested with the profession; they’re not intended as a finite list and much will be dependent on the school or centre’s context. The feedback thus far has been positive, which, we believe, is because the code and the standards were co-designed by the profession.

EA: In regards to speaking out, where do you see the new code being in a possible hierarchy of competing rights and responsibilities. For example: New Zealand Bill of Rights Act (1990), Human Rights Act (1993), Employment Relations Act (2000). Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR)

EC: The code and standards are about the expectations for how teachers behave and perform their role every day; they’re part of the Education Act and in our view complement existing pieces of legislation and regulation that reflect the trust and respect society places upon teachers.