The war on education

The government’s preoccupation with charter schools, performance pay, national standards, league tables and public-private partnerships is part of a global movement known as GERM (global education reform movement). It’s  based…

The government’s preoccupation with charter schools, performance pay, national standards, league tables and public-private partnerships is part of a global movement known as GERM (global education reform movement). It’s  based on ideas of competition, choice, accountability and testing (see ABC interview with Finland’s Pasi Sahlberg)

Although the government backdown on increasing class sizes is a victory for educators and school communities, it means just one attack on public education has been prevented. More battles remain.

Class sizes

NZEI policy is to bring class sizes down. But in June this year it had a fight on its hands to stop the government increasing them. In the first week of winter, primary and secondary teacher unions, principals’ organisations, intermediate and middle schools, and school trustees joined forces against the government’s bizarre attempt to lift student achievement by increasing class sizes. The money the government saved was to be used to “lift teacher quality”, but no amount of spin could convince parents that bigger classes were a good idea. Even worse, the government either didn’t know or didn’t accept that the proposed changes to staff student ratios would have devastating effects on intermediate schools, forcing many technology classes to close.

Parents, teachers and students lined the streets in protest and opinion polls showed more than 80% against the policy. In the face of a united front that brought together primary and secondary unions and principals, teachers, students, parents and boards of trustees, education minister Hekia Parata finally backed down and ditched the entire policy.

National Standards and League Tables

Despite widespread opposition to reporting on National Standards, most schools had sent their data to the Ministry of Education by the close-off date of 31 May. The data is flawed because the information is not moderated, the standards have been implemented in many different ways by different schools, and there are many family, social and economic reasons why some schools perform better than others. NZEI says the government should consider changing the law to prevent schools being ranked based on the standards. It advises principals concerned about the data being converted into league tables to band together and put out the message that data which is neither consistent nor robust will be arbitrarily ranking schools.

Prime Minister John Key has taken a prominent role in the league table debate, and opinion polls show the public is split roughly fifty-fifty on whether or not they are a good idea.

The ministry has so far refused to provide the media with National Standards information, but they are making Official Information Act requests. The ministry’s statement of intent says it will be producing its own website detailing schools’ performance in terms of the data, probably in September.

Performance pay

The government seems intent on bringing in a system that ties teacher pay to student results, despite the fact that competency and performance management systems already exist. There are several reasons why this is unlikely to work: pay is not a driver for most teachers who are already highly motivated; teacher performance is impossible to judge fairly because there are too many variables; performance pay would encourage narrowing of the curriculum and discourage innovation and creativity; it would set up competition between teachers, destroying the cooperation and collaboration that are the hallmarks of a successful school. An OECD report released in April made it clear that performance pay does not work in high-performing school systems, such as New Zealand’s.

Pay rates in teaching should recognise teachers’ skills, knowledge and expertise in a fair way. They should not be tied to National Standards data, especially since the standards are inconsistent and inconsistently implemented. ‘Collective agreements for primary principals and teachers expire in the next few weeks. New claims set out changes to pay and career structures, and provide a professionally sound alternative to performance pay. Read more on stuff.

Charter schools

Charter schools are being introduced as part of a confidence and supply agreement between ACT and National, with the stated aim of lifting the educational achievement of children in at-risk, vulnerable communities. The working group is chaired by former ACT president Catherine Isaac (See the terms of reference).

The agreement defines charter schools as schools where private businesses, community and religious groups and existing educational providers compete to operate a local school or set up a new one. They would be publicly funded on a per-child basis but their boards could contract out management to not-for-profit or to for-profit education providers, set their own teaching practices, pay teachers according to performance, use any approved curriculum or qualifications, and raise their own revenue.

Charter schools are essentially privatisation of public education. They do not need to follow the New Zealand Curriculum and will be allowed to employ unqualified and unregistered people, although to allow that the government will need to amend the Education Act. NZEI is working to ensure charter schools are subject to the law protecting the rights of disabled children.

‘The question that remains is why children in South Auckland and Christchurch (where the first charter schools are planned) should be guinea pigs in an experiment that has failed in the United States, whose education system ranks far below ours.’ then add ‘A recent meeting of 300 educators, parents and others in South Auckland made it clear they do not want charter schools.’

State funding of private schools

As well increasing the funding for private schools by 22% in 2012 (taxpayers now provide more than $60 million a year to keep private school class sizes at an average of 12 and a maximum of 16 pupils), the government has bailed out Wanganui Collegiate with nearly $4 million in extra funding. Budget 2012 provided the school with $3 million over two years, in addition to the $803,700 of taxpayers’ money already given to keep it afloat. That is on top of the $554,740 the school receives annually through the private school per pupil subsidy, which in turn is on top of fees paid by families. The school has applied for integration, and the Minister of Education says she will make a decision after August.

Early Childhood Education

Early Childhood Education took a volley of hits in the budget: cuts to professional development, the axing of centres of innovation, abolition of the target of 100% qualified and registered teachers, the pushing out and still unregulated target of 80% qualified and registered. Teacher-child ratio improvements have been stopped for under 2s, there are reduced regulatory requirements, and licensing has been taken away for limited attendance centres. The budget’s funding freeze is effectively a cut, meaning centres will have to increase fees and /or employ fewer qualified teachers.

NZEI is calling for a specific commitment to 100% qualified teachers in kindergartens and early childhood services by 2016 as well as a specific set of targets for improvement in the teacher-child ratio. Specifically those targets are one fully qualified teacher for every eight children aged two and over by 2015 and by 2017, a 1:3 ratio for under twos.

Public Private Partnerships

The first schools to be built under the government’s Public Private Partnership scheme will be at Hobsonville Point in West Auckland as part of a new housing development on a former airbase. The primary school will have room for 690 children and the secondary school will house 1500. The stated advantage of PPPs is to bring the alleged efficiencies of the private sector to projects that involve public money, but although it is public money, the government hasn’t published the details of the deal for reasons of commercial sensitivity. Before the announcement was made in March this year the principal and board of trustees had already been appointed. The government will own the schools but Morrison & Co’s consortium Learning Infrastructure Partners (LIP) has a 25 year concession under which they have responsibility for the design, construction, finance and maintenance of the schools. Hobsonville Point Primary School will open at the beginning of 2013 and Hobsonville Secondary School in early 2014. Read a media release announcing the deal.

Special needs education

The future of special needs education is under threat following the government’s decision to disestablish the Supplementary Learning Support Service (SLSS), whose teachers provide one on one support for children with very high special needs. From 2013 the resourcing of the SLSS will be amalgamated with that of Resource Teachers of Learning and Behaviour (RTLBs), who have more of an advisory role. Other moves towards inclusive education for children with special needs include the government’s plan for a new intensive wraparound special education service. The country’s four residential special schools face closure and Conductive Education for children with motor disorders is also under threat following the removal of a therapy funding entitlement.