The national standards poser

Last updated 10:40 27/09/2012

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In the hands of capable spin-doctors, even accurate statistics can be made to lie.

OPINION: That being the case, the spinmeisters could have a field day with the partial data on national education standards that emerged last week, which has enabled some media outlets to begin to concoct so-called "league tables' of school performance.

As things stand, these 'national standards' figures comprise incomplete returns from a controversial process.

It arguably does not give a genuine picture of the success or otherwise of schools in meeting the needs of the children they teach, much less provide a reliable ranking of how schools are performing relative to one another.

Regardless of the wisdom of the national standards process, it is now the law.

For that reason, the 28 per cent of schools estimated to be not fully complying with the reporting standards can expect to come under increasing pressure to toe the line.

In the meantime, the partial data should probably be regarded less as a reliable snapshot of actual educational achievement in New Zealand and more as a tactical manoeuvre to identify and isolate those school boards still engaged in rearguard actions of defiance.

The schools - between 20 and 25, reportedly - that have not provided any national standards data can expect to be first in line for retribution.

A sense of inevitability now pervades the national standards process.

The Principals Federation may be right when it says that many schools are meeting the social and financial needs of deprived children and communities in ways that do not show up in any national standards tables.

However, increasingly such arguments look like an attempt to relitigate a battle that has been lost.

The Labour Opposition has clearly read the writing on the wall and recognised that wholesale resistance to national education standards would be a liability at the next election.

For that reason, Labour has not done a complete U-turn on national standards - which it continues to denounce as a counter-productive waste of teacher resources - so much as it has embarked on an attempt to neutralise the issue.

Thus, it has begun promoting the idea that the national standards process should be optional, not mandatory.

Rather than dump the new system entirely, a Labour-led government would allow some schools to opt out and use alternative measures of achievement if they so wished.

Ironically, this is much the same tactic used by conservative schools opposed early on to the NCEA system, and that have retained the right to choose alternative exam methods to test pupil performance.

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Just how Labour can ensure national standards will be met in those schools opting out of the methodology was left unexplained - but as with NCEA, there will presumably be few political gains to be made either way in 2014 by haggling over the route being taken to reach much the same goal.

For now, the national standards dispute offers an interesting reversal of the usual positions.

It is a centre-right government enforcing a centrally-driven and standardised system of measurement reporting, while the centre- left is championing individual choice by schools.

No wonder the public may still be feeling confused by the twists and turns of this debate.

- The Wellingtonian


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