Educating Mrs Tolley

01:50, Aug 27 2009

I was wondering when the issue of education league tables was going to blow up.

Education Minister Anne Tolley has been sending somewhat confusing signals over exactly what data will be available to the public once national testing is fully in place next year.

In some interviews she's indicated that school-level data will be available to anyone who asks for it. That would mean that a table of school performance could be compiled - the so-called "league table''.

But then Tolley has also said she opposes league tables and that the Ministry of Education won't be providing the information in such a tabulated form, although others are presumably free to put such a table together.

One thing's for sure, though - the primary teachers' union believes league tables are coming, and it is gearing up to oppose it. The NZEI strongly opposes league tables, saying they are "not in the interests of children's learning''.

I was wondering when the issue of education league tables was going to blow up.

Education Minister Anne Tolley has been sending somewhat confusing signals over exactly what data will be available to the public once national testing is fully in place next year.

In some interviews she's indicated that school-level data will be available to anyone who asks for it. That would mean that a table of school performance could be compiled - the so-called "league table''.

But then Tolley has also said she opposes league tables and that the Ministry of Education won't be providing the information in such a tabulated form, although others are presumably free to put such a table together.

One thing's for sure, though - the primary teachers' union believes league tables are coming, and it is gearing up to oppose it. The NZEI strongly opposes league tables, saying they are "not in the interests of children's learning''.

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Of course their members also strongly oppose it because primary teachers don't want to see themselves ranked in order of their class results and published in a newspaper.

I can understand that. Unfortunately, teaching isn't like a business selling baked beans or aluminium joinery, where sales data can be ranked easily enough to give an indication of performance. A lot depends on the kids, and on the resources, and on the families those kids come from, and the area from which they are drawn.

Everyone knows a good teacher, of course, and feels lucky when their child gets one. But it's quite a different matter to define it on a scoresheet. Same goes for a school. Is it really fair to rank achievement between schools, when the children they teach can be so vastly different, depending on the socioeconomic background they come from?

A low-decile school that actually manages to teach all its kids to read and write might be performing far better comparatively than a high-decile school where the kids arrive practically able to read War and Peace.

On the other hand, I'd also agree that for too long results in the education field have been hidden from parents - partly out of some politically correct desire not to label the children as failures, but also I think because some teachers have preferred we didn't know how badly our children were doing.

As a parent, I've found it practically impossible to get a handle on exactly how well my son is/isn't doing at primary school, and the reports I get are such gobbledygook I can't make head or tail of them.

I know National campaigned on more "plain English'' reporting standards, and I think most schools agree that national standards are a good idea.

The stumbling block occurs over what to do with the data collated. It seems that the NZEI is happy for it to go out to a school's community, but not the media. It also doesn't want any sort of national collation of the material.

It's a tough call either way. As a journalist, I'd generally argue more information is better than less. As a parent, I'm not so sure league tables are a good idea. I'd like the information, but not necessarily in the newspaper.

Central collation makes sense because it would allow the Ministry of Education to plan better and to target schools in need of help. But then, once the information was collated, it would be difficult to withhold under the Official Information Act without a law change.

One thing's sure, though. The education unions are gearing up for a fight over this and I'm not sure it's a fight Tolley wants to have. The sector groups have been pretty quiet since National took office while they assess exactly what the plans are.

But I know from my experience as an education reporter for The Press during the 1990s that when National last tried to force teachers down the path of standards assessment, bulk funding and other contentious issues, the result was a deadlock.

There were strikes, street marches, and nothing got achieved for a very long time. The kids were the losers.

It would be much better for everyone if that didn't happen again.