Let's talk before teachers strike

Christchurch principal Jacqui Duncan urges teachers, the Minister of Education and her officials, and others, to get together and talk before strike action planned for February in response to plans for the reorganisation of Christchurch education.

The affirmative vote for protest action expressed at the NZEI meeting on December 5 relates directly to members feeling upset and angry about the Christchurch education renewal plans and the direction of current education policy.

For the last few years the public have been told that public education is failing learners. This message does not reflect reality.

We have one of the best education systems in the world; it allows the public school system to flourish and allows families and communities to have input into their local school.

Each school's charter document keeps everyone accountable and the Education Review Office audits schools regularly. We have a world class curriculum, and regulations called the National Administration Guidelines and National Education Guidelines. More recently, national standards were introduced and we are bound by acts of Parliament including the Education, State Services, Health and Safety Acts and Official Information Act.

A poorly performing school is identified and assisted to improve by various support measures. There is accountability and public scrutiny of our taxpayer-funded public schools.

Furthermore, New Zealand ranks right up the top in the OECD achievement stakes. Out of 65 countries worldwide, New Zealand is 7th for reading and science, and 13th for maths.

Now let's look at other OECD statistics: NZ spends less per capita on education than most OECD countries. Comparisons of Year 1 - 13 schools in the OECD reveals expenditures in US dollars per pupil in each of the world's major industrial powers. Switzerland spends the highest at just over US$90,000 (NZ$108,000) a year per student. NZ spends US$50,000 a year per student, above Greece, Turkey, Mexico, Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic and equal to Korea.

New Zealand schools work very well for 80 per cent of students, but 20 per cent of students fail to flourish.

When these children are looked at more closely we discover that Maori and Pacifica and learning- difference children (for instance, dyslexia, dyspraxia) are over represented in this statistic.

Teachers and support staff are working hard on innovative and evidenced based ways to improve the outcomes for these children and as a result the tail of underachievement is reducing. We know we can do more and we are committed to doing so.

Research tells us that the best teaching model aims for individualised, differentiated learning, uses a broad rich curriculum which can offer multiple pathways for learning and uses assessment alongside other professional observations to establish the next learning steps for children. Focusing and targeting teacher capability through quality whole-school personal development directly and positively impacts on student learning.

Outside-of-school factors are three times more powerful in affecting student achievement than are inside- the-school factors.

On average, by age 18, children and youth have spent about 10 per cent of their lives in schools, while spending around 90 per cent of their lives in family and neighbourhood.

Those out-of-school factors include child poverty, which is higher in New Zealand than almost all OECD countries: one in five children live in poverty (defined as a household earning 60 per cent less than the median income). New Zealand is second to last in child health and safety rankings of 30 OECD countries, with only Turkey worse. Child abuse rates in New Zealand were among the highest in the OECD.

Our economic performance has been in steady decline regardless of which political party has formed a government since 1970.

If the Government is serious about raising student achievement of the 20 per cent who are behind in achievement, then deliberate steps need to be taken to reduce poverty, improve childhood health, insulate and heat houses, provide early intervention and support and strengthen families.

It seems foolish to try and improve student achievement by ignoring the power of the outside-of-school factors.

Investing in public schooling by bringing in evidence-based improvements will bring about increased wealth across the economy.

Education is a gateway to self-improvement. It is simply too important to experiment with ideas which are ideological and have failed overseas. In 1939, educationalist Clarence Beeby and Education Minister Peter Fraser said: "The Government's objective, broadly expressed, is that all persons, whatever their ability, rich or poor, whether they live in town or country, have a right as citizens to a free education of the kind for which they are best fitted and to the fullest extent of their powers.

"So far is this from being a mere pious platitude that the full acceptance of the principle will involve the reorientation of the education system."

Clarence Beeby's vision of a public educational system is still relevant today and Christchurch teachers are asking the public to think about what a reorientation of schooling will look like in the 21st century and to be included in the discussion on what is possible.

They are asking for collaboration and inclusive dialogue to be the first step to determine future educational decision making. Being receptive to and accommodating change isn't the issue. Instead, it is having a say in what change will be in the best interests of children and communities.

I don't agree with unlawful strike action and voted against it, but I do understand the concern educationalists feel over the direction of current educational decision making. I believe being able to contribute to future educational policy and design is imperative if we are to maintain and build on high standards, progress and the commitment and goodwill of teachers and support staff in our public schools.

The date for strike action is February 19, 2013. I ask the Minister of Education, Ministry of Education and teacher, non-teacher, sector organisation representatives, NZEI and community representatives to use the time between now and February 19 to engage in dialogue and discussion on what future education can be. Let's be a positive example of what cooperation, inclusiveness and mutual respect and understanding can achieve.

Jacqui Duncan is principal of Cashmere Primary. Views expressed are her personal opinion.

The Press