Editorial: Raising the standard

The publication last week by Fairfax Media, publisher of The Press, of the performance of the nation's primary schools in meeting national standards in reading, writing and mathematics has been met with a frenzy of criticism from many in the education establishment.

The teachers' union, some principals, a few school boards and many teachers have deplored Fairfax's creation of a website on which schools' performance may be compared, saying it is misleading, will misinform parents and will damage schools.

The outcry is entirely predictable. It is part of a continuing campaign against national standards and it is deeply misguided. It rests in part on a heavily patronising assumption about parents' capacity to weigh such data in judging how well a school is doing in educating their children.

The main complaint against the information that has been gathered so far is that it is, in the frequently repeated word of Prime Minister John Key, "ropey". That is almost certainly true. Part of it is no doubt because of the way the system has been introduced, but part of it also because of the fact that many teachers and schools have been determined not to assist the process.

According to the Education Review Office, more than a quarter of schools have yet to meet the requirements on reporting their performance under the standards. It is an abdication of a legal responsibility that would be unlikely to be tolerated in any other sector of the public service.

Whatever the reason for the alleged "ropiness" of the information, the answer is not to suppress it but rather to work to make it better. It may be galling to many in the education establishment to know it, but the adoption of national standards was one of the more popular of the National Party's policies at the last election and it was given a clear mandate to do so.

Parents are anxious to know of the performance of schools in instilling the basics in their children and they refuse to believe it cannot be measurable. No such system of measurement will be perfect, and the present one has obvious flaws, but there is no reason to believe that it cannot be refined over time to remove them.

The standards, of course, measure only performance in the narrow range of reading, writing and mathematics. These subjects, while fundamental to a sound education, are only a small part of what schools may provide for their pupils. No reasonable parent would judge a school by its performance in those subjects alone.

The performance of a school in those core subjects will also be affected by its decile rating, which measures the socio- economic status of a school's catchment area. Again, that is something that must be taken into account in comparing schools' national standards information.

In attacking publication of the national standards performance, critics condescendingly assume that parents are unable to take those other factors into account. It is an entirely unwarranted assumption based on a kind of we- know-best professional arrogance. Parents are those in the best position to judge all the requirements necessary for the best education of their children.

The more information they are given to help them in making those judgments the better. There is no reason why information on schools' national standards performance should not be part of that mixture.

The Press