Striving for the best in education

Last updated 07:50 03/02/2014
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COMMON MOTIVATION: All political parties are unified in their belief that every New Zealand child deserves the best education possible and all consider that they hold the educational 'holy grail'. Praiseworthy but questionable.

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OPINION: The Press has asked several experts to evaluate the main political parties' recently- announced policies affecting education. In the first of these, Dr DARRELL LATHAM warns there is no "silver bullet" to improve schools.

Education policy is a powerful instrument for shaping the development of future generations. But, how do we make sense of the conflicting proposals released by the political parties and which policies are the best?

All political parties are unified in their belief that every New Zealand child deserves the best education possible and all consider that they hold the educational "holy grail". Praiseworthy but questionable.

It is confusing when the same education policy engenders different responses. For example, Prime Minister John Key's announced that the government would spend $359 million to lift the achievement of pupils by recognising outstanding teachers and principals and by pledging that they would act as shining examples of exemplary teaching and leadership.

National's policy elicited responses from both ends of the spectrum, from elation to despondency. Such comments as "Government achieves merit in new school policy", "its super, what a game changer" to "teacher super roles the death knell of good primary schools".

The same policy has been welcomed by the Principals' Federation as "enhancing collaboration" yet denounced by an academic as being "bad education policy from this government, its most destructive so far".

The consensus is that it is a bold attempt by National to win back the education vote by encouraging exemplary teachers and principals to lift student achievement. Research shows that excellence in teaching followed closely by school leadership are factors of high- performing schools. Yes, these initiatives are school-related factors. They don't resolve out-of- school factors such as variations in parenting and poverty.

During the Government's tenure they have implemented many spurious initiatives which are not backed by research evidence. National standards and charter schools come to mind. National's current proposals do have a supportive base in the evidential research literature and are a leap forward.

Opposition Labour leader David Cunliffe's "Best Start for Children" package deliberately targets New Zealand families and is fundamentally different to Nationals. Labour has always been a strong advocate for accessible and cost-effective early childhood education.

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The promise to increase free early childhood from 20 to 25 hours and paid parental leave from 14 to 26 weeks will win the popular vote amongst many young parents. Yet again, consensus is lacking and the headlines say it all. "Cunliffe: Babes to benefit" and "Questions over Labour's policy".

Are they throwing "the baby out with the bath water" by contending that those earning $150,000 a year seriously need a $60 baby bonus subsidy? National and Labour are now running in different races towards the same election finishing line.

Labour's "Best Start" package is broad and holistic. It will appeal to families struggling to meet the rising cost of living and provides accessible early childhood education. National's policy will appeal to those motivated by excellence and high student achievement.

Then along came the Greens. They aim to turn schools into one- stop shops where all education, health and social needs are addressed. The Greens have always subscribed to inequality being a major driver of under- achievement. Unless inequality is addressed the best teachers in the world will not make a difference, they contend.

There is a natural fit between the Greens and Labour. Labour has thrown its support behind the Greens policy which in reality is an extension of its own.

How then do I decide which education policy is the best for my children. "Eeny, meeny, miny, moe", National, Labour or Greens . . . I don't know! Now I am more confused than ever!

Well, dear reader, rest securely in the knowledge that there is no holy grail and there is no education silver bullet. If someone tells you that they have the silver bullet then my advice to you would be to dodge it quickly.

Of course, some education policies are built on firmer foundations than others.

At days end, it comes down to personal choice and what you determine as being right for your family. Which education policy best suits a pre-school family may not be the right policy for primary, secondary or tertiary age students.

It is "horses for courses". There is no "one" universal educational policy truth.

Having now forever shattered that myth, my academic colleagues will torture me and I will forever be consigned to the academic back benches! However, there are guiding principles which assist me in choosing good policy.

Firstly, the right of every child to an education on the basis of equality of opportunity and without discrimination. Secondly, the right of every child to a quality education that enables them to fulfil their potential. Finally, the right of every child to respect for their dignity.

The points above are from the Unicef Human Rights Based Approach to Education and underpin my choice of education policy.

The rest comes from where we happen to be in our life now.

As parents to now three adult daughters, my wife and I are proud first time grandparents to our new granddaughter, Gabriella. Education policy for us now is about her right to learn.

"We haven't met. You do not know me yet and so you don't yet know that there is much that I can give you in return. The future is my name and all I claim Is this: My right to learn." - Robert Prouty, My Right to Learn.

Dr Darrell Latham is a senior lecturer at the University of Otago College of Education. His research interests include the politics of education.

Tomorrow, Judith Nowotarski, president of NZEI Te Riu Roa.

- © Fairfax NZ News

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