Education - it's not that simple

20:37, Feb 10 2014
Gerard Direen
PRINCIPAL: Linwood Avenue School's Gerard Direen.

In the third of our series of articles assessing the main political parties' education policies, GERARD DIREEN warns that there is no one-size-fits-all solution.

In education, the talking part is the easy bit.

"For every complex problem there's a simple answer, and it's wrong." I'm not sure if W H Auden had education in mind when he made this statement. He certainly could have.

While it's positive to see education and improved outcomes for children on top of the political agenda, we all need to scrutinise what's being proposed. Claims in election year will not always have a solid grounding in fact or consensus.

There were constructive ideas in all the announcements made recently. Strengthening school leadership, the quality of teaching, access to early childhood education, and addressing poverty and social conditions, are important to success for children's learning. But, as in most aspects of life, there's no one- size-fits-all solution.

One point of contention appears to be the impact of poverty and aspects of social inequality. The links between poverty, family life, education and social outcomes are undeniable. Poverty tends to associate itself with a range of physical and mental health issues, along with family disruption. None of these foster positive outcomes for kids.


As Professor John Hattie put it in 2002: "It is what students bring to the table that predicts achievement more than any other variable."

Pointing out that someone can rise from a poor background to succeed in school is a bit like claiming that because one child ran across a busy road and survived they should all do it.

Policy announcements will need companion steps to help them succeed.

For instance, National's plan to improve leadership and teaching needs to ensure employment law enables prompt pathways for dismissing principals or teachers who are not able to lift their performance sufficiently. Current arrangements are cumbersome and do not act in the interests of children.

National is backing the belief that putting high- quality leaders and teachers alongside others will help lift the tide for all. However it's not that simple.

If I'm a poor-performing teacher I need to be able to recognise that, be willing to change and have the capacity to do so. Not all will.

To what extent will 2 per cent of teachers (the "expert teachers") be able to influence those among the other 98 per cent who need to change?

A successful principal in one school may not necessarily be able to influence change in another.

Taking a principal out of his or her school for two days every week will have repercussions for how that school functions, and how "in touch" the principal remains with the life of staff and children.

Some other policies will need to accompany these initiatives to ensure they are successful; for example linking closely with ERO's framework for supporting "at risk" schools and Ministry of Education school improvement initiatives.

The Greens are right in my view to give greater prominence to addressing the impacts of poverty on some of our most vulnerable kids.

A stronger emphasis on supporting these children's nutritional and health needs is spot on. It also aligns with our obligations under the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, that we at times drift away from, especially regarding quality housing.

More intensive, coherent and extended efforts have to be made to address children's needs in lower-decile schools.

I've been principal of both decile 10 and decile 2 schools. Current provisions to target children's needs through schools' operation grants are inadequate, generalised and poorly monitored.

While working for ERO for five years, I also observed the various challenges that exist within schools, that often get in the way of better outcomes for kids.

There is seldom a shortage of good ideas. Energy and money are easy to consume. Getting all these things in the right place at the right time is a more challenging proposition.

Experience in post-disaster Christchurch has shown how difficult it is to counter the effects of poor social conditions.

Our school is well supported by a range of agencies and community groups. Ministry of Education staff members are working closely with schools in our area to help improve outcomes for children.

It's not a simple equation. It's also not an overnight proposition. It's more about years than months. It requires diverse strategies and approaches to address diverse needs.

Labour's focus on more resources in the first five years of life is a positive step. We know how crucial these years are to brain development, emotional wellbeing and positive pathways through schooling.. However we need to ask whether giving money to adults always leads to better things for kids.

When it does, what is it that the adults do that makes the difference?

Policy proposals need to include better provision of effective, school-based professional development for principals and teachers. The quality of appraisal processes across schools needs improvement. The reliability and validity of assessment information, especially in primary schools, should be receiving greater attention than it is.

The "slow walk" towards credible national standards data is a disgrace. When a politician refers to this information, they need to admit they are fishing in a very murky pond.

One of the most productive things politicians could do is to work harder to achieve greater co-operation among political parties, to ensure any changes deliver gains over time that are sustainable.

There also needs to be Christchurch-specific policies, not only about buildings, facilities and that unhelpful phrase "twenty- first century learning". There should be firm, targeted policies under way already across the city supporting how teachers teach, and how children learn today, as we reach three years into this extraordinary period.

There's a current campaign in Christchurch about making what we've experienced count. This should include education.

The Government should already be under way with research projects related to a whole range of factors regarding schooling and learning here. Christchurch is providing fertile ground within which to further our knowledge of what makes a difference when it really counts.

Gerard Direen is the principal of Linwood Avenue School.

The Press