Principals, teachers and other education professionals were challenged by some excellent guest speakers at this week’s Education Leaders Forum in Rotorua. A diverse range of topics were discussed, but it quickly became evident that the biggest issues confronting New Zealand education are social.

It became clear as the conference unfolded that the needs of many learner groups are still not being met.

Disability Rights Commissioner Paula Tesoriero brought into sharp focus the fact that disabled young people feature disproportionately high in bullying and exclusion stats, and in later life, including much higher levels of unemployment.

She outlined that while some progress had been made as a result of a large number of reviews, it was still “not good enough”.

Tesoriero outlined many contributing factors, including the lack of timely response when it comes to identifying and diagnosing certain conditions, and a lack of accountability in the way in which outcomes are measured and reported.

The current level of resourcing is inadequate, she said, something that wasn’t helped by a lack of data.

“We don’t accurately know the number of disabled children in our schools in order to resource them.”

It was a similar picture for Māori students, according to Dr Mere Berryman who expressed her concern that one third of working Māori have no qualifications and over half have lower skilled jobs. If things continue along this trajectory, she said, the income gap will increase to $4.3 billion per year. The flip side is if we can achieve equity then $2.6 billion more will go into Māori households.

“If there’s ever a reason for us to do something about it, then look at the bottom line,” she said.

She talked about the need to address the approach taken to Māori learning and achieving as Maori. The Ka Hikitia programme was aimed to help with this, but despite two phases of the policy roll-out, Berryman says “we’re not there yet”.

Dr Roberta Hunter, founder of the Bobbie Maths programme, echoed these concerns. She says we need to shift our thinking from culturally responsive practice to culturally sustainable practice, in order to accommodate what children of all backgrounds bring to their learning.

Hunter was scathing about how children often come to school with deficit views of themselves and shared a poignant example of a Samoan student who “pretended to be Palangi” in order to do maths.

“We have to think about culture as a strength,” she said.

She recommended teachers introduce culturally sustaining, group-worthy problems, ideally that tackled social justice issues.

New ways of learning was a key focus of the forum, for which the theme was ‘Valuing educators and revaluing education’.

“There are impending wholesale changes to New Zealand’s education system but the learning that really counts will continue to be at the retail level, with education professionals growing brains, opening minds and developing skills one learner at a time,” said forum convenor Lyall Lukey.

Mark Treadwell picked up this mantle and challenged the audience with learning processes that were more equitable for the learner and better prepared young people for the 21st century.

And Professor Toby Greany from the University College London in the UK gave an interesting workshop on how evidence can help inform teaching practice, but needs to be tempered with professional experience and the context of individual schools.

Greany and Dr Annelies Kamp from University of Canterbury presented the audience with the benefits, challenges, and more importantly the potential of Kāhui Ako Communities of Learning, based on their experience and research of collaborative learning alliances in the UK, New Zealand and other countries.

Micro-credentials, better utilizing digital technologies in learning and career pathways were also among the diverse range of topics discussed over the course of the two days, however the predominant focus was on children and the pressing need to do right by them. This was the key message delivered by closing speaker, Hon Tracey Martin, Minister for Children.

For more on the Education Leaders Forum see http://www.smartnet.co.nz/elf-2018.

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