I was attending a teachers’ conference the day the Prime Minister announced that an extraordinary amount of money would soon be coming the way of so-called ‘expert’ and ‘prodigious’ principals and teachers. ‘Investing in Educational Success’ (IES) was billed as an initiative to lift the performance of all students and create career pathways for teachers. The Prime Minister clearly expected parents and teachers alike to be ecstatic following this announcement at his ‘State of the Nation’ address to party faithful.
My colleagues and I were stunned by the $359 million bolt out of the blue, but initially, we didn’t react the way many expected.
A minority of the teaching profession were euphorically dancing on table tops as they contemplated the largesse of $10,000 to $50,000 salary increases along with elevated status. However, others were at best sceptical about the practicalities, true benefits, and underlying intent of the policy – which would be insidiously woven around a raft of other Government policies and controls currently in the pipeline.
As more detail trickled out over the following days and weeks, scepticism turned to deep concern and disillusionment. Many principals and teachers are angered by this so-called ‘Investing in Educational Success’ because, if anything, it will prove to be a disinvestment in schools as healthy, happy places that strive to do their best for their communities and their children. Under this ill-conceived policy many schools would be turned into souless places where what counts most is a narrow curriculum of testing, measurement, data, and reporting – all under the watch of so-called ‘experts’ from outside the school gate, who in turn will be watched by other experts in government offices. The holistic education we know most parents want for their children, will be a thing of the past.
On the face of it, I can see that some principals could be lured into a package that has been misleadingly presented as an attempt to further sponsor leadership and collaboration within the sector. It seems that they are attracted more by the carrot of a lot more money for overseeing and exercising controls over a cluster of schools or having a stint at fixing a school that is struggling with its mandatory achievement data, than seeing the implications of the policy. I expected that such principals would have thought a little more carefully and analytically before leaping to the support of the scheme with glowing affirmations. Political naivety and acquiescence are hardly the hallmarks of strong professional minds and leaders. Are some just too vulnerable and easily captured by smooth talk and spin of the kind being so convincingly and expertly delivered by the Secretary of Education, Peter Hughes, the direct servant of the Minister of Education and exponent of her politial agendas, many emanating from Treasury?
This policy announcement came during an international conference held in Wellington, where leading academics and researchers from New Zealand, Australia, USA, and England talked about the frightening directions being taken in education in their countries and the imposition of flawed national standards for political capital. Research has made it irrefutably clear that the biggest obstacle confronting underachievement is New Zealand’s huge inequity gap. The variance within communities and across communities in New Zealand has put far too many children at risk, and their schools are being indiscriminately shouldered with blame for children’s learning difficulties. IES is another policy that will fail to address the true underlying causes. If allowed to proceed it will prove to be yet another disinvestment.
We know from a political point of view that it is much easier to blame teachers than to shoulder the responsibility for solving the socioeconomic problems that cause the huge range of inequity we have in this country.
Predictably, yet astonishingly, National Standards data is to be used to identify and select “executive” and “change” principals, and “expert” and “lead” teachers. This data in their “cluster” schools will also be used to measure their impact and success. But let’s be real, the best principal or teacher is most certainly not one with glowing National Standards pass rates, but the one who can stimulate students’ engagement in learning and progress, despite what is going on at home and in their lives generally. National Standards data amounts to a disturbingly simplistic reductionism of what education is all about.
IES assumes that you can fly in “fixer” change principals who will spend perhaps two years in a struggling school then depart leaving behind a school that is “fixed” into the future … it presumes that a principal who has successfully led one school can be dropped into a completely different context and turn that school around where others have apparently failed. Failed to provide a holistic education for life, or failed because their schools National Standards data is seen as the sole arbitrator for success or failure?
There is no convincing evidence to support this simplistic kind of recipe. Indeed, to the contrary. Do you remember the high profile retired Auckland Grammar School principal who was commissioned to a struggling South Auckland school – only to leave admitting his failure to turn it around with sustainable effect? And now we have another retired Auckland secondary principal, managerialist John Morris, advocating this very same sort of spurious nonsense at the Minister’s behest. Do our politicians ever learn?
In my 33 years of principalship, I have seen supposed “superstar” principals who seemed to think that turning a school around was simply matter of command and following their style and method. They did little in my experience, apart from leaving a path of wrecked careers and disenfranchised schools, with students being the pawns in the middle, to make sustainable change.
Really effective, sustainable change takes time. There is endless evidence that there is no such thing as accelerated quick fixes.
What is proposed for foisting on schools is yet another scheme that is based largely on theory and political assertion. The evidence base is flimsy and shaky at best. Again, there is no prudent and responsible trialling or piloting of ideas to test their efficacy. It’s another broad-brush, nice sounding panacea without substance or truth. It is, in short, a hugely untrustworthy and irresponsible use of public funds that could be used in much better ways for supporting those communities, schools, teachers and children who need it most. And you don’t need a test to find out who they are!
Don’t be fooled. These changes are more about control, authority and power, constant surveillance, and measurement of schools, teachers, and children. They will most certainly demand heaps more time on meetings, record keeping, reports, travel, and bureaucracy. Time we in the schools don’t have to waste. Those in charge will have little appreciation, tolerance or sympathy for the day to day realities that get in the way of teaching, learning, and leading schools.
Along with a very large majority of principals and teachers, I strongly believe that it is time for us to make it clear that the ‘Investing in Education Success’ (IES) scheme is simplistic, heavily laden with bureaucratic controls, is an irresponsible use of public funds, and professionally untenable. It is time for us to have our say – and not about how to put this predetermined managerialist scheme into operation. We should not only resist going into the tent to warm up the scheme – we should burn the tent down and build a much more intelligent, collaborative, workable, and beneficial way of using that $160 million per year (which equates to at least $60,000 per school).
There are some things we have been forced to accept, but this latest scheme is not one that we should allow schools to be forced into. We need to say “no” with a single voice, now. The time is well overdue for the profession to speak out with single voice – a voice that represents grounded knowledge, good judgment, foresight, common sense, and collegiality. If we don’t, if you don’t, then we deserve the education system we will get. One that in the end cares more for meaningless statistics, than children and communities.
There are far better and brighter ways to support principals, teachers and children’s progress with their learning. Teachers are tired of Government relentlessly and tirelessly “doing” stuff to us and autocratically dropping surprise policies on the sector. You don’t need to be too clever to work out the overriding agenda: votes from a naïve populace that has little understanding of the long-term damage and wastefulness that we can confidently predict. The only way this nonsense can be brought to heel is for every principal and teacher to say, “No. I will not be applying to be part of your latest trickery.”
Pat Newman is president of the Te Tai Tokerau Principals’ Association.