The Plot Thickens

The end of  term three is here. When we kick off again on October 25th, we will be just over 4 weeks away out from the most important general election in the history of New Zealand education. This could bring the end of our world renowned primary school education and result in the imposition of the same kind of national testing madness that seems to be relentlessly spreading overseas, underpinned by the same privatisation and corporatisation agenda that is only too apparent in the USA.

The last week or so has brought a flurry of activity that suggests, however, that things are not going to plan for the 9th floor of the “Beehive.” For the benefit of overseas readers, the ‘Beehive’ is the nickname for the building that houses the government of the day, and the 9th floor is where the Prime Minister has his office.

The first sign of this was when the National Party’s tame blogger, under his blog name of “Whale Oil”, starting writing his usual near libelous articles about principals and teachers, and their professional organisations for daring to challenge the government’s agenda over the introduction of national’s standards. Given Whale Oil’s strong links to the National Party, we can surmise that he was following instructions from the top in writing these.

This week, we found out that the Ministry of Education (MOE) is sending letter two to those schools whose charters are still non-compliant by not including the mandated national standards targets.

Again, for the benefit of overseas readers, the requirements under the MOE dictates will mean that all primary schools will have to grade all their students against the relevant national standard by the end of this school year. This is to be done through teacher judgement, rather than tests, but the end result is the same. The resulting data is then to be sent to the MOE early next year, with the high probability of league tables, regardless of MOE denials.

This second letter will give a very short time frame for compliance. Schools who do not comply will then be sent letter three, appointing a limited statutory manager to write and submit a compliant charter. The government will then be able to claim that all schools are compliant, conveniently in the last week of the election campaign. 

Letter two has been timed to arrive as schools close for a two week break, thus making it much more difficult for schools to ‘comply’ by a specified deadline. Is this a result of accident, ignorance or deliberate design? 

I’m aware of at least two schools who are refusing to budge over including any reference to national’s standards in their charters (Dalefield School in the Wairarapa being one) , in the full knowledge that this will force the MOE to dismiss their Boards of Trustees and appoint a commissioner to run their schools. This will undoubtedly attract media attention and further spoil the grand plan.

To add to the government’s discomfort, the Nelson Mail newspaper published a story on October 6th about Takaka Primary School Principal Neil Batten’s school newsletter comments attacking the Minister of Education; 

Anne Tolley (Minister of Education) is trying really hard to gag principals who speak out.

“But we all have a right of free speech and I see it as an important role of my position to let parents know what is happening in education on both sides of the political scale.” 

However all this pales in light of developments in the northern part of New Zealand. A principal from Whangarei, Pat Newman, (a former president of the New Zealand Principals Federation) has been interviewed three times on Radio New Zealand, (first interview here) over two separate allegations.

The first allegation is that the MOE in his region are employing people, with little or no background in education, as senior advisers to work with schools to help raise achievement. Two examples that Pat mentioned were a former policeman and a former school dental therapist, who seemingly have the required skills in change management. Quite apparently, knowledge and expertise in education is irrelevant.

What signal does that send? If you’re not sure, it is a re-run of the monetarist ideology of the 1980s and 1990s, where it was believed that processes, policies, procedures and compliance were the keys to ‘raising achievement’.

Those of us who’ve been battling this for 20 years or so will remember, with no fondness, the Education Review Office’s then maniacal focus on ensuring every single major and minor piece of education law and regulation had been addressed in school documentation, through their “Accountability Reports”. Remember?

There was another ideology running in parallel with this at the same time, that which believed that any competent manager could run any organisation, which is why we found people from a range of non-education backgrounds in senior Ministry roles, or even as Education Review Officers, if my memory is correct. Well, here we are again.

This development was also to be expected, given the strong evidence that the government is importing their educational policies from overseas. There are the same stories about people with minimal educational background being appointed to crucial roles. There are also concerns about minimally trained people being appointed as ‘teachers,’ which is also happening in New Zealand and this has been raised as an by secondary school principals.

Pat’s second claim is even more problematic. This is that a former principal, who was suspended from a school, and whose teaching registration has subsequently lapsed, has been appointed as a Student Achievement Practitioner (SAP) to work with designated schools over the whole national standards issue.

The Minister of Education first denied that that any SAP was not from an educational background, having failed to realise that this allegation concerned senior advisers, not SAPs, and in her typical use of ad hominem, tried to deflect the argument by questioning Pat’s credibility, because of connections to the Labour Party.

Subsequently she revised her denial but still failed to address the issue of the suspended principal being appointed as a SAP.

There are only three ways to view this situation.The first, the one used by the Minister, is to question the credibility of the person making the allegations. Given that Pat has a high profile in his area, and that other principals were present at meetings where these allegations were raised, we can rule out this argument out.

That leaves two other possibilities. The first is that the Minister of Education was being honest in her denials, that as far as she knew, what she was saying in response was correct. This immediately opens the barn door to release a number of horses.

  • Is she then saying that she doesn’t know what is happening in the Ministry of Education, which is her responsibility?
  • Or does this reveal that regional MOE offices are free to pursue their own agenda, as long as they achieve ‘compliance?’
  • Or does head office know what is happening, but have kept this from the Minister?
  • Or does the head office not know what is happening out in the regions?

Any of these questions would cast serious doubt on the Minister’s ability to manage and to understand what is happening and likewise about the Ministry of Education.

The third possibility is that the Minister was lying in her denials.

Are there any possibilities I have overlooked?

If not, we now have a situation whether either the Minister’s competence or honesty is in question, or maybe both together. We also have the situation, at least in Northland (and rumour suggests elsewhere as well) where people who have no background in education are being appointed as senior advisers to schools to help raise achievement.

Compounding this is Pat’s information about the suspended principal,who has been appointed as a Student Achievement Practitioner. That immediately raises some more questions, the first of which is the criteria for SAP appointments. Given the ‘thought police’ role that these people will have in ensuring schools are ‘implementing’ the national standards to ‘raise achievement’ one would expect that high degree of professionalism and education competence would be pre-requisites? Apparently not.

Is this the only example of a very inappropriate SAP appointment in New Zealand? This brings us back to questions about the Minister and Ministry of Education raised earlier. This appointment is either acceptable to the Ministry of Education head office, and presumably the Minister, or it is not acceptable at that level, which raises another question immediately. 

  • How and why was an appointment like this made?
    • Was suitable pre-appointed vetting carried out?
    • If not, why?
    • If it was, then why was this appointment made regardless, in the certain knowledge that there would a huge lack of credibility over the appointee’s qualities?
  • Who has the overall responsibility?
    • The Ministry of Education?
    • The Minister?
    • The Prime Minister? (US President Harry Truman’s famous “the buck stops at the top.”)

And the more we think about this, the more questions need to be asked.

The biggest question of all is this one:

Why are minimally or non qualified people being appointed to significant positions in education? 

To summarise:

  • A strong case can be made that the minister is either incompetent, in not knowing what is happening in her portfolio,  or that she is ‘being economical with the truth.”
  • People with no educational background are being appointed to senior adviser positions in the MOE
  • A suspended principal has been appointed as Student Achievement Practitioner.
  • There is a developing pattern that the professionalism of educators is being downgraded.

Whew. A brighter future? Who for?

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