Point the Hose at the Fire Paul!

My son is a professional fire-fighter. I won’t tell you where otherwise you may feel more nervous than necessary. One remarkable thing they learn in training is that if you want to put a fire out – you point the hose at the fire.

Yesterday National education spokesperson did the right thing by having an opinion piece in the NZH about our education system and the desperate need for change. He is dead right – I have been able to get up to date statistics for every high school in NZ on some key metrics (that I will publish in a couple of weeks). Things are a mix between approximately a third of schools consistently doing good things and a real crises for the rest.

A few of Goldsmith’s comments:

“Our goal must always be to educate Kiwis to succeed globally. That is the only way to maintain our way of life and high living standards over time.”

“There are four basics to education: The kids must be at school to learn; a world-class curriculum that, if mastered, enables Kiwis to foot it with the best in the world; great teachers, teaching subjects that they know well in classrooms that are fit for learning; and robust measurement of progress, so we know whether our kids are learning or not.”

“Specialist teachers are concerned about not being able to understand what is to be taught and why this approach is being taken at the expense of basic subject content.”

“On attendance; no excuses. We’ve allowed a culture of excuses to develop for truancy. This has to stop. All schools should submit their attendance data weekly and it should be publicly available.”

“On curriculum, we’ll have to go back to the drawing board to rebuild a globally first-class curriculum.”

“We must insist on robust achievement in the basics of maths, science and literacy for all starting teachers, and give teachers access to better teaching materials so they and their schools spend less time reinventing the wheel. We should allow principals to reward great teachers.”

“We must insist on standardised external assessment at key points of our children’s education, so parents and teachers know when to worry and so steps can be taken to address problems early in the piece.”

My Comments: The good, the bad and the opportunity.

Paul Goldsmith’s article could have been written by any National education lead in the last thirty years. The ideas are not wrong, it is just that there is so much more to it. It glosses over the areas of greatest need and is in danger of focussing on obvious outcomes (Parata’s major fault) when it is inputs that create success.

Goldsmith is accurate about the direction of the curriculum and that being an important facet in schools – along with the quality of teaching it and the need to incentive teachers in struggling schools and subjects/levels where teachers are hard to find. They also have to be GOOD – not just someone with a pulse. He is also right about attendance.

Goldsmith is way off base with the “four basics to education”. There is way more to it that that. The first five years of a child’s life are absolutely crucial. As David Eagleman says in his superb book; The Brain: The Story of You:

“If developing brains are not given the proper, “expected environment – one in which a child is nurtured and looked after – the brain will struggle to develop normally. Without an environment with emotional care and cognitive stimulation, the human brain cannot develop normally. So we can add early life development to his “four basics of education.” The first five years of a child’s life are beyond crucial (I would add to that the gestation period). That takes us to five factors.

PISA studies showed NZ schools have the highest rates of bullying in the world. No child can learn well if anxious/scared. We also have schools full of micro-aggressions from low EQ teachers who use volume and put-downs to cower students into the appearance of compliance (we have all had them … I told mine to get F&*$#d … which probably didn’t help). Often students perspectives are belittled or ignored. If you want attendance students need to fell welcome. Schools being positive, safe, open-thinking and relational needs to be added to the four basics (now at the square root of 36).

Students need to be at the centre of the delivery for a school (note – this is not the same as “student led learning”). This means that the encouraged subject pathways need to be aspirational and dedicated towards the best outcomes for the child – not butt & reputation covering for the school through soft credits. Students also need to have a sense of purpose and schools need to be open to discussing the big questions in life; e.g. meaning. In the data, you will see soon that, on average, faith based schools do very well. I do not agree with “religion” being imposed – but the cards need to be on the table – myopically applying atheism or assuming lack of interest in life philosophies does not help. Being constantly told you are a cosmic accident and the world is going to end soon is both debatable and unhelpful. Adding aspiration and purpose takes the list to seven.

In New Zealand only 82% of students are staying at school (retention) until they are 17 years old. In the schools with high external results retention is in the 90s. Retention – with purposeful courses – is an eighth strand.

A major determinant of a student’s education outcomes is those of their parent(s). That will take more than a generation to change. The practical and effective alternative is to have parents fully engaged with the school and informed/educated themselves as adults. I have seen it in action and it would work as Goldsmith’s ninth strand.

The tenth strand is that extra-resourcing must be targeted accurately. People note that the decile system is blunt. It is not so much blunt as wildly underfunded and the Labour alternative significantly lacks transparency. Two aspects make up the tenth strand; firstly Decile 1- 3 schools need to be significantly funded at a lower student teacher ratio, with for Decile 4 – 7 also above deciles 8 – 10. Schools need to be expertly, and positively supported with business managers, and be able to justify – on student progress – the spends. High decile schools with poor metrics need to be as accountable as any other. Children who are neuro diverse at any decile level need full support.

(Please note – there is a major 11th and 12th strands are school leadership and the Ministry of Education. More to come on that in coming weeks. But let’s just say – the Ministry of Education make the MOH look stellar. )

In any area but Covid Labour are asleep and lack interest. This is the greatest opportunity I have seen in the last 30 years for an opposition party to propose wonderful education improvements in the dyed-in-the wool Labour electorates. If doing good is not enough, in and of itself, it will win votes.

  • Therefore; broad – additional – solutions (point the hose at the fire) for Paul Goldsmith/National  are:Have a comprehensive and monitored/incentive/resourced parents as first (and most important) teachers programme. This is HUGE!!
  • Super-fund the decile 1-3 schools and provide Principals in those schools with a Business Manager to take care of resourcing, contracts, etc – allowing them to fully focus on academics and student/family engagement. Provide fully, accurately, and quickly for students with diverse learning needs.
  • Have incentives and very good course structures to have students attend always and also to have them stay in school for longer.
  • Work hard on all school environments being safe, stimulating and generating aspiration and a sense of purpose.

Goldsmith needs to look hard at the students/schools that are failing, and why, and accurately put of the fire – then rebuild. It is possible.

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