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Dr Muriel Newman

Time for a new approach to education

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Without a doubt, the welcome sound of the New Zealand National Anthem ringing out from the London Olympic Games rekindles that wonderful sense of pride in being a New Zealander. The Games serves to remind us of what a powerful motivating force competition is. It is the very thing that pushes the boundaries of human endurance and effort. How tragic that the guardians of our education system have progressively removed competition from our schools, when striving for success is such an important driver of achievement.

This move away from competition is undoubtedly one of the main reasons for the fall in the attainment levels of boys, particularly over recent years. The Ministry of Education reports that boys are now over-represented in statistics relating to disengagement with school. 

They recommend that to improve boys’ achievement it is essential to ensure that they are engaged in and excited by their learning. But isn’t that exactly what competition does?

In watching the world’s top athletes performing at the highest levels of their codes it is easy to forget the many thousands of hours of practice and training that they have put in. Dr K. Anders Ericsson, a psychologist at Florida State University in the US, has done a great deal of research into what it takes to succeed in a given field. In a 1993 paper, “The Role of Deliberate Practice in the Acquisition of Expert Performance”, he explained that success in life is due mainly to hard work and practice rather than to some innate genetic talent: “The differences between expert performers and normal adults are not immutable, that is, due to genetically prescribed talent. Instead, these differences reflect a life-long period of deliberate effort to improve performance.”1

In particular he found that it takes around 10,000 hours of practice in a discipline to become an expert. In other words, anyone who works hard and focuses on improvement in a particular field has a very good chance of achieving significant success, if they stick at it for around 10,000 hours. It is that endless concentration on improving effort and outcomes that leads to success.

For many, that pathway to success begins early in life. It is said that Tiger Woods was given a sawn-off golf club before he could even walk, and by the age of three was able play nine holes of golf for a score of 48! Andre Aggesi’s professional tennis playing father taped a racket to his son’s hand when he was just two years old! One of the world’s best known child prodigies, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, was so entranced by his older sister learning the piano, that at the age of three, his father taught him to play too. By the age of four he was proficient, and by the age of five he was arranging his first works. His first symphony was composed at the age of 8!

But while it is obvious that some children are fast-tracked on the path to success early in their lives, most progress in familiar ways, learning to walk and talk, to dress themselves, do up buttons, use a knife a fork, count, recognise the alphabet, colours and shapes, recite nursery rhymes and their favourite stories all by the time they go to school. The problem is that growing numbers of New Zealand children are now failing to reach some of their more crucial developmental milestones by the time they start school.

This week’s NZCPR Guest Commentator is journalist and broadcaster Lindsay Perigo, who has long expressed concern about the on-going deterioration in linguistic and literacy standards in New Zealand. In his article The Dunce-ification of Everythink, Lindsay quotes newspaper reports on the growing number of children who are starting school unable to string a sentence together. If children haven’t been taught to talk properly, they will find learning to read and write almost impossible. Tragically many such children will remain functionally illiterate for all of their lives – unable to even fill in an unemployment benefit application.

Lindsay writes, “The country is now caught up in a vicious circle arising from decades of state-mandated dumbing down in the education system… Normally I’d advocate simply retrieving the thing from the clutches of the state and letting market forces generate a drive for remedial excellence. But all of society is now so steeped in barbarism that the private sector too is zombified. The state must act urgently to stop and reverse the rot it started and sponsored to such devastating effect. Hand in hand with the overdue revival of grammar, spelling and punctuation that is already supposed to be happening, the state must restore to phonics its former hegemony, and it must introduce speech-training into the curriculum, both for pupils and teachers.”

He concludes his article with this: “What stake do I as a libertarian have in this matter? In a nation of inarticulate illiterates, liberty doesn’t stand a chance. In the domain of dunces, demagogues dictate.”

It is scandalous, that increasing numbers of children are turning up at school at the age of 5, hardly knowing their own names let alone being able to talk properly. The point is that as far as language is concerned, children are absorbent, like blotting paper. By the age of six months they usually reward their parents’ endless coaxing with their own versions of simple words like “Mummy” and “Daddy”. Once they can get their tongues around more complex sounds toddlers will say more and more until they start parroting phrases then whole sentences, copying whatever those close to them say as they learn to speak for themselves. If children arrive for their first day of school unable to talk is it is because adults around them have failed to talk to them for almost their entire lives.

 What loving parents would not talk to their babies, sing to them, recite nursery rhymes, tell them stories, and read to them? Surely, failing to teach their child something as basic as language amounts to gross neglect? If such parents are on a welfare benefit, is this not why we pay them – to care for their children and raise them properly? And what about the wider family – why doesn’t someone notice that a child cannot talk and step in to do something about it?

There are many social agencies that provide support for families who are struggling with raising their children, but what a sorry state society is in if such basic parenting responsibilities can be neglected on a growing scale. It’s no wonder that the government is putting in place parenting courses for teen parents who are on benefits, that they are working hard to ensure pre-schoolers do not miss out on early childhood education, and that they have decided to trial Charter Schools for children who will otherwise fail in mainstream education.

Fortunately the majority of New Zealand children are raised very well by their parents, and served moderately well by our state education system, which ranks 4th in the OECD in average reading skills. The problem is with the 1 in 5 students who fail to engage in education to the point where they leave school with no qualifications and few skills, virtually denied the opportunity to achieve anything of personal significance in their lives. In other words, not only have these children often been failed by their parents, but the education system fails them too by denying them that lifeline to a better future that they so desperately need. The social and economic consequences of this are clear – the story is told in the statistics around unemployment, substance abuse, and criminal offending, not to mention that waste of human potential.

The National Certificate of Educational Achievement (NCEA) Level 2, which is the equivalent of the old sixth form certificate, is generally regarded as the gateway to work and further study. The government has set an ambitious target of having 85 percent of 18 year olds achieving the equivalent of NCEA Level 2 by 2017. Present statistics show there is still a long way to go with only 69 percent of 18 year olds achieving that goal. Clearly major changes will be needed to the education system if the outlook for students, who are presently on a path to failure, is to be turned around.

The Charter School trial that is part of the confidence and supply agreement with the ACT Party is one of the strategies being used to improve the outcomes for the 20 percent of children who are currently being failed by mainstream education. Partnership Schools, as they are being called, will need to be approved by the Minister of Education and will be monitored by the Education Review Office.2

They will be contracted to the Crown to raise student achievement levels, in contrast with private schools that are contracted to parents. Just as parents today can choose to send their children to a range of schools, including religious schools, bilingual or Maori immersion schools, single-sex or co-educational schools, public or independent schools, so Partnership Schools will provide families with yet another option.

Partnership School sponsors are expected to include businesses, philanthropists, iwi, community organisations, faith-based groups, and private schools – operating on a not-for-profit or for-profit basis – but existing state schools and tertiary education institutions will be excluded. Since the present rules allow state and state-integrated school boards of trustees to run multiple schools, Partnership School sponsors will be able to do the same. 

While Partnership Schools will be given the option of using either the New Zealand curriculum or developing an alternative curriculum framework, they will be required to report against National Standards for Year 1-8 students, and they must offer NCEA or an equivalent qualification recognised by industry and tertiary providers in New Zealand.

When it comes to staff, Partnership Schools will enjoy far greater freedom than state schools, which are dominated by the powerful NZEI and PPTA education unions. The unions are doing all they can to discredit the trial for reasons that are obvious  – the new schools are likely to use non-union staff, who will be rewarded through performance pay, and who may or may not be registered teachers. Let’s not forget that the teachers’ unions are multi-million dollar organisations that are fighting to retain their monopoly status. Unfortunately their pursuit of self-interest has damaged children for far too many generations – it’s time their stranglehold on our schools was removed.

Partnership Schools will also be free to set their own hours of operation. They will not be tied to the traditional Kiwi school day that had its origins in an era when children were needed back on the farm in time to help their parents with the afternoon milking!

The schools will be required to accept all students who apply regardless of their background or ability, and if they are oversubscribed, students must be chosen using a ballot system. Most important of all, Partnership Schools will only succeed in fulfilling their contracts if they are successful in lifting the outcomes for disengaged students who would almost certainly fail if they remained in the state school system.

Given the huge potential that lays waiting within each individual child, a new model for giving failing students the chance to achieve a better future, should surely be supported. For the sake of all of New Zealand’s disadvantaged children, the unions and their political allies should back off to give the Partnership School trial a chance to succeed.