Standoff over standards

Few would argue with the contention our education system should do better at instructing pupils in the basics of reading, writing and arithmetic.

The controversy arises in the methodologies by which this might be achieved, the extent to which other valid educational choices are constricted by their imposition, and the potential unintended consequences of the pursuit of the chosen strategy.

National Standards have been the subject of heated debate since the National Government announced its intention to introduce them to primary and intermediate schools.

It did so because it wanted to address the long-tail of under-achieving children who arrived at secondary school incompetent or apparently untrained in such basic educational skills.

This was and is a laudable motive, and having included the general thrust of it in its 2008 election campaign, the Government rightly felt it could claim to have achieved a mandate to introduce the policy.

Those who argue that teachers, as public servants, should get on with implementing the policy have a point, too. But there is a difference between general direction and policy design.

Usually, this incorporates the expertise and wisdom of the sector into which it is to be deployed - including ministry officials and front-end practitioners - and while this may have happened, from the outset a marked feature of opposition to the standards has been the number of ranking educational experts concerned about the standards' efficacy.

And while Education Minister Anne Tolley claims the opposition at principal and teacher level is "political", the same constituency counters the abrasive manner in which an untested, broad-brush system with the capacity to undermine progress in the very areas it is designed to address, is ideologically, rather than educationally, driven.

Thus, a stand-off has developed which shows no signs of resolving itself. The education unions are saying up to a quarter of schools and their boards are not complying with the Ministry of Education's requirements with respect to the standards; further, they maintain many of those complying are doing so at a minimal level to avoid litigation.

For its part the ministry figures, backed up by the minister's assertions, suggest about 80% of schools are complying.

A propaganda "battle" has ensued and within this context the decision by the ministry to penalise a North Otago primary school for failing to meet its legislative requirements seems counter-productive.

It does little to assuage the deepening - and increasingly bitter - gulf between the minister and those in the sector who believe the "one-size-fits-all" policy tells them what they already know, has a potentially demoralising effect on pupils who from an early age are stigmatised as "slow learners", and reduces time to address, in a more creative manner, individual learning difficulties.

Pembroke School, in Oamaru, was to have hosted a Pasifika Fono (meeting) last Friday involving eight Oamaru schools with significant Pasifika rolls.

The purpose of the meeting was to encourage Pacific Island parents to become more involved with their children's education. Significantly, National Standards was one of the items for discussion. But because the school's annual charter did not include standards targets, the ministry moved the fono to the Galleon complex in Oamaru on Monday night.

It was within its rights to make such a call, but whether it was right to do so is another matter. Cool heads are required to negotiate the broader impasse. So much political capital has been invested by both sides that backdown by either might seem difficult.

This is an unacceptable distraction to the critical business of educating the nation's children. Heads ought to be banged together and compromises reached - perhaps some sort of trial that might allow for design modifications to the standards regime, if required, and some flexibility in its implementation, particularly with pupils for whom English is a second language.

Political management, like teaching, is not simply a matter of standing at the front of the class and telling people what to do. It is a matter of inspiring and motivating them, taking them along for the ride.

Regardless of the rights and wrongs of the matter, with respect to the primary and intermediate sector this is something Mrs Tolley has conspicuously been unable to accomplish.

 

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