Scoop Election 08: edited by Gordon Campbell

Union-bashing and the dispute over national standards

February 3rd, 2010

Well, it hasn’t taken long for John Key to bring the old scare word ‘unions’ – into the dispute over national standards. Yesirree, this flap is all just about unions protecting their patch. Here we have a situation where Education Minister Anne Tolley has proven herself as incapable of managing this crisis, and where extensive evidence from Britain indicates that the standards being promoted could well make the situation of the at-risk children even worse, while diverting attention and resources from the schooling of other children in class. Especially when little or no extra funds are being set aside for schools to subsequently remedy any learning problems the national standards may detect.

The inconsistencies in the Government’s stance are extraordinary. Key and Tolley have been steadfastly refusing to let the standards be trialled or piloted in state schools – but incredibly, the Government is now willing to do exactly that in kura kaupapa schools, in order to placate the Dr Pita Sharples. And to shut him up after – earlier this week – he expressed his concerns about how the standards exercise has the potential to damage schools, and children. And the funds? Logically, given the large number of primary schools in the country, wouldn’t it take hundreds of millions of dollars to correct any significant problem that these magic tests are going to detect? If the problem is that endemic, and these tests are that good, where are the adequate, fresh funds – for schools already strapped for cash – to put things right ?

What a mess. Much easier to haul out the scare word ’ unions.’ And to paint this as an industrial conflict, not an educational issue. Make it about the teaching standards of union members, and not about the achievement standards of children. It looks like a cynical and a desperate move. For months, teachers, school principals and boards of trustees up and down the country have been raising their concerns – and failing to have them considered by an incompetent Minister. Now, Key has chosen to denigrate those concerns, by putting it all down to unions wanting to protect their patch. Yeah, right. Just as all the problems in our hospitals can be put down to those greedy nurses, trying to protect the incompetents on the wards.

Lets get this straight. Teaching, like nursing is the kind of profession in which people are largely motivated by concerns about the welfare of those in their care. It may play well amongst the rednecks out there to turn this conflict into a union-bashing exercise, but the people on the front lines are not rednecks – they are parents, teachers and boards motivated by a concern for children, and they will still be there when and if the education standards are finally rammed down their throats. Meaning : even if Key “wins’ a political fight framed as a union bashing exercise, he will have succeeded only in poisoning the teaching environment, longer term. The compromise that would prevent this negative and entirely avoidable outcome is right under his nose : trial and pilot the standards. If it is good enough to allow Maori parents and teachers to trial and pilot these standards in kura kaupapa schools, why isn’t it good enough to let the same thing happen in mainstream state schools ?

If Key wants to win this argument fairly, he has to make a case that this issue is about the learning standards of children, and not about the performance standards of teachers. He has to make the case that national standards will lift the achievement levels of children at risk – above and beyond the testing of children that is already being carried out – and without jeopardizing the learning potential of the other children in class. Curiously, in all other sectors, National preaches the gospel of allowing people to attain excellence. If this had been a Labour initiative, you can bet that we would be hearing a lot about socialist engineering for the low achievers in the classroom, at the expense of excellence everywhere else.

By the same token, the critics of national standards need to jettison their own bogey term –‘league tables.’ In the school tea-rooms, most teachers may know and agree on the potential for harm to schools, arising from taking these aggregates of exam scores and treating them as the only index of school quality and teacher ability. The trouble is, the public at large do not share the fear of league tables. This bogey can so easily be turned back on teachers, as if it were a fear of being evaluated. League tables are an inevitability – get used to it.

Again, Key could help to defuse the legitimate concerns – held by many teachers and by Dr Pita Sharples alike – about the possible impact of league tables on those schools that are already struggling to make ends meet with inadequate operational grants. This shortfall is forcing more and more schools to tap parents for ‘donations’ – even as the likelihood of league tables promises to undermine parental confidence in the schools they are being asked to support. Key of course, should be using his position as a bully pulpit to inform the public about how unreliable league tables would be, if used as the prime measure of school quality.

The unfortunate reality though is that parents will rate schools by those means, and will use national standards as a tool to do so. The only solution is to put the counter-information out there – and not seek to shut the process down altogether. Increasingly, the fear of league tables is proving to be a self defeating tactic. Such fears may be motivated by legitimate concern about the future funding of schools, but it looks like censorship and a resistance to evaluating teacher performance – and as this conflict deepens, that can only serve to teachers offside with parents.


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    1. 8 Responses to “Union-bashing and the dispute over national standards”

    2. By Tigger on Feb 3, 2010 | Reply

      Superbly put, Gordon. Key’s union-boogeyman spin isn’t holding as fast among parents as previous distractions. If I was a betting man I’d say that this issue of national standards was when the media honeymoon ended for Key. I’m smelling blood in the water…

    3. By stuart munro on Feb 3, 2010 | Reply

      It’s interesting that whereas National super reflected well on the party that created it, National standards seem to do the opposite. Perhaps the oxymoron is too obvious.

    4. By PG on Feb 3, 2010 | Reply

      Your piece was well written and very true, You hit the nail on the head, Teachers teach because they care….Alas I fear that this NACT Gov’t does not.

    5. By EG on Feb 4, 2010 | Reply

      Great piece, until the section on league tables. They are not an inevitability, much information is currently given to ERO that is not made ‘public’ in this way. Instead of league tables if the National government is serious about raising standards it SHOULD collect and collate data and ANALYSE it for a few years to see where the problem is. It could turn out that decile or geographical placement aren’t related to ‘value added’ or standard achievement. Or it could turn out that ESOL numbers and decile are directly correlated to achievement. How can we raise standards ‘across the whole tail end’ unless we know where the tail end is (and why would be good!)

    6. By Carlo Reynaldos on Feb 4, 2010 | Reply

      Hi Gordon – just to let you know that John Barnett has gone to press in ONFILM and SCREENHUB – it seems he has lost patience with the Government’s delayed tactics in releasing the Jackson report on the Gulago years of the Film Commission. Just waiting for the shit to hit the fan. Hope you can do a piece on the mounting frustration of the indigenous film industry (whats left of it!) Yrs Carlo

      John Barnett: bored with waiting, conducts own review of the NZFC

    7. By Martin Robinson on Feb 4, 2010 | Reply

      If National was serious about improving education and reducing the causes of crime (the many layers of contributing issues), they would be listening, learning and finding ways to pour quality funding into struggling schools and pre-schools up and down the country. This might not guarantee a second term, but Key could at least look himself in the eye in the historical mirror. But, as Gordon so aptly reveals, this current National policy is ‘sounds and fury signifying nothing’.

    8. By richgraham on Feb 5, 2010 | Reply

      “Teachers teach because they care” says PG. I’ve met plenty of teachers who teach to make a living, schools exist to provide them with a living. Of course one of the aims of the introduction of national standards is to get teachers to lift their performance, obviously, because the prime aim of the standards is to improve the results teachers get – to lower the awful number of innuerate and illiterate school leavers. And about time too that teachers lifted their act – they have let the children and the people down. The teachers unions need to be brought into line – their members are public servants who should serve, not organise to complain and resist improvement.

    9. By Beverly Wee on Feb 6, 2010 | Reply


      Yet another wasteful & stupid policy completely lacking any evidence as such it will only serve the prime aim which seems can only be union and teacher bashing/scapegoating.
      Actually it will serve to decrease the current level of education by turning teaching resources into a monitoring & testing of bureaucratic nonsense[ job summit].

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