By Rose Patterson*
In launching their Future Work Commission, the Labour Party is at last attempting to carve out a space that is relevant to the world we live in.
It’s all about the future of work – how the forces of technology and globalisation are changing the nature of work, and how Labour’s policies can adapt.
Part of that is working out how education can prepare the next generation for that future. Indeed, education is one of the portfolios that comes under their commission, to be headed up by Labour’s finance spokesperson Grant Robertson.
New Labour Party leader Andrew Little said last week “the ongoing digital revolution is as world changing as the industrial revolution was 200 years ago, and to adapt we are going to have to make decisions now if we are to be ready so people are not left out”.
Little, Robertson, and education spokesperson Chris Hipkins too,then would likely draw much inspiration from Sir Ken Robinson, an expert on education and creativity, whose 20 minute presentation Bring on the Learning Revolution is the most highly viewed TED talk ever. Robinson makes the industrial revolution link to education, convincingly arguing that societies need to move away from linear, conformist models of schooling.
“We have a system of education this is modelled on the interest of industrialism and in the image of it. Schools are still pretty much organised on factory lines – ringing bells, separate facilities, specialised into separate subjects. We still educate children by batches.”
Does New Zealand have a factory model?
Indeed, these messages of moving away from standardised factory model of education are generally favourable with the teaching profession as a whole, and with parents, and this way of thinking fits in with Labour’s opposition to the National Standards policy for years 1 to 8 that National put in place in 2010, which have been criticised for trying to well, standardise education.
This researcher has previously written with hesitant support for National Standards, because it does put some pressure on schools to give children basic preparation in literacy and numeracy, which are essential building blocks for many other areas of learning, whatever type of learning might be needed in their futures.
On the other hand, there are also some reservations, three of which will be outlined here.
First, probably the most vocal schools opposing National Standards have been those who already have high levels of literacy and numeracy. For these schools, the imposition of National Standards over the top of their own school-wide literacy and numeracy may bring more burden than benefit. This is always an issue with policies that are really designed to improve situations for some: they end up imposing a burden on the rest.
Second, National Standards don’t take into account different rates of progression. To expect children to all reach a certain standard level every year does not take into account that children are different and develop at different rates in different areas.
Third, there is a concern that National Standards could narrow the curriculum at the expense of other subject knowledge and skills. As children develop, they are not only learning how to count and read and write, but also myriad other cognitive skills and knowledge too- although, literacy at least should be first and foremost because it actually opens, rather than closes, access to other areas of the curriculum.
So why does government want a standardised model?
The concerns about National Standards are legitimate, but it is also very concerning that many secondary schools are now having to catch up year nine students who do not have adequate literacy and numeracy to learn at a higher level. National Standards is a well-intended policy to try to give children the building blocks in reading, writing, and maths.
But ideally, the government wouldn’t meddle as much as it does, especially in a supposedly self-managing school system.
A policy maker in Wellington cannot possibly understand what is going on behind the scores with an individual child in an individual school. They don’t know what the school’s policy is around literacy and numeracy. They don’t know the child’s parents and how much they read to their child at home. They don’t have a practical understanding of the different methods of teaching a child to read. They don’t know what the child’s interests are and what their favourite books are. They don’t know about the dynamics of the classroom and all of the different competing pressures teachers and schools are under.
They don’t see, as a teacher does, a child’s eyes light up when a moment of learning occurs. That doesn’t make it into the aggregated data.
The Ministry of Education commissions research to get answers to some of these questions, but they are not omniscient, and never can be.
Yet, the hard truth of a public education system is that the government of the day has to be accountable to the public. It is impossible to measure all the underlying ingredients that go into literacy and numeracy, so they have no choice but to use some broad measures, like National Standards, to get an indication as to how well the education system is performing, and direct resources and policies accordingly. An even harder truth for teachers and their unions, is that under a public education system, teachers are public servants.
But, there is an alternative that could break down the standardised model and free up teachers as well. As a country, we need to be open to local, bespoke models of education. But this requires being open to some different ideas that might seem threatening.
A bespoke model
Recently, Ivan Snook from a left-leaning education blog “Leading and Learning” wrote on redefining the purpose of education. Snook contrasts two rival schools of thought about education: one is to prepare people for jobs, the other, for “life in all its richness” which looks at the “development of autonomous and critical human beings”.
Snook, unsurprisingly, believes in the second. Perhaps surprisingly, so do I. As Robinson says “we have a huge vested interested in [education], partly because it’s education that’s meant to take us into this future that we can’t grasp”. Education is about preparing people for a world they don’t know yet, for work and for life, perhaps the world that new Labour leader Andrew Little is talking about.
The part that Snook and I perhaps don’t agree on, is that Partnership Schools could be the model that allows schools to offer a bespoke education.
The Partnership Schools model is a way of offering alternative choices for parents. Under a system of more choice, the weight of accountability shifts towards parents, not government. If parents believe that literacy and numeracy is important, then it is parents, not government, to whom the school is accountable.
If parents believe that other things are important:like divergent thinking, the ability to get along with others, compassion, meta-cognitive skills, scientific thinking, art and self-expression, self-regulation, resilience, to name a few, they can choose the school that has the best offer. The government would be hard pressed to get good measures on these and other things that parents might value. And given that only 5% of parents in a 2013 NZCER survey mentioned National Standards as an influence on their school choice, they are likely weighing up many different factors.
Opponents to the idea of choice would argue that some parents are not always capable of making good choices. This is true, but if you could sum up all the knowledge that the parents of each child in this country have about their children, this would far surpass the government’s understanding of all of those children.
As the Labour party rethinks its policies in a changing world, they should keep in mind that New Zealand is preparing students for an increasingly diverse economy. In the same breath as questioning National Standards, this means generally questioning whether top-down models are still appropriate. And if the left is to draw inspiration from Sir Ken Robinson, let’s remember that he speaks of KIPP, a charter school model in the U.S., favourably in his talk.
The left are correct in identifying the problem: we need to move away from standardised models of education. But that means at least being open to some different ideas.
*Rose Patterson is a research fellow at the New Zealand Initiative. The NZ Initiative contributes a weekly column for interest.co.nz.