Friday, December 10, 2004

Are schools coping? Is a new vision required?

It was depressing but salutatory to read statistics released from the Ministry of Education in an article, in the November 04 NZ Primary Principals Magazine, about the need for character education.

The figures reveal that since 2000, in primary schools alone, suspensions and stand downs have increased 31%, and that there has been a 23% increase in physical assaults on staff, and 40% assaults on other students. These are not teenagers, the article emphasizes, or even intermediate school students, but eight, nine and ten year olds. The 2560 removals from primary schools in 2003 is a 13.8% increase from 2000. The article continues that in former generations most primary school teachers completed a lifetime career without experiencing either a suspension or an expulsion.

I imagine the figures for intermediate and secondary school would make even more frightening reading? I do know that 19% of all students leave secondary schools without achieving any worthwhile qualifications and a high percentage of 13 to 15 year old absent themselves daily from school.

The problem is way beyond serious but does not register on the public’s radar as urgent.

It is time for a dramatic change .At the very least the government ought to investigate establishing a fund to encourage new approaches to schooling. Our current secondary schools are struggling to accommodate future citizens in buildings developed for the development of managers and workers for a factory era. Current educational reform is akin to moving deck chairs on the Titanic .As well many patents seem to prefer traditional approaches.

We need to develop a new consciousness in our society for a need for change.

After the almost collapse of Western economies post the crash of 1929 two important things happened educationally in New Zealand. A reform orientated Labour Government was elected and set about with enthusiasm and support to put New Zealand back onto its feet. Around the same time a series of international educationalists, under the auspices of the New Educational Fellowship, were invited to tour NZ to give talks in all centres. Evidently these talks attracted packed houses. The Minster of Education Peter Fraser and his Director General Dr Beeby, building on this desire for change, introduced a range of new and exciting idea to revitalize an antiquated education system.

The time is right again, as we enter the Information Age, for such an injection of new thought. The figures quoted are evidence that our current system is surely failing too many students and cannot be ignored. Visionary thinking is once again required.

The recent experiment with ‘market forces’ at the end of the last century may have made everything more rational and efficient in education but it has, in the process, almost destroyed the professionalism of teachers and the democratic purpose of schools, as well as destroying the social fabric of our communities. What we now see in school reflects this ‘winners and losers’ society. Even the recent improvement in unemployment only clouds the issue of many disenfranchised people having to work two menial jobs to simply keep their children fed and housed. Poverty is a fact of life for many children.

If we want to reinvent a fair society them we need new thinking; New Zealand s at a crossroads. We need a new vision for our country, one that all citizens can feel part of and, integral to this, is a need to reinvent education as the key for community and democratic renewal.

What we need is national conversation to raise the consciousness of the importance of education and the role it could play in community renewal. It would be great for the Government to invite a range of powerful educational thinkers to visit all major centres to inspire ideas to help us break out of our current thinking.

It is only when schools, parents, and the wider community (and students) all work together that we will solve the problems of a failing society. If we can reinvent schools to ensure all students can reach their potential and contribute positively to our country this would reinvigorate not only education but our communities.

As Michael Fullan the educationalist writes, ‘That would be worth fighting for’!

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