Friday, December 09, 2011

Something all principals ought to have written to their students' parents

A principal and his website posting to parents

Where are we heading, and what have we lost to get there?

Danny Nicholls is principal of St Patrick’s Catholic School, Taupo. He runs a website intended for the school community and other interested readers. The beliefs and opinion expressed are his personal ones. Danny's blog is a well balanced description of the current environment schools find themselves in - if only more school principals ( or better still groups of principals) had written, or even shared similar newsletters.

One of the big building blocks of any school is curriculum delivery. Here in New Zealand we have a fantastic national curriculum which gives sufficient breadth for schools to develop and deliver really exciting and innovative programmes that meet local needs.

The New Zealand Curriculum has been bedded in over a few years now and replaced the more ‘tick the box’ style approach of the previous document.

In particular, the promotion of Key Competencies was a really exciting move towards developing what we want and most value for our students. This curriculum went through extensive consultation and trial/error periods before being accepted and used. I can recall many hours spent getting to understand the intent of this new curriculum and being very excited about its potential.

Sadly, it looks like we are not going to get the most out of this new curriculum, which has been hailed as a world leader by educational experts. The mood at the moment in New Zealand is one of accountability and narrow test scores which inevitably will mean schools not spending so much time on developing the Arts/Health and PE/Languages, as any gains made in those areas will not be directly reflected in national standards data. That to me is one of the most disappointing aspects of the forced imposition of the standards – not the accountability, because that's important to have, and what ERO do already – but what we have lost along the way.

I think back five years to the support my school received. We were a well performing school who were accepted on to a Health and PE contract. This enabled us to have a specialist teacher/consultant working in the school at regular intervals during the year developing teacher capability and confidence in teaching Health and PE. We also hosted a cluster Arts contract, which meant that the regional Arts adviser would run after school workshops once a term at our place, and teachers from around the region would come for a staff meeting in which they developed new skills in teaching an aspect of the Arts curriculum. I also had access to a Leadership adviser who visited once a term to meet with us to give advice or direction we may have needed and to keep us in the loop of the latest developments out of Massey University which was where we drew most of our PD from.

The landscape has changed dramatically and we work in a tighter economic environment, so there are no more Arts, Health, and PE or Leadership advisory positions available to schools. Any professional development or support offered by the Ministry of Education is solely focused on supporting the goals of national standards and is only accessible to those who can prove that they are failing their students. The message is that if you are doing a good job then you are on your own. At another level the message is also that the national focus is on the tail of achievement not extending the brighter children – there is literally nothing available to assist schools to challenge and extend brighter students.

The model being offered now is ‘contestable’ or ‘targeted’ meaning that schools, as of right, do not have access to advisory support but must either pay for it or prove that they are failing their communities and require external support. I find it sad to receive pamphlets from Waikato and Massey (geographically we are in the middle so get both institution’s mailings) touting for business at ‘competitive’ or ‘tailored’ rates – for services that schools used to receive as of right. Money that should be going on school based resources now needs to be spent on providing teachers with the ongoing professional development they require. I imagine both universities are working in difficult times and am saddened to see what we now have to work with. It is well known that the investment by government in education is significantly less than in other comparable nations – our system does have that ‘run on the smell of an oily rag’ ethos, and always has done – yet internationally our results are well above what could be reasonably expected. Not that you would know it if your only source of information on school performance came from those who really should know better.

We continue to hear about the ‘1 in 5’ are failing school’ from the government – as if this is solely a school failing and there are no other social issues in the mix. What about ‘1 in 5 came to school without breakfast today’, or ‘1 in 5 spend their schooling life bouncing from school to school with no stability or opportunity to cement learning patterns’, or even ‘1 in 5 who take 1 in 5 days off school regularly’ – not so catchy or vote grabbing. Anyone who understands a bell curve knows that there will always be those who do not achieve as well as others in particular areas. That is reality. I am not suggesting for a minute that we should not be concerned about raising achievement for the most vulnerable – we always should be, and I know in my school a disproportionate amount of time, money, energy and resources goes into just that – but where is the conversation about high achievers? Or even the ‘average joe or jill’ – do they get a look in?

Remember that summit/think tank held just after National were elected three years ago, investigating how to promote our nation and make it even better? There was a real focus on innovation and doing things differently. Nurturing the tall poppies to make them really blossom was a sound-bite I can recall. Sadly it seems that optimistic start to National's tenure has all but gone. They’ve governed through a tough patch with global financial problems and two national tragedies, so I don't begrudge them the decisions they've had to make in that sense – I just wish it wasn’t at the expense of our high achieving children.

My concern is that post election this narrowing will only get worse. Shonky, unreliable tables comparing schools to one another will begin appearing in newspapers. Schools will begin to be tagged as ‘excellent, ‘failing’ or anywhere in between based on manipulation of data and/or differing assessment practices. Teachers will continue to get bashed in the media despite 95% of them being dedicated, caring and effective professionals. There are a few bad eggs like in any profession yet from what you read in the media (and it will only get worse) it seems all teachers are ineffective. There is already a mini-exodus of school principals as the reality of what we are being charged with overseeing and implementing in our schools begins to take effect. This will only get worse over the next few years. The whispers about how our roles and employment conditions will change post-election will have dire consequences if realized.

National standards on their own will not make a difference to any child’s achievement. Parents who are engaged and work positively with schools already know or can easily find out how their child is doing. The ethos of partnership is eroding and being replaced by one of reporting and suspicion. So much money being invested in a scheme which has little if any benefit to children. And in the meantime a world leading curriculum is abandoned ...

I hope that whether through school/parent pressure, or just common sense, we will see the re-promotion of the NZ Curriculum as our guiding document. This should be the cornerstone of student improvement for our children not a narrow Literacy and Numeracy focus. Those areas are foundational and absolutely at the core of what a school does but we can be so much more than that.

Last night at our teacher meeting we did some preliminary work on our inquiry learning approaches for 2012. That was intended as the posting for today, but clearly I got sidetracked. My biggest concern is that such staff meetings in the current climate may become a luxury as we will need to spend the majority of our time on national standards compliance matters. This isn’t what I want for my children and I know parents in our community don’t want that either.

Unfortunately the debate and decision making on educational direction and policy shifted out of the hands of those actually doing the work some time ago. It is up to us instead to determine what is best at a local level as the national direction is already fixed.

Danny Nicholls


St Patrick's Catholic School, Taupo


Anonymous said...

As you say a well balanced account - all schools and BOTs should read it.

Malcolm Reeve said...

I just read this article. It is written with some dismay at the way the national agenda is leading to a narrowing of the curriculum and experiences for students. Iv'e heard some great things about the NZ approach to learning and the work on students with complex learning difficulties is respected world-wide. In the UK a landscape shift has occurred with power being put back into the hands of schools and Heads who know what their students and communities need. The Academies programme has opened up new possibilities and many of us are taking the opportunity. So well done for being up front and honest and hold on to the knowledge that things can change for the better.