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Cut the education red tape!

Posted by on December 4th, 2013

If a child comes to school hungry, putting them on the scales every day to see whether they’re gaining weight won’t help. The same principle applies to their learning. Constantly testing their level of reading and writing ability won’t do anything to improve it – quality teaching will. That has to be the main message we take from our staggering decline in the latest OECD educational rankings.

For the past five years (during which time the dramatic decline has taken place) the National government have been obsessed with testing, assessment, and ranking. The result has been schools and teachers that are so tied up with red tape and ‘reporting’ that they don’t actually have the time to do the main thing they are there to do – teach!

We already know who the kids are who are falling behind. Every teacher can tell us which kids in their class are struggling. What we should be doing is focusing resources and attention to actually fixing the problem. What National are focusing on now is how they can get their assessment results more consistent – what’s that cliche about repeating the same mistake over and over?

There are programmes that we know work. Last year Labour announced that we will extend Reading Recovery so that all the kids who are falling behind in their reading can catch-up. We’re also going to develop a Maths Recovery programme and improve professional development opportunities for teachers so that they can improve their own skills.

Let’s cut the red tape that is tying our schools and teachers in knots and get back to the basics – teaching and learning.

Gifted Awareness Week

Posted by on June 19th, 2013

Our education system should be focused on ensuring that all New Zealanders, no matter where they are from or what their background, have the opportunity to fulfill their potential in life. Inherent in that goal is a recognition that everyone is different, we all learn at different rates and in different ways, and we all have different strengths and challenges.

This week is Gifted Awareness Week. It’s a time when we recognise that failure to extend and challenge really bright kids is just as much of a tragedy as failure to lift the educational achievement of those at the lower end of the educational statistics. Gifted kids who are bored through lack of challenge and stimulation are just as likely to become disengaged from education as those who struggle to keep up.

Last year as part of Gifted Awareness Week I had the chance to visit the Wellington Library and play chess with some fantastic young people. Sadly, funding for the programme that supports them has been withdrawn by the present government. It wasn’t a lot of money in the first place, but that decision speaks volumes about the current government’s priorities.

The current National government are obsessed with ‘standardising’ the education system. They measure the success of the system by whether or not all kids are jumping the same hurdles at the same time. In a ‘standardised’ system, a lot of attention gets focused on those students who are at or just below the standard, while those who are falling a long way behind, and likewise those who are already excelling, often get over-looked.

What we should be doing is treating every child as the unique individual that they are. We should be asking what they’re good at, what they’re struggling with, and how we can best support them to reach their full potential. That will be the focus of the next Labour government.

Charter schools have no future

Posted by on April 17th, 2013

On Friday the Education and Science Select Committee reported back to the House the legislation introducing charter schools. In our minority report, the Labour Party has set out very clearly our reasons for opposing the legislation. Among our reasons are:

  • The introduction of charter schools is based on the failed notion that increased competition will improve student outcomes. There is clear evidence from New Zealand and overseas that this isn’t the case. Even the Treasury has argued that systems with “highly competitive elements” do not produce systematically better outcomes.
  • At a time when the government claims it is focused on quality teaching, charter schools won’t have to employ registered teachers, and the principal won’t even have to hold a teaching qualification.
  • Charter schools will lack public scrutiny. They won’t be covered by the Official Information Act, and although the Ombudsman can now investigate concerns about student stand-downs and exclusions, the overall accountability regime is still very weak.
  • New Zealand’s world-leading curriculum won’t have to be taught in charter schools. Charter schools could be used for indoctrination, rather than education. For example there is nothing to stop a charter school teaching “intelligent design” in the place of science.
  • The Labour Party does not believe that schools should be in the profit-making business. Money that is extracted from charter schools in the form of dividends for shareholders is money that isn’t being invested in education.
  • Charter schools will not have an enrolment zone. While the government claim that charter schools will be targeted to areas of high need, there is nothing to stop such a school accepting a majority of their enrolments from outside their neighbourhood. We remain concerned that charter schools will be able to use underhand methods to “cherry pick” students.
  • We recognise that a number of learners are currently struggling within the education system, and that Māori and Pacific learners are disproportionately represented in that group. That’s why we believe the government should be focused on ensuring that every school is a great school, regardless of where they live. Policies should be based on research and evidence, not ideology.
  • Much of the flexibility that the government claims it seeks through the charter schools model already exists, for example Special Character Schools can already be established with in the existing public school framework.
  • National has no mandate to introduce charter schools. Although it was working on the proposal before the last election, it did not reveal it to the public until afterwards. The fact that the process of establishing charter schools has already started even before the legislation has passed is a real slap in the face to those who took the time to make submissions to the select committee.

I’ve made Labour’s position on the future of charter schools very clear – there isn’t one. We will not guarantee on-going funding to any charter school established under the present government, nor will we necessarily offer them integration into the public system. The legislation allowing for their establishment will be repealed.

You can read Labour’s minority report on the Bill here.

Surrender and retention in schools

Posted by on April 12th, 2013

Today the Education Amendment Bill was reported back to the House. While much of the debate on the Bill will focus on the establishment of charter schools, there are some very important changes to the powers of schools around search and surrender of student property.

As a committee we spent a lot of time debating these issues, and I think the position we reached is sensible. Schools have a very difficult job balancing the rights of individual students with the rights of all students and staff to work in a safe environment. The clearer the rules and guidelines are, the easier it will be for schools to tread that fine line appropriately.

Here is a quick summary of some of the key provisions of the Bill (paraphrased):

  • If a teacher or an authorised staff member has reasonable grounds to believe that a student has hidden or in clear view on or about that student’s person, or in any bag or container under the student’s control, an item that is likely to (a) endanger the safety of any person; or (b) detrimentally affect the learning environment,  they may require the student to produce and surrender that item. If the item is contained on a computer or electronic device they may require them to reveal the item or surrender the device on which it is stored.
  • Where there are reasonable grounds to suspect a student has a harmful item (one that poses an immediate threat to the physical or emotional safety of any person) in their possession and the student has refused to produce or surrender it, the teacher or authorised person may ask a student to remove a jacket or outer clothing so that it can be searched (but this would not be allowed if they had no clothing underneath it); require the removal of a head covering, gloves, footwear or socks (but this specifically excludes tights and stockings); require a student to hand over a bag or other container and allow it to be searched.
  • Such actions need to be done with sensitivity and so as to afford the student maximum privacy and decency; and that where possible the search be carried out by a teacher of the same sex as the student, in the presence of another teacher or authorised staff member of the same sex.
  • A school may allow a contractor to bring a suitably trained dog onto their premises to search school property such as desks or lockers (but not to search students).
  • The legislation also requires the Secretary of Education to issue rules regarding the surrender and retention of property and searches by schools. These rules will need to spell out requirements for written records to be kept, how any property confiscated is to be dealt with, the procedure for authorising staff members, and so forth. These rules are treated as regulations and can therefore be disallowed by the Regulations Review committee.

The Bill makes it very clear that students are not allowed to be strip searched, nor is any property they possess allowed to be forcefully confiscated. If a student refuses to comply, the school may take appropriate disciplinary action, for example stand down / suspension from school. While the legislation authorises a teacher or authorised person to ‘require’ a student to do the things above, they cannot be ‘forced’ to do it.

If a student refuses to show a teacher an item on an electronic device (eg. a cellphone, laptop or tablet), the teacher can ask them to hand the device over, but they couldn’t then search it without the students consent.

It’s also important to note that there need to be reasonable grounds for suspicion, and that the power to require students to surrender items is limited to items that present a risk to safety or to the learning environment. The very limited powers around search are even further limited to only cases where there is an immediate risk to safety.

Schools should be safe places, free of drugs and weapons. Teachers shouldn’t be required to act as ‘police’ but they should have the ability to deal appropriately with the very real challenges they face on a daily basis. I think the new provisions, as amended by the select committee, get the balance about right.

Novopay shambles continues

Posted by on March 18th, 2013

Two months after Steven Joyce was brought in to fix the failing Novopay system, the problems are getting worse not better. Over the weekend we found out that hundreds of teachers have been unilaterally given the sack by the government’s payroll provider. That news came as a shock to them and to the schools they’re employed by. It’s a total disgrace.

This latest shambles follows news last week that Novopay provider Talent2 was using debt collectors to recover money from those who had been overpaid. It’s shocking that with thousands of people still being overpaid, underpaid and not paid at all, the government deemed this heavy-handed approach acceptable. Responsibility for this mess now rests with Steven Joyce. He either didn’t ask what steps Talent2 were taking to recover the overpaid money, in which case he is incompetent, or he signed it off, in which case he shows absolutely no understanding of the extent of the Novopay debacle.

Steven Joyce speaks of technical reviews and long-term solutions, but he needs to urgently deal with the massive problems Novopay is causing in schools right now. Despite seven months of chaos, schools still aren’t being compensated for all the extra work and stress Novopay is causing. I’ve had reports of schools taking on extra staff just to deal with payroll issues, not hiring relieving teachers when someone is sick because they don’t have the funds left, and cancelling equipment orders because they aren’t confident they’ll be able to pay for them. Yet still Steven Joyce does nothing.

Of course we need a long-term solution, but Steven Joyce can’t keep turning a blind eye to the turmoil Novopay is causing in the meantime. A comprehensive remediation and compensation package is long overdue. It’s time ‘Mr Fix-it” delivered one.

Arrogance and contempt

Posted by on March 18th, 2013

Last week in the House I asked the government a series of questions about former Secretary for Education Lesley Longstone’s $425,000 golden handshake. That’s a lot of taxpayer coin, and the public should be able to expect answers from those who approved it.

Having earlier attempted to question Hekia Parata over the matter and had that request transferred to the Minister for State Services, Jonathan Coleman, I decided to drill down a little deeper into Coleman’s initial answer.

All up it took 26 minutes and countless points of order to get him to answer the primary and half a dozen supplementary questions. His replies demonstrated a total contempt for the democratic process. It’s the first time I’ve ever seen a Minister reply when asked about a matter they had signed-off on with “How should I know?”

You can watch the full 26 minutes and make up your own minds.

Newsflash – there’s a Novopay backlog!

Posted by on March 11th, 2013

At long last the government have finally gotten something to do with Novopay right. Yesterday on Q+A Steven Joyce announced that he is beefing up the Novopay Backlog Clearance Unit (BCU). This is something principals and school administrators have been calling for.

One of the common frustrations that I’ve been hearing from those trying to sort out the Novopay shambles is that the problems keep compounding. Schools don’t have time to get on top of the problems from one pay round and then another one rolls along and a whole lot more problems are created. Clearing the backlog will ease a lot of pressure, and I’m sure schools will welcome that.

I’m sure schools will also welcome Steven Joyce’s commitment to getting Novopay fixed within 3 months. People have been calling for a timeframe, and now Joyce has given them one. If he fails to live up to that commitment, the responsibility for that will fall squarely on his shoulders.

Responsibility for payout rests with Parata

Posted by on March 5th, 2013

Today the State Services Commission finally announced the details of Lesley Longstone’s departure package. Recall that Longstone resigned as CE of the Ministry of Education the week before Christmas, just after her Minister, Hekia Parata, had conveniently brought her holiday forward so she was away from any fallout.

In announcing her resignation, State Services Commissioner Iain Rennie cited a breakdown in Longstone’s relationship with Hekia Parata as one of the reasons for her leaving. To this day, Parata is still refusing to comment on the issue.

Responsibility for Longstone’s $425,000 payout rests squarely on Hekia Parata’s shoulders. Taxpayers are paying a hefty price, just so that National has someone else to blame for the Government’s stuff-ups in education. Let’s look at the big debacles:

  • Bigger class sizes was a policy signed-off by Cabinet as part of the Budget
  • The Christchurch school fiasco was all done under ministerial direction
  • Novopay was signed-off by Ministers (albeit on shonky advice)
  • Salisbury School’s closure, overturned by the courts, was Parata’s decision

Basically, Longstone is taking the fall for the government, and the taxpayers are forking out $425,000 as a result. The real accountability should be with the Minister. John Key promised Kiwis he would hold his ministers to a higher standard. Repeatedly he has failed to live up to that commitment.

Today’s pay-out is also a complete slap in the face to the thousands of school staff who are still waiting to be paid what they are owed by Novopay. It is galling to see so much money wasted on a severance payment when schools are still waiting for proper Government support to compensate them for the costs of the Novopay debacle.

School staff stress = non-compliance

Posted by on March 3rd, 2013

Hundreds if not thousands of schools up and down the country will have fallen foul of a Ministry of Education requirement for them to submit school charters by last Friday. The reason? Novopay!

In most schools, the same staff who deal with the payroll will also be dealing with compliance issues like charters. Given the choice between making sure people get paid or meeting Ministry compliance requirements, many schools have rightly focused on getting people paid.

Principals and schools tell me they’ve written to Ministers pleading for lenience on charters, but they’ve completely ignored them. Hekia Parata’s absolute arrogance and unwillingness to show lenience on already over-stressed school staff once again shows how out of touch and out of her depth she is as Minister of Education.

The Novo-shambles rolls on yet still the government refuses to do anything to relieve the massive pressure school administrators are under. Vague promises of a solution somewhere in the future just don’t cut it. Schools desperately need help and support now. Parata and Joyce should get off their backsides and start providing it.

Contempt for democracy

Posted by on March 2nd, 2013

Even supporters of National’s Charter Schools have asked for changes to draft legislation currently before the Education and Science Select Committee. While the overwhelming majority of the 2,000 or so submitters have opposed the idea, and presented compelling research, facts and arguments against them, a handful of supporters have put forward suggested amendments to the Bill that are practical and sensible.

I don’t agree with the whole concept of Charter Schools, and will continue to oppose them. Nothing I’ve heard from submitters has convinced me that we need them, or that our existing publicly-owned and operated schools can’t deliver the supposed ‘flexibility’ and ‘innovation’ these new for-profit schools are supposed to showcase. But if the government is determined to plough ahead, they could at least work to knock the rough edges off the legislation they’ve hastily cobbled together as payback for the Key/Banks ‘cuppa tea’ deal.

Sadly, the government isn’t listening. They’ve already kick-started the process of setting up these new privatised schools before the Bill has even been reported back from select committee, let alone debated and voted on by the whole House. We only finished hearing public submissions on Wednesday. The committee hasn’t yet had the chance to consider what changes to recommend based on them.

This whole process has been a sham. New Zealanders don’t want to see schools set up as profit making businesses. And they certainly don’t want to see Government funding used for schools that employ unqualified teachers, and don’t have to teach to the New Zealand curriculum.

The composition of the Board to oversee the schools establishment, announced yesterday by John Banks, makes it crystal clear that the Government’s real aim is the commercialisation of the school system – not lifting student achievement. National and Act are obsessed with the idea that competition will somehow improve educational outcomes. Even the Treasury doesn’t believe that.

We should be focused on making sure every school is world-class, instead of wasting time and effort on the ideological experiment of Charter Schools. There are some positive changes in the Bill to other areas of education policy (for example more flexibility around school opening hours) but they are being well and truly over-shadowed by National’s ideological experiment in privatising education.

Novopay Issues #1

Posted by on February 25th, 2013

Plenty has already been said about the Novopay shambles. The system was never ready for implementation, it never should’ve been signed-off, and the safeguards and contingencies that should have been in place weren’t. I’ll keep holding the government to account for their failure, but I’ll also be picking up specific issues and, where I can, working to ensure that people aren’t disadvantaged in the long-term because of Novopay.

Last week in the House I asked the Minister Responsible for Novopay, Steven Joyce, some questions about Novopay not handing over Kiwisaver contributions to savings providers. The money is being taken from employees pay packets, but it’s not showing up in their Kiwisaver accounts. In some cases I’m aware of, this has been going on for months and months. Not only are the employees concerned worried about where their money has gone, they’re also missing out on the returns that would otherwise have accrued had their money been paid over on time.

The most important comment Steven Joyce made was this one:

Chris Hipkins: Will employees who have had KiwiSaver or other superannuation contributions deducted from their salaries but not paid over to their scheme provider be compensated for lost returns that would otherwise have accrued, and if not, why not?

Hon STEVEN JOYCE: My understanding is that yes, they will be made good in those regards.

I welcome this commitment by Joyce. It means that not only will people affected get their money back, they will be compensated for any returns that would’ve accrued in the meantime. I’ll be interested to see the details of exactly how they’re going to calculate that, and will ask some more questions in that regard.

There are other specific concerns about Novopay that I hope to address in coming weeks, including people defaulting on child support payments, justice ministry payments, student loan repayments, and so on. I’ll blog more about those as the answers come through.

So much for Hekia Parata’s word…

Posted by on February 20th, 2013

Today in Parliament I questioned the Minister of Education Hekia Parata on her decision to close Branston Intermediate School in Christchurch. I singled out Branston because Parata had given them a specific commitment that they wouldn’t close before the end of 2014 and she has now reneged on that commitment. Here is an excerpt from the Hansard (video):

Chris Hipkins: Did she, or her officials, give Branston Intermediate School an assurance that any students enrolled for 2013 would be able to finish their 2 years at Branston Intermediate School before any closure?

Hon HEKIA PARATA: I did not.

Chris Hipkins: Did she write to Branston Intermediate School on 28 September stating that she had made “a proposal about the closure of Branston Intermediate School to be implemented for the end of 2014.”, and did she tell a public meeting at Branston Intermediate School that the school would definitely be open in 2014, as parents have written in to say she said; if so, why is she now changing that proposal so that students who have only just started school this year will have to change school next year?

Hon HEKIA PARATA: I did provide Branston Intermediate School with a proposal, and in the meeting with the Branston community I repeatedly said it was a proposal and that they were free to make submissions on it, as indeed they can on the proposal they now have.

Chris Hipkins: At the public meeting with Branston Intermediate School did she give them an assurance that Branston Intermediate School would still be open in 2014?

Hon HEKIA PARATA: I made it clear, repeatedly, that it was a proposal, that they had the opportunity to give a submission on that proposal, and I got their submission, and they now have a further opportunity.

At that point we then had a lengthy series of points of order about whether or not Parata’s answer actually addressed the question. Ultimately, the public will be the judge of that, but I can’t imagine she would’ve gotten away with that under Lockwood Smith.

Hekia Parata can try to hide behind the words “interim decisions” and “proposal” all she likes – but the fact is she has gone back on her word. Her word is worthless.

Is it any wonder that 71% of those polled in Canterbury want Hekia Parata sacked as Minister of Education? They don’t trust her, and don’t want her anywhere near the education of their children.

The Christchurch schools announcement

Posted by on February 18th, 2013

Today Hekia Parata announced her decisions concerning the proposed closure or merger of 31 schools in Christchurch. 12 schools will remain open as they are, while seven schools will close and 12 will merge (13 fewer schools overall).

Overall there is good and bad in today’s announcements. Nobody doubted that change was always going to be necessary, but this process has been a shambles. Instead of getting community buy-in and support, Hekia Parata has eroded all goodwill. This could’ve been really positive for Christchurch. Instead it’s yet another example of Nationals heavy-handed, we know best, approach to the Christchurch rebuild.

Today’s announcement will be welcomed by the 12 schools who will stay open. For the others, it’s worse than they might have expected because the timeframes for closure and merger originally proposed have been shortened and most will now take effect from the end of this year.

The decision to shorten the timeframe doesn’t make sense, particularly for the intermediates. Kids who started intermediate this year will face another change next year. The original proposal would’ve seen the intermediates stay open but not take in a new cohort, meaning the kids already there wouldn’t have been forced to switch schools twice in two years. There are also concerns that this new rushed timeframe won’t allow enough time for the necessarily building projects, or for schools to integrate their teaching programmes.

The data that Parata relied on when making her decisions was also clearly flawed. MOE projections showing falling rolls for some of the schools being closed or merged don’t match with reality. For example Philipstown School’s roll has actually grown this year not shrunk as the Ministry predicted.

The problem for Parata is she jumped the gun last year and put forward closure and merger proposals too soon. The government had started well, with a wide-ranging discussion about what the future of schooling in Christchurch, but then they lurched into a specific set of proposals without giving the community a chance to talk about what the actual shape of schooling might look like in the future. The population is still really fluid too, and it’s not yet clear where people will ultimately settle once things have all calmed down.

Parata could’ve started today with an apology. She didn’t. My thoughts are with the schools in Christchurch who are grappling with the decisions. They deserved to be treated with more respect than this.

National Standards are the problem

Posted by on February 16th, 2013

This week’s Listener has an article (unfortunately pay-walled online) about supposed ‘grade inflation’ in primary school tests. The allegation comes as a result of changes to the marking guides for key assessment tools teachers use to measure student progress in core areas like literacy and numeracy. Principals are reporting vastly different results that they claim over-inflate the amount of progress students have made during the year.

The tools concerned, e-asTTle and STAR, are used by schools to assess writing and reading respectively. The issue at hand appears to be that the underlying assumptions used to produce test ‘results’ have changed. For example:

The old e-asTTle test looked at the piece of writing each student did during a test, and gave results purely on face value. The new one uses that piece of writing as a starting point, and extrapolates to what the student could probably do with support from his or her teacher and without the pressure of the test.

There is nothing necessarily wrong with this change. e-asTTle is only a tool, and the results it produces need to be weighed up against a number of other things including teachers observations, interviews and a child’s written work. The problem comes because e-asTTle and STAR results are often used in the reporting of National Standards progress to parents.

…some principals are worried that less-scrupulous schools – or those whose staff simply don’t understand how the tests have changed – could be using the results to artificially boost their National Standards results. That in turn could give schools a higher ranking in the public league tables.

Paul Drummond, principal of Tahunanui School and outgoing head of the New Zealand Principals’ Federation sums up the problem:

“I’d like to think there was professional integrity around this, [but] there are going to be enormous pressures to the contrary – to actually spin your data. There is so much pressure put on for schools to look good in those judgments, those scores.”

I have a lot of faith in the integrity of our teachers, and I don’t think they would deliberately inflate student results. However, if the National government go ahead with the plans they’ve got Treasury working on at the moment and introduce ‘performance’ pay for teachers, things could well be different.

If a teacher’s pay at the end of the week is going to be determined by a narrow range of student test results, there will be every incentive in the world for them to use every means available to make those results look as good as they possibly can.

The fundamental problem is that National Standards are narrowing the focus of teaching and learning too much. There are no national standards in science or art for example. Linking teacher pay to National Standards results is only going to make that problem worse.

Instead of taking such a narrow-minded approach, we need to replace National Standards with a requirement for schools to report to parents regularly and in plain language how their child is progressing against the whole curriculum. Instead of attempting to measure teacher performance by looking at a narrow range of test results, we should be focused on encouraging ongoing professional development and establishing a robust attestation process that factors in all elements of effective teaching.

Integration of Charter Schools?

Posted by on February 13th, 2013

The Green Party have announced today that they would seek to integrate any Charter Schools setup under National into the public education system. I don’t agree with that approach. Labour doesn’t see the need for Charter Schools. We have enough schools already.

We don’t support having schools with unregistered teachers and that don’t teach to our world-leading curriculum. We don’t support a model of education that sees a proliferation of schools competing with each other for bums on seats. Why should we be offering these prospective schools a lifeline when we don’t need or want them in the first place?

Labour’s message to anyone looking to setup a Charter School under National’s proposed legislation is to think very carefully. A future Labour government will not guarantee ongoing funding, we will not guarantee integration into the state school system. In short, we will not guarantee these schools a future.

We don’t yet know what the contracts with these new Charter Schools will look like. Hopefully we’ll get more clarity around that during the select committee hearings. Until then Labour won’t be making any clear statement about what we’ll do with any Charter Schools National establishes, but we’re certainly not offering them the lifeline of integration.

Another Parata communication triumph

Posted by on February 8th, 2013

Within the next two weeks Hekia Parata will be charged with announcing the fate of several dozen Canterbury schools. Consultation on merger and closure proposals ended just before Christmas and Parata  supposedly spent her extended summer break reading them.

While all of those schools wait on tenterhooks to hear their fate, Parata decided today to announce the government’s plans to open six brand new schools in Christchurch. Talk about a slap in the face to all of the schools still waiting to hear what the future holds for them.

Nobody doubts that significant change is required. The population has moved around in Christchurch, and as a result some schools have shrunk to the point where they are no longer viable while others are bursting at the seams.

But there is a way to do this. It starts with respect for the school communities affected. Shepherding all the principals and BOTs into a hall and giving them colour-coded name badges to indicate whether they were closing, merging, or remaining wasn’t a great start. Announcing the opening of new schools before telling the existing schools of their fate rubs further salt into the wounds.

Hekia Parata has a difficult job to do, but she seems determined to make it even harder for herself. Her handling of the Christchurch schooling situation has demonstrated arrogance and a total lack of respect. The people of Christchurch deserve better.

Performance Pay for Teachers

Posted by on February 7th, 2013

Treasury documents released this week talk about exploring new ways of ‘holding teachers accountable for their performance’.  It’s becoming increasingly clear that the National government want to put performance pay back on the agenda.

My good mate and former (and hopefully future) colleague Kelvin Davis wrote an excellent post on Red Alert back in 2010 pointing out some of the pitfalls of performance pay for teachers. Here are some of the salient points:

So what happens in those schools and regions where students enter a classroom at the beginning of the year well below the national standard? Why would a teacher want to teach in a school like that where despite his/her best efforts the student makes heaps of progress but fails to get over the National Standard ‘line’.

There are some excellent teachers working really hard in schools where the students are struggling. They get incredible results, and often the students in their classes learn a lot more in a year than a child at a school with better test scores, yet because the kids are still behind some of their peers at the end of the year, these schools are labelled as ‘failures’. Why would a great teacher work their guts out at a struggling school when they could get more ‘performance’ pay by working in a school that wasn’t struggling?

Is a teacher good or bad if they focus on ‘number’ over statistics, algebra, measurement and geometry? Are we saying these other strands aren’t important? If my receipt of a performance pay bonus depended on me making sure kids were numerate over statist-erate, or measure-ate, or algeb-rate or geome-rate, I would focus on numeracy – statistics and everything else can go to hell.

This comes back to one of the major flaws with National Standards. It’s all very well to say we want teachers to focus on literacy and numeracy, but what if that comes at the expense of other areas like science, technology, or social studies. If teacher pay is going to be based on a narrow set of targets, that’s where they will focus their efforts, rather than teaching a broad curriculum.

Do they deserve performance pay for – 1) doing duty?, 2) coaching sports teams? 3) being associate teachers of student teachers? 4) being tutor teachers for beginning teachers? 5) liaising with parents, whanau and iwi? 6) taking after school music or art classes? 7) after school tutoring? 8) leading professional development and appraisal of peers? 9) organising school discos? 10) fundraising? 11) organising the school play? 12) organising the school fair? 13) organising sports trips? 14) organising the school library? 15) organising the swimming sports, athletics day, 40 hour famine, breakfast club, buses, cross country, art exhibition, assemblies, class camps, community problems solving, peer mediators, restorative justice programme, assessment moderation sessions, interschool quality learning circles, professional development programme, etc, etc, etc.

As Kelvin points out, there is a lot more to teaching than making sure kids hit an arbitrary and narrowly focused set of standards. The fundamental problem with ‘performance’ pay for teachers is that a narrow range of student achievement statistics alone aren’t a reliable measure of how good a teacher is. Can we do a better job of rewarding great teachers? Undoubtedly. Should we provide more incentives for teachers to undertake professional development and continually strive to be better teachers. For sure. Will ‘performance pay’ based on student achievement help achieve these things? No.

Bulk funding = cost cutting

Posted by on February 6th, 2013

Last year Hekia Parata announced that the National government was going to be putting more kids into each class. The backlash was huge, and within weeks the National government had backed down, leaving a big hole in their Budget. They still haven’t identified how they’re going to fill it.

Yesterday Radio NZ reported that the Treasury are arguing for a return to bulk-funding of schools. One of the biggest components of our existing spend on schooling is teacher salaries. By devolving responsibility for salaries to individual schools, the government would also devolve the problem of working out how to make up for reduced funding.

If the new ‘bulk’ fund provided to each school didn’t keep up with increasing costs, and didn’t take into account any negotiated increases in teacher pay (which would still be negotiated by central government), schools would be forced to reduce teacher numbers (bigger classes), swap experienced teachers for less experienced ones to reduce salary costs, or cut funding from other areas of the school budget (which is already under enormous pressure).

Is this how Hekia Parata is going to fill in the hole she has created in the education budget? Bulk funding is National’s way of abrogating responsibility for funding schools properly. The losers, at the end of the day, will be the kids.

National gets more whipping

Posted by on January 28th, 2013

Just before Christmas the Remuneration Authority released their determination regarding MPs pay. Naturally, all of the media focus was on the fact that MPs were getting a pay rise just before Christmas and it was to be back-dated. Personally I agree with the idea that MPs pay and entitlements should be set on a 3 yearly basis and changes should only come into force following each election, but that’s a discussion for another day.

Hidden away in the determination was another interesting little change. Political parties with more than 45 MPs are now entitled to a second junior whip position. So with Michael Woodhouse taking on a ministerial role, and Louise Upston almost certain to step in the Chief Whip’s shoes tomorrow, National will now have to elect two new junior whips. The smart money seems to be on Tim McIndoe and my Breakfast TV sparring partner Jamie Lee-Ross.

I agree with the decision to increase the number of whips big parties can have. It’s a big job and under MMP it’s getting even bigger. But it’s interesting the National government decided to implement the change now, rather than wait until after the next election, when it wouldn’t look quite so much like they were changing the rules to suit their own interests.

Lockwood raises the bar, again

Posted by on January 22nd, 2013

At some stage over the next few weeks, possibly as early as next Thursday, parliament will elect a new Speaker. As an opposition MP I never thought I’d find myself saying this, but we’ll be sad to see Lockwood Smith go. As Speaker, he has raised the bar in terms of ministerial accountability in the House. His most significant ruling, that when asked a straight question ministers should give straight answers, has changed the whole nature of Question Time. That ruling will remain in place long after his departure, although whether the new Speaker has the ability to implement it with the same precision and diligence is yet to be seen.

Just before Christmas, Lockwood raised the bar again, this time relating to ministerial accountability outside the Debating Chamber. Under parliament’s rules MPs are also allowed to ask written questions of ministers. There are a lot more of these and they don’t always receive the same level of attention questions in the House do. But they’re a vital information channel for the opposition, and they’re another way we can hold ministers to account for their performance and the performance of their departments.

Late last year Labour asked a series of written questions about the Novopay fiasco. The Minister in charge Craig Foss tried to brush them off by saying they were ‘operational matters for the Chief Executive’. This reply has been used by successive governments to sidestep bad news. However, the days when Ministers could duck for cover in this way seem to be over. In replying to Labour’s complaint on the matter, Lockwood Smith ruled:

“I note that there is no convention that Ministers are not answerable for operational matters, but that a Minster is not prevented from replying in those terms. These rulings related to a minister being questioned on operational matters for which a crown entity had responsibility. I expect a higher standard for answering questions relating to a department for which the Minister is responsible. A minister should be able to give informative replies about the actions of such a department.”

“As you have noted, the record shows that the Associate Minister has provided the House with information on this matter in response to questions for oral answer. Ministers are no less accountable to give informative replies to questions for written answer.”

Craig Foss subsequently provided more fulsome answers to our Novopay questions. But the effect of this ruling will extend well beyond this one instance. If the new Speaker maintains this new high standard, the improved level of accountability we’ve seen at Question Time will extend beyond the walls of the Debating Chamber. That’s a good thing.

The new Speaker will have big shoes to fill. All the more reason for the government to nominate a candidate who will have the respect of all sides of the House.