Ministry of Education, Schools missing point of climate strike

On Friday 15 March 2019, in a westward rippling wave across the world, students will strike for the climate. In action possibly inspired by a Swedish schoolgirl, Greta Thunberg going to Davos to lecture political leaders about the effects of climate change on her generation, possibly hundreds of thousands of students around the world are going to strike. Their target: the politicians who hold the power and the means to address climate change.

It is important to understand before I delve into the depth of this article that I am not necessarily condoning the strike action itself. I am acknowledging the fact that one cannot really expect students to just shut, roll over and pretend there is not a problem, when it is their generation that will have to deal with the consequences in whatever form they come.

Of course there will be a few students who, not being socially minded, will think that it is an opportunity for a day off. That is not the case.

Schools, expected to be the most in tune with the sentiments of their students, are surprisingly out of touch as to the larger objective that the students are trying to achieve here. Far from expecting to have an impact on the actual carbon footprint, which schools seem to think is their aim, the idea is to make politicians stop and think about why they have elected to mass boycott classes.

One grave mistake we make with students is that they are do not understand these problems, or that they should leave “adult issues” to adults to sort out. But when the adults are visibly fiddling around the edges whilst more and more evidence of a major environmental emergency emerge at an alarming frequency, it is folly to expect students and young people not to notice. It is almost as if we think their eyes, their ears and their brains operate on a different wave length. In that context I like to think of it as a radio in the pre-digital days where one had to turn the dial ever so slightly to make sure that the needle picked up the channel, and that the students dial is set to a point on the edge of the channel – with a lot of static around it.

So, when I think about it like that, I am only all the more surprised then that these same schools are not rushing to to look at ways that they can try to reach some sort of accommodation with the students. It is obvious that this is a well advanced plan and that come Friday some sort of disruption is going to take place irrespective of how many schools are on board, on the fence, or threatening to dish out disciplinary action.

I am surprised that there does not appear to have been some sort of communication between school boards, the Ministry of Education and activist groups assisting the students with their big protest.

As for the political parties, National and A.C.T., aside from not seriously being concerned about climate change, would much rather this happened on a strike day so that it can be drowned out by the sound of striking teachers and forgotten about. New Zealand First probably wants them to stay in school, though I think it can see why they are getting uppity about it. Any support will come from Labour and the Greens, with reservations – despite agreeing that climate change will be the problem of the protesting students, they will not want to be seen encouraging mass bunking of classes.

But something is going to happen on Friday, schools or no schools; political parties or no political parties. They better start talking because I have a feeling it is too late to stop; probably too late to isolate to just a few schools and possibly too late to even slow the momentum down. Such is the level of concern. Such is Strike for Climate, Friday 15 March 2019.

Strike 4 Climate student protest not a joke

When Swedish school girl activist Greta Thunberg faced down politicians of all stripes at Davos, Switzerland at their annual economic forum, many politicians thought she was just a lone student gone rogue. They thought that high school students were disinterested in the world around them, disinterested in politics. A lesson is coming for them.

Now we are seeing the birth pangs of the next generation of activists. And what birth pangs they are. On 15 March 2019, a world first will happen. School students all around the world will go on strike by refusing to attend school, arguing what the point is when catastrophic climate change threatens to leave them without a future in which they could use their education. Two decades ago organizing a world wide student protest would have been impossible and principals would have shut it down before any cohesion could be gained. A decade ago when the Fifth Labour Government was in office and teachers went on strike, the strikes lasted long enough that students were able to co-ordinate a limited counter strike to protest the continuing disruption to their education.

But this is quite different, and an order of magnitude more impressive, as well as concerning – and encouraging. In terms of being different, this about students lives after they leave high schools and the future of the planet we all live on. This is a global emergency they claim and politicians are not doing enough to respond.

And there is a ground swell of support across the education sector, ranging from researchers, to teachers, principals, lecturers and more who have all signed a petition to Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern.

Not all are in support of this action. National and A.C.T. Members of Parliament think they should wait until the teachers strike on 03 April – which I think is their way of wanting the coverage likely to be generated to be buried by a bigger news item. Many of the same Members of Parliament claim it is a serious issue, yet none have offered alternative ideas about how to deal with this and it kind of puts a question mark on their sense of urgency.

Labour and Green Party Members of Parliament like the idea behind the protest, but are reluctant to be seen endorsing massive student strike action that involves disruption to learning. But as youth are beginning to realise that it is this Government or the next which must try to make serious policy in roads into tackling climate change, it is important to note that they cannot afford to be seen as too distant either.

I am not sure where New Zealand First sit on this. It is an issue that the party did not seem to know which direction it wanted to go in, whilst I was a member. Many members are from rural backgrounds or are socially conservative and would frown upon this action. However in order to maintain a connection that it has been trying to build up for years with youth, I cannot imagine it condemning it in the way National and A.C.T. are.

And how many schools will participate? Some schools might be quite happy in controlled circumstances to permit a strike to go ahead and use it as an educational opportunity. There will be some schools that are there in spirit, but which insist on students attending classes in return for assisting with actions on school grounds such as letter writing, or petitions or perhaps showing The Day After Tomorrow. And then there will be a few schools that do not want a bar of it, and will make their students have a normal Friday of classes.

Big shake up for Polytechnics

The Minister of Education, Chris Hipkins has announced a potential merger of New Zealand’s 16 polytechnics, as part of a major overhaul of the education sector.

Mr Hipkins says that the strong labour market is encouraging people to move straight into the workforce instead of continuing formal education.

It might be, but we need to have a look at the reasons for this being the case. National and Labour have both spent years putting down postgraduate research by either under funding it or removing incentives such as the Postgraduate allowance. Such short sighted thinking does little to help students who want to participate in higher learning. Likewise Labour’s failure to offer a fully supported apprenticeship scheme when it was last in office has contributed to the poor state of organisation around apprenticeships.

I have also wondered on occasion what a wananga could do that a polytechnic could not. What is the difference in terms of courses and management? What differences in teaching practices would there be among the staff? Not having been to a wananga or know anyone who has, I honestly do not know. Wananga were the cause of considerable controversy under the Government of Prime Minister Helen Clark and I recall various Opposition M.P.’s grilling the Minister for Tertiary Education in the House.

A third problem has been because of the lack of effort across the economy to invest in high tech/high skilled jobs, there has been less incentive to go to University and complete higher study. Outside of farming we are in many ways still a hospitality/retail/service driven economy, shown by the fact that many people – myself included – still earn less than $20/hr before tax.

I completed last year a Graduate Diploma of Sustainable Management from the Open Polytechnic. It cost me about $7,000 across two years. It had a research paper that was worth 1/3 of the whole Diploma. During that time I had support that I never had whilst studying at Massey University, both in terms of getting the coursework done and administrative issues caused by having to bail out of a paper before I incurred an academic penalty.

I had thought about going back to University of Canterbury to do a Diploma there, but there were several really off putting factors, not least the cost. Also the set timing of university courses meant I would have had to change my work hours significantly or stop altogether. And finally, University of Canterbury Geography did not sound too keen to have me back based on my academic record, which was admittedly not the greatest.

I noticed that the Open Polytechnic teaches a range of other qualifications as well. It teaches social work to environment, from legal (law) to engineering. It has a campus in Wellington, but I did mine via distance learning whilst holding down a 40 hour a week job. I cannot help but wonder if perhaps New Zealand simply has too many non university tertiary institutions, in which case scaling down the number would make sense, but not to the extent Mr Hipkins is suggesting.



The future of Tomorrow’s Schools in the balance

In 1989 a task force was created to examine how New Zealand’s school should look and function. Tomorrow’s Schools was based on the idea that public sector policy and operations should be separated. Regional education boards were abolished. An Education Review office was established as was a New Zealand Qualifications Authority to administer qualifications at school level. Schools were allowed to write their own charters.

30 years later it is time to look at how the system is (or is not)getting on with the task of delivering good educational outcomes.

Tracey Martin, New Zealand First spokeswoman for Education, believes that Tomorrow’s Schools was a world class system when it was established. Perhaps, but what was world class in 1989 is not necessarily world class in 2019. And indeed the report called Our Schooling Futures, which is out now for public consultation, points to significant shortfalls in practice standards, resourcing, conduct and and leadership.

I applaud the move by Minister of Education Chris Hipkins to address the numerous issues confronting New Zealand schools. Most of them are ones that have been identified in the Our Schooling Futures report. I would also question whether the National Certificate for Educational Achievement is fit for purpose on the basis – my experience in the 1990’s when Unit Standards were experimental was that “no, it is not fit for purpose”. There was, scaling aside, nothing wrong with the old system of School Certificate, Sixth Form Certificate and University Bursary. I got the marks I did in that system because then I was a believer of minimal study getting me over the line.

By contrast Unit Standards confused me, gave misleading impressions of whether I was doing enough and got marked inconsistently by teachers that I am not sure actually knew how to administer them. It showed in my course results. The ones that I failed had a component of Unit Standards, and the ones that I passed did not.

Of school governance, having an Education Review Office and New Zealand Qualifications Authority, I believe Mrs Martin is correct. That splitting up of these roles and the installation of School Boards of Trustees was a correct move.

The bigger concerns for me are about the students themselves – one half of why education exists in the first place. If they cannot read off paper, write and count then I believe they will struggle in later stages of school. There is also evidence that this has benefits in terms of retention of information and conceptual understanding. Certainly in this world there is a need to teach students how to use computers and computer software, but anyone who has worked with children will know that sitting around in a group reading a picture book to young children and showing them the pictures, understand the mental stimulation this gives them.

Whilst I do not advocate a return to corporal punishment, I think some firmer boundaries need to be set than those that exist. One is ask all students to surrender their cellphones at the start of each teaching session and not let the students have them back until the next break. It is a simple to implement policy.

But the biggest concern of mine overall is the sheer workload that teachers have to deal with. Whilst I do not agreement with Mrs Martin on the subject of adding/subtracting from the workload, I think that there is a demonstrable need to look at why by 1999 teachers were working an estimated 51 hours a week and Principals doing nearly 60. I understand that this has risen further since.

Perhaps out of all of this I am reminded of a principle that was drummed into me as a student when trying to explain/do things: K.I.S.S. (Keep It Simple Stupid). Perhaps teaching staff and administrators need to K.I.S.S.


Looking at the issues behind the teachers strike

On 15 August 2018 Primary and Intermediate School teachers and principals went on strike over their pay and work conditions. Whilst there were much support for them getting a pay rise, looking back at them and having a chance to digest the feedback from others, I wonder now how support they got for addressing the conditions of their work.

1) Get a pay rise
2) Get attention focussed on the atrocious amount of other work that teachers have to do, a portion of which I simply do not believe teachers should be doing

The first aim is indisputable, though we might disagree on the pay rise happens.

It is the second one I want to focus on. The expectation that somehow they are also supposed to be part time parents, social workers, bureaucrats and jacks of all trades as well is silly. Lets get real here.

The sum of our expectations does not match the sum of what teachers can realistically expect to do. Teachers are making a 10/10 effort to meet expectations, but New Zealanders are not making a 10/10 effort to be realistic about what they can do. I think it must be soul destroying to a teacher, 100% committed to their profession, their school and their students to walk away at the end of a day and think “I screwed that up didn’t I?”.

Well, no, I doubt you screwed up anything – at least not knowing. What’s screwed up is the idea that you can do better than what you do in a teaching environment where I think there are a number of background problems.

1) Do the assessment regimes as they currently stand, actually work? You can assess a student all you want, but if the metrics that come out are goobledegook, I doubt very much when you have Teacher/Parent nights that is going to help – granted I have no idea what a school report looks like today, my high school reports in the 1990’s had three sections:

A) Curricula – where the teacher grades your performance in that area
B) Person – where the teacher notes your attendance, behaviour and whether you turned up to class in an acceptable standard
C) Commentary – self explanatory

2) Is it time to hit “reset” on our expectations of teachers, and put more responsibility back on the parent, the other social agencies – yes a teacher will see a student five days of the week, most weeks of the year and in that time they will be expected to get to know them a bit and identify behaviours,

3) Is the Education Act due for a review or overhaul – did it mandate or provide for them being all of these other things that we expect them to be? Maybe it did – I honestly have no idea what is in the Education Act 1989, but if it did not, then the time has come.

4) How much of what goes on can be put down to our addiction to social media? Would it really be too much to mandate a requirement for to hand over their phones at the start of class and only get them back a morning break and lunch time?

I think this is a conversation that we need to have as a nation, among our school communities and as parents and teachers. You could give teachers a 50% pay rise, which no doubt they would absolutely love, but if the arse is in the legislation or an aspect of teaching that cannot be sorted out by pay rises, then nothing is solved, except maybe retaining teachers is a bit easier.