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Children deserve the best education, all the time

There is something profoundly pleasing in reading of innovation and success in one of New Zealand’s low-decile schools. Most recently we had the Herald’s three-day series (Kirsty Johnston) and concurrent half-hour website documentary on Papakura High School. Congratulations to all involved, from students, to teachers, to whanau, and to the reporters themselves. What is happening at Papakura High is undoubtedly impressive.

A range of low-decile-school-based initiatives have been in the limelight over the past three decades. For example, my own doctoral studies in the late 1990s focused on a parent-led innovation in a Decile 1 rural area school. The parents and some teachers took New Zealand’s Early Childhood playcentre philosophy into both the primary and secondary levels of the school and, for two to three years, a section of the community was truly gaining from their education everything they thought ‘Tomorrow’s Schools’ promised them. Then there were initiatives such as AimHi and SEMO (Strengthening Education in Mangere and Otara) in the late 1990s, followed by MEI (Manurewa Enhancement Initiative) a little later. The film festival launch of Trouble is my Business, which centred on the disciplinary tactics of the deputy principal of Aorere College, happened in 2009. Teach First NZ is a more recent, privately-funded initiative, that fast tracks ‘top graduates’ into low-decile secondary schools with promises of great results for students.

While merit can be seen in aspects of all of the above, what is common – aside from the fact that their emphases are on low-decile school students’ achievement – is that the initiatives have made (and are making) little discernible difference to big picture outcomes. Sadly, in the case of Papakura, the trajectory is likely to be similar. Each initiative has its moment in the sun, provides hope, and appears to offer solutions. But ultimately, all are arguably part of a smoke-screen for an education system which has failed, and continues to fail, the students in New Zealand’s economically poorer communities.

I often wonder what people think when they read of isolated yet innovative programmes in low-decile schools.  Some may think ‘Whew, that’s the answer – now if we could train all teachers to be just like that Superman or Superwoman then the problem will be solved. There’s nothing like some good discipline to sort out the unruly’. Or, ‘National standards will make teachers lift their game; obviously teachers in low-decile schools are not working hard enough.’ Perhaps readers’ hearts are warmed when they read of the McDonald’s style teacher education programme, just for low-decile schools, which trains graduates for all of six weeks before they learn at the chalk face, with our children as part of their experimentations. Money saved on Teacher Education? That’s good, plus that should fix things, importing a business model into education. It worked in America so it should work here!

None are sustained, or in the long term, effective. Low-decile schools and innovative programmes have their star turns, and then the norm re-emerges. In secondary schools, rolls continue to drop, staffing levels decrease, and curriculum choices become more and more limited as zoning policies enable white and middle-class flight. In primary schools there can be problems attracting staff – transience is a huge problem, poor health and inadequate housing impacts on individual children’s learning and school resources (including IT) are limited. A natural corollary of this is the statistics which emerge year after year via Unicef/PISA and the Ministry of Education, which demonstrate New Zealand’s unacceptable and shameful gap in levels of achievement between students in poverty (especially Pasifika and Maori), and all others.

So what, you may ask. Surely these ‘solutions and innovations’ are worth applauding? Yes, of course, most are. But how acceptable is this ‘ad-hoccery’ in our democratic society where education is supposed to be the medium by which everyone is empowered to reach their potential? Not just some students who happen to attend particular schools during their moments in the sun, or those in mid-to-high decile schools who – all credit to the staff, community and the MoE – tend to consistently experience fine and admirable forms of education.

While equity funding is part of our school system, one needs only to look at the state of the buildings in Papakura High to know that something is sadly awry with education’s funding/policy system. Students in our state schools experience very different physical conditions on a daily basis. It wasn’t too long ago that we read of black mould on classroom walls in a Northland/Tai Tokerau school.

My position is that an education system is not good enough if it educates some of the children well all of the time, and particular groups well only some of the time. All children deserve the very best education, all of the time.

I want to shift the focus from just the schools and the teachers themselves. I have worked in low-decile schools for long enough to know that my colleagues there are invariably hardworking, passionate and professional. Plus they possess specific attributes and skills that many other teachers do not have, such as an ability to form warm and constructive relationships within their unique school communities. Boards of Trustees are well meaning elected volunteers, with their school communities at heart – they too, work very hard.

We must especially look beyond schools for solutions. The wider, macro situation is where problems and relative poverty germinate and grow, and they impact on all aspects of schooling. In New Zealand, such issues include unemployment, underemployment, low wages, unaffordable and/or unhealthy housing, poor access to healthcare, inadequate public transport, and an increasingly mean-fisted social security system. At the same time, education policies often take little account of individual children’s or community’s circumstances. All of the preceding factors tend to impact negatively on what can, and what cannot, happen in schools.

Since the 1990s, neoliberal policies instigated and carried out by both major parties in government have had a profoundly destructive impact on the lives and education for children in economically poor communities. Until we step back and deal with these wider issues, we will continue to cling onto glimmers of hope, such as those we now witness in Papakura High. Our children, all children, deserve so much better than this.

A registered primary school teacher, Dr Vicki Carpenter has taught and/or held leadership positions in Porirua, Manurewa, Tekapo, Karetu, Moerewa, and the Hokianga. More recently, Vicki lectured at the University of Auckland in initial and postgraduate teacher education.   Currently Vicki is a second term elected Board member of the New Zealand Council for Educational Research, and Chairperson of its Audit and Risk sub-committee. She is a monitor of Teacher Education programmes for the Education Council. She recently co-edited Twelve thousand hours. Education and poverty in Aotearoa, New Zealand 2014, Dunmore). Vicki has published and co-published a wide range of articles and chapters. Social justice and issues surrounding equity are central themes in her research and writings.