Another NZ Herald Editorial on education misses the mark. In a bid to explain why most of the money in the Communities of Learners scheme is going to high decile schools, the writer leans on the tired and weary trope “it’s the unions’ fault”.
The writer doesn’t seem to know the history of the Communities of Learners scheme, from its initial incarnation as Investing in Educational Success (IES) to what’s currently in place Communities of Learners (CoLs). Nor that CoLs came about after a long and hard road of teachers’ unions pushing to improve the original IES scheme, which was, in its first incarnation, really quite dreadful. And the article certainly has no real analysis of the widespread concerns with the policy (by any name).
So here, I’ll fill you in.
Despite the tone of the editorial, teachers (and by extension, their unions) didn’t see the IES announcement and think “Oh yippee, I’ll dust off my pitchfork!” Instead, they looked carefully at the announcement, talked about it in great detail, asked a lot of questions, and found it seriously wanting.
So they did what any co-operative group would – they asked their unions to ask Ministry to go back to the table to make the policy more workable. Not so much mobs with pitchforks, more a hope for the education equivalent of a community farming co-op.
One of the biggest concerns about IES was the plan to pay a select few ‘super staff’ whilst adding to many people’s workloads and giving no extra funds for the students. It takes a team to improve things, and not recognising that was the first mistake. Teachers argued that the money for these select few jobs was over the top and, whilst a bonus for those taking leadership roles may be acceptable, the majority of the IES funding should be directed at the students rather than the staff.
That’s the other big problem educators had: the idea that a few super staff could turn everything around without a cent more for the students. No money for professional development or specialist programmes or teacher aides or therapists or equipment. Really?
Collaboration or Competition?
And what about this notion that IES aims to encourage schools to work together to improve educational standards?
The IES scheme as government proposed it expected schools to work together whilst simultaneously competing against each other. It’s somewhat counter-intuitive, is it not? But since most targets for schools centre around National Standards and NCEA pass rates, the scheme does indeed pose a competitive model. Add to that the fact that both National Standards and NCEA have very well known issues around reliability and parity, and we are opening the system up to all manner of problems.
A Seamless Education System
Another claim was that IES aimed to make students’ transitions through the education system smoother. An immediate question this posed was, why was Early Childhood Education (ECE) completely left out of the equation?
One the one hand, Ministry are extolling the benefits of preschoolers taking part in ECE, and on the other hand they are setting up IES without ECE. The message is contradictory – does ECE matter or not? Is it part of a child’s learning journey or not? Teachers believe it is – in which case any scheme aiming for smooth transitions through the education system and greater collaboration between education providers should include ECE.
So no, unions didn’t dust off their pitch forks for the fun of it. They did what their members asked them to do, which is to go back to Ministry and work to improve this faulty policy. Which, to the best of their abilities and against significant opposition from Ministry and the Minister of Education, they did. And we now have Communities of Learners.
The new incarnation isn’t perfect. It still rests on data that isn’t reliable and still pits schools against each other by comparing pass rates without considering the very many variables at play. But it’s better than it was, and that’s a start.
Trust and Collaboration: Setting the Example
Improvement takes collaboration. Improvement takes a shared purpose. Improvement takes honesty and trust. And while the Minister of Education and her Ministry are asking schools to do those things, they could do far better at leading by example. Perhaps if they had trusted educators and collaborated with them to form the IES in the first place, it could have been better, sooner.
There’s a lesson in there, somewhere, and if it’s heeded perhaps we can make Communities of Learners better still.
~ Dianne, SOSNZ
Pitchfork and farmer image: Image courtesy of Simon Howden at FreeDigitalPhotos.net