by Judith Nowotarski, NZEI Te Riu Roa President
When it came out this week that Treasury had advised the government that school breakfasts had no measurable impact on educational performance, principals of low decile schools around the country were flabbergasted.
It appears the officials at Treasury know more than the doctors and nutritionists who have long championed the crucial importance of breakfast, especially for children. They certainly think they know more than the principals who see the difference a full belly makes on concentration and behaviour levels. They have even managed to find one study from Auckland University to support their stance, despite what the overwhelming majority of other local and international research says.
Windley School in Porirua has a breakfast club five days a week and principal Rhys McKinley has observed that on the three occasions that fights have occurred, they involved students who hadn’t had breakfast. Many of the students come from very difficult home situations and being able to come to school and start the day with a hot, nutritious breakfast means they can focus on their work rather than their gnawing hunger.
The students at Windley School are lucky to have a breakfast club, run most days by volunteers from Arise Church and school staff, but many low decile schools are missing out or receive support and funding on an ad hoc basis from various NGOs and community groups.
Certainly the government doesn’t want to get involved – they are trying to farm out social services such as housing. They don’t want to take on any more initiatives, even though every charity that works with impoverished families thinks school meals are a great idea.
Feeding hungry kids is surely a moral obligation in a country that can afford to do so. It is also just the beginning of what needs to be done to break the cycle of poverty that is trapping too many families. It is almost two years since the Children’s Commissioner’s Experts Advisory Group released its report with 72 solutions to child poverty, but it was largely sidelined. Boosting family incomes is the obvious key to reducing poverty, but that will take time and investment. In the meantime, children still need energy to learn.
The Treasury paper from February 2013 warned that if the government itself got involved in providing food in schools there was a risk of “scope creep” – uncontrolled or continuous growth in costs. It pointed out that the government already supplies fruit in low decile schools and the likes of KidsCan, Fonterra and Sanitarium run breakfast clubs. The fear of spending too much money is apparently a good justification for spending hardly any at all.
Treasury recommended more research on the extent of the problem and engaging with existing providers of food in schools to understand the level of need.
Meanwhile, as the numbers are crunched, children are going hungry through no fault of their own. As treasury pointed out, not every child who misses breakfast does so because of a lack of food, but tens of thousands do. Many of these children went to bed hungry in the first place. And then we ask them to come to school for a mentally and physically exhausting day of learning.
Inevitably, in a discussion such as this, some people will blame the parents for inadequate budgeting, but whether parents could have stretched the grocery budget more effectively or not, the fact remains that children in our first world country are going hungry. If you don’t have compassion for hungry kids in this land flowing with milk and Weetbix, you could consider what a drain on the public purse their poor health and educational underachievement will be in the future.
For the government to depend on charities and corporate philanthropy to meet the needs of the increasing number of families that are falling through the cracks is like baling a sinking boat with a tea cup. Certainly the government needs to focus on growing the economy and creating jobs that families can afford to live on. But please, in the meantime, can we also ensure no child has to learn and grow on an empty stomach? What’s good for the weakest and most vulnerable amongst us, is good for all of us.
Every now and then someone will confront me with the accusation that I am against change, innovation and new ideas in education. They have the impression that anyone fighting some changes must be against them all.
Innovation in the classroom is one of the most exciting things about education. There’s nothing better than the freedom to teach to children’s interests and teachers’ strengths, and make learning engaging and exciting as well as relevant. Plenty of public schools are doing this.
Oddly, it didn’t seem innovation and quality learning was much of a consideration for government when they wanted to cut technology classes and had to back down. Maybe ask them what their problem is?
Roll Over, Rover?
People also ask, why don’t I just get on with supporting charter schools now they are here anyway?
Well, to say that once something is in place, one should support it whether it is right or wrong is an odd argument to say the least. Look to history at the many wrongs that have been overturned.
Rolling over is the easier path, I grant you that. I have given well over a year of my life to researching, reading and learning about charters and other reform measures. It’s taken a significant amount of my time. Ignoring it all would have been easier – and at times I have been sorely tempted.
But our education system needs people fighting its corner. And nothing I have found makes me believe charters are anything more than a cover story for privatising the public system.
The very existence of charter schools in NZ is part of a slippery slope of creeping change that is for the worse.
And it’s the same problem with National Standards.
The Tail Wagging the Dog
A child’s reading level or numeracy level, and how they are doing at writing, should certainly be tested and checked, yes. It should all be done regularly and in the classroom by the teacher, shared with others in the school and considered for where to guide the child next and how, so that feedback is fast and to the point, and the child is moved on in a positive way.
Testing in the classroom with timely feedback to students so they know where they are and what goals are next – that is what is needed and what happens. Not league tables. Isn’t the aim for students to learn?
Well, if you are a child, a parent or a teacher that’s the goal – Maybe not so much if you are a politician.
The truth is, National Standards are there to be used as a political bullying stick to ‘prove’ other measures are needed. This has been the pattern repeatedly overseas; Imply there is a big problem so that changes can be justified.
The Teachers Council is being reviewed and changed. PaCT assessment tool with its many underlying worries, is being brought in. Teacher training can now be done in just a few weeks over the summer holidays.
And all of this leads to creeping changes throughout the system, slowly morphing it into a different beast, until one day you look back and think “How the hell did it get to this?”
Watch Out For The Quiet Ones – They Bite The Hardest
Anyone doubting the sneaky and underhand way changes are being pushed through need only look at treasury’s own advice to Education Minister, Hekia Parata in Quiet change – a Treasury guide:
“Overseas experience in education reform suggests focusing on communicating a positively framed ‘crucial few’ at any one time … while making smaller incremental changes in a less high profile manner across a range of fronts”.
“More harder-edged changes could be pursued in parallel, incrementally and without significant profile.”
Treasury asking Bill English to ask Hekia Parata to scale things back and do things less publicly does not mean she is being asked to do them better, oh no.
Rather, she is being asked to do them more sneakily.
Ask yourself: If these and other changes are for the better, if they are honest, if they are based on sound research and best practice, then why the sneaky dog attack?
No animals were hurt in the making of this post.
“Assumption is the mother of all f*** ups,” Travis Dane
Chris Hipkins | Tuesday, February 5, 2013 – 12:58
The Government’s obsession with meddling with school funding is hugely disruptive, and is doing nothing to help improve children’s learning, says Chris Hipkins, Labour’s acting Education spokesperson.
“Reports that the Treasury wants to revisit the bulk funding of schools to encourage performance pay for teachers is just the latest ideological burp from the National Government that brought us increased class sizes and charter schools.
“Schools should be focused on improving educational outcomes for kids, not constantly engaged in never-ending funding battles.
“Bulk funding isn’t about children’s learning. It isn’t about teacher quality. It is all about cost cutting and saving money.
“And it is the ultimate exercise in passing the buck. Bulk funding is designed to allow the Government to duck responsibility for funding cuts by placing all the burden on schools.
“So now we know how Hekia Parata is going to fill the funding hole caused by the class size back-down – she’s going to make it the schools’ problem.
“Hekia Parata should concentrate on getting the basics right – paying teachers on time for example – instead of messing around with school funding,” says Chris Hipkins.
So, Hekia Parata is told by both the Ministry of Education and the Treasury that is not a good use of taxpayers’ money to pay $$$$$Millions to keep Wanganui Collegiate open, and she ignores them and does it anyway.
It must be a Very Important Special school, like Salisbury, where children with specific and serious special needs are catered for.
Okay, it must be a school catering for that oft-mentioned Long Tail Of Underachievement.
Hmmm… I know! I know! It’s a Christchurch school that has been given a reprieve cos is has a full roll and a growing suburb?
What? Not that either?
Then what was $3 million spent on?
A school sat in an area with over 1400 empty school places already, in other state schools. That’s odd.
Surely we are short of money, especially in education – isn’t that what John Key and Hekia Parata keep telling us? That’s why we need to rush into closing and merging those pesky old schools in Christchurch…
Lawdie, I just heard a cynic in the back whisper that they might just be keeping it going until charter schools are passed, and then we taxpayers can fund it forever and it can carry on in secret, doing as it likes and skimming a bit off the top for profit.
Nooo… who would ever do such a thing?
Dominion Post Editorial – Is a school worth more than education?