Campbell: Using kids as guinea pigs (+ Hone, ETS)

national education standards testing

Over the past 30 years, the public has regularly been treated as laboratory rats for this or that ideological hobby horse of government. Crash on through and pick up the pieces later is the Kiwi style of management, possibly because those in power feel too insecure to tolerate a genuine debate. Even so, the current national education standards being imposed on primary schools extend this ‘try it out on live bodies and see if it works’ approach to primary school children, and that seems to be a particularly repugnant abandonment of the duty of care.

The teaching profession and leading educational researchers argue that these national standards in reading, writing and maths should be trialled in a pilot study first before being rolled out nationally. So far, that sensible approach has fallen on deaf ears. Education Minister Anne Tolley appears to have learned nothing from watching the Clark government’s troubled NCEA process while in opposition. Instead, she remains intent on repeating the error of rushing into place a flawed, controversial set of procedures for educational assessment. Trialling the theory after all, might prove that the theory is wrong – and that would be intolerable. We are dealing with matters of faith here, not reason.

Labeling children as young as five as failures may fit the law of the jungle attitudes of right wing market theorists. However, around the world – most notably in the United Kingdom recently – the research evidence shows that this approach has far more negative side effects than it has benefits. Some of the negative outcomes could be overcome if the testing did actually serve as an early warning system – but the national standards system being launched by Tolley cannot possibly serve that purpose. No extra resources are being devoted to the exercise, in order that children at risk could be caught, and their educational needs met. It is simply a labeling exercise for children and for schools – with all the disruptive consequences for teaching and learning that such labeling will inevitably bring in its wake. It is not as if feedback to parents on the progress of their child doesn’t already occur. It does.

Hate to repeat my own experience, but in a very minor way it illustrates some of the concerns held by the teaching profession. During my first year at a Catholic primary school, a nun tested the singing ability of each child in the class by making us sing her a nursery rhyme, solo. On that basis, most children were judged to be Singing Birds. I was sent to the side of the room reserved for a small group of Frogs, and ever since have avoided any occasion that involves singing in public. Meaning: humiliation is rarely a good teaching tool. Doing it to children from five onwards seems criminal. If this is such a great idea, pilot it first – and prove to parents you’re not using their children as guinea pigs.


At Home with Harawira

The long dance by Hone Harawira out of the Maori Party caucus and back in again seems to be finally coming to an end. The mandatory two week consultation with kuia and kaumatua carried out a long, long way from Wellington has served the purpose of keeping Harawira out of the way while the deal over the Emissions Trading Scheme wound its way through Parliament. One ingredient of the deal that the government has done with the Maori Party – an all expenses junket to the Copenhagen conference for two iwi members – must have struck the Te Tai Tokerau MP as being particularly ironic. Hope the lucky pair get time for a side trip to Paris.

Right now, the whole thing looks like an elaborate pantomine of contrition. The genuine consequences will be played out next year. With Sue Bradford gone, Harawira is now the most (only?) committed advocate of beneficiaries and low paid workers in the current Parliament. If the response to the Buckle tax review in December say, ends up imposing higher GST on those vulnerable people – and that package is supported by the Maori Party – what will Harawira do? Speak his mind on behalf of his people, or be a team player? How should he respond to the crackdown on invalids and sickness beneficiaries that the government is proposing? Does he think that this crackdown is welcome, and necessary?

Contriteness for past sins is water under the bridge. What the Maori party leadership now has to indicate is whether it intends to rein Harawira in next year, or give him all the freedom he needs to speak up on behalf of his constituency, brown and white. It is only when Harawira is safely back within the Maori Party caucus that his real problems will begin.


Rush to (poor) judgement

Leaving aside its flawed content, the ETS process has been also provided a classic example of the ‘crash on through’ approach to policies of national importance to which New Zealand seems chronically prone. In his speech last night in Parliament, Labour MP Charles Chauvel outlined the abysmal way that decisions on the content of the ETS Bill were reached., and how the submission process was (mis) handled :

At the Finance and Expenditure Committee, submitters, experts and officials were all given impossibly abbreviated timeframes to contribute effectively. The Committee was given less than 2 months to scrutinise extremely substantial amendments and consider 379 written submissions. Oral submitters were given only 10 minutes to speak, if they could even do so at short notice.

Our independent expert, Dr Suzi Kerr, was not able to provide information until the final day of deliberation. As such, her advice was not able to be incorporated into Department reports – which were likewise unable to be provided until the final couple of days of deliberation. The Parliamentary Council Office could provide only an untested draft of revision tracked amendments on the day of deliberation.

There was a fundamental lack of robust supporting information available to assist the Committee and submitters in evaluating the rationale for and associated costs and benefits of the amendments. The Bill was roundly and publicly condemned by Treasury. Treasury said that “the level and quality of analysis” available is just is not up to the significance of the proposals, and that the analysis does not provide “an adequate basis for informed decision-making”.

Treasury is right. There is no analysis of what drives the key changes in the legislation. And throughout, the Minister has obstructed attempts to obtain background information that might assist the Committee or the public to assess the Bill. This includes key documents such as the Treasury long-term analysis of fiscal costs.

The Committee and submitters were also completely unable to scrutinise forthcoming amendments to the Bill that were foreshadowed prior to the 1st reading. These include those settled upon only yesterday, in exchange for the support of the Maori Party, apparently as the proxy for the Iwi Leadership Forum. The impacts, fiscal and otherwise, of these political backroom deals will never receive proper parliamentary scrutiny.

How can the process I have just described give anyone confidence in the end policy outcome? It simply cannot.

This is no way to make laws. It is how kids enforce their will in the playground. Over the next few years, we will all be paying the price for it.


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