Union-bashing and the dispute over national standards

Well, it hasn’t taken long for John Key to bring the old scare word ‘unions’ – into the dispute over national standards. Yesirree, this flap is all just about unions protecting their patch. Here we have a situation where Education Minister Anne Tolley has proven herself as incapable of managing this crisis, and where extensive evidence from Britain indicates that the standards being promoted could well make the situation of the at-risk children even worse, while diverting attention and resources from the schooling of other children in class. Especially when little or no extra funds are being set aside for schools to subsequently remedy any learning problems the national standards may detect.

The inconsistencies in the Government’s stance are extraordinary. Key and Tolley have been steadfastly refusing to let the standards be trialled or piloted in state schools – but incredibly, the Government is now willing to do exactly that in kura kaupapa schools, in order to placate the Dr Pita Sharples. And to shut him up after – earlier this week – he expressed his concerns about how the standards exercise has the potential to damage schools, and children. And the funds? Logically, given the large number of primary schools in the country, wouldn’t it take hundreds of millions of dollars to correct any significant problem that these magic tests are going to detect? If the problem is that endemic, and these tests are that good, where are the adequate, fresh funds – for schools already strapped for cash – to put things right ?

What a mess. Much easier to haul out the scare word ’ unions.’ And to paint this as an industrial conflict, not an educational issue. Make it about the teaching standards of union members, and not about the achievement standards of children. It looks like a cynical and a desperate move. For months, teachers, school principals and boards of trustees up and down the country have been raising their concerns – and failing to have them considered by an incompetent Minister. Now, Key has chosen to denigrate those concerns, by putting it all down to unions wanting to protect their patch. Yeah, right. Just as all the problems in our hospitals can be put down to those greedy nurses, trying to protect the incompetents on the wards.

Lets get this straight. Teaching, like nursing is the kind of profession in which people are largely motivated by concerns about the welfare of those in their care. It may play well amongst the rednecks out there to turn this conflict into a union-bashing exercise, but the people on the front lines are not rednecks – they are parents, teachers and boards motivated by a concern for children, and they will still be there when and if the education standards are finally rammed down their throats. Meaning : even if Key “wins’ a political fight framed as a union bashing exercise, he will have succeeded only in poisoning the teaching environment, longer term. The compromise that would prevent this negative and entirely avoidable outcome is right under his nose : trial and pilot the standards. If it is good enough to allow Maori parents and teachers to trial and pilot these standards in kura kaupapa schools, why isn’t it good enough to let the same thing happen in mainstream state schools ?

If Key wants to win this argument fairly, he has to make a case that this issue is about the learning standards of children, and not about the performance standards of teachers. He has to make the case that national standards will lift the achievement levels of children at risk – above and beyond the testing of children that is already being carried out – and without jeopardizing the learning potential of the other children in class. Curiously, in all other sectors, National preaches the gospel of allowing people to attain excellence. If this had been a Labour initiative, you can bet that we would be hearing a lot about socialist engineering for the low achievers in the classroom, at the expense of excellence everywhere else.

By the same token, the critics of national standards need to jettison their own bogey term –‘league tables.’ In the school tea-rooms, most teachers may know and agree on the potential for harm to schools, arising from taking these aggregates of exam scores and treating them as the only index of school quality and teacher ability. The trouble is, the public at large do not share the fear of league tables. This bogey can so easily be turned back on teachers, as if it were a fear of being evaluated. League tables are an inevitability – get used to it.

Again, Key could help to defuse the legitimate concerns – held by many teachers and by Dr Pita Sharples alike – about the possible impact of league tables on those schools that are already struggling to make ends meet with inadequate operational grants. This shortfall is forcing more and more schools to tap parents for ‘donations’ – even as the likelihood of league tables promises to undermine parental confidence in the schools they are being asked to support. Key of course, should be using his position as a bully pulpit to inform the public about how unreliable league tables would be, if used as the prime measure of school quality.

The unfortunate reality though is that parents will rate schools by those means, and will use national standards as a tool to do so. The only solution is to put the counter-information out there – and not seek to shut the process down altogether. Increasingly, the fear of league tables is proving to be a self defeating tactic. Such fears may be motivated by legitimate concern about the future funding of schools, but it looks like censorship and a resistance to evaluating teacher performance – and as this conflict deepens, that can only serve to teachers offside with parents.