Gordon Campbell on the readiness to do social experiments on the education of children

The school closures in Christchurch really are a perfect storm – the most stressed community in New Zealand is being led by the most accident prone Minister in the Key government, into a social experiment on its youngest and most vulnerable, in the least available time. Nothing could possibly go wrong with that scenario, could it? Even if Education Minister Hekia Parata was correct – and this is contested – about the school mergers she is imposing on Christchurch due to what the earthquake has done to population shifts, school rolls and the costs for classroom repairs and replacement, nothing can justify the speed with which she is rushing through these changes.

Even Parata’s own Ministry, it seems, was advocating a further year of adjustment. The plan is as follows:

Seven primary and intermediate schools in Christchurch are to close outright and another three primary schools will close as part of mergers with other schools. Of the closures confirmed on Wednesday afternoon, most will take effect from January 2014. Branston, Linwood and Manning intermediates are three of the seven schools to close.

To cater for the gap left by their closure, Hornby High, Hillmorton High and Linwood College will from next year expand to provide for Year 7 and Year 8 students. The principal of Manning Intermediate, Richard Chambers, says the short timeframe places pressure not only on the three high schools, but on his soon-to-be jobless teachers who will be expected to help with the changeover.

This is another galling aspect of the unnecessary haste. The timeframe can only be achieved if the professionals involved are prepared to work their butts off in the interim to make it happen – for the sake of the children caught up in the changes. This has to be the ultimate in cynical politicking. In effect, Parata and her top advisers are exploiting the dedication of the teaching staff to bring about a programme that will ultimately cost those teachers their jobs. And who will get to fill the (lesser) number of teaching positions available? Only the mice who run fastest on the treadmill between now and next January, and who complain the least.

Keep in mind that these teachers, and their communities and the children affected have already been under significant stress for the past 18 months. Is the rushed timetable achievable? Significantly, Parata was using the weasel words on RNZ this morning that she has been advised that it is achievable. Code: if it doesn’t prove to work out that way….blame the advisers, not her.

But that’s how the business of government works these days. Public servants are bullied to deliver outcomes where success is ministerialised and failure is officialised. In the Christchurch case, there is little or no evidence that the children affected – who are the unfortunate lab rats in this experiment – will be better off, or worse off as a result. There’s an information vacuum on this crucial point. The mergers will create bigger schools. Yet do we know anything about whether such education supermarkets do – or do not – improve the learning experience and outcomes for students? (If they don’t, any short term cost savings from these mergers will be false economicsm as well as a waste of human potential.) Intuitively, one would think that as schools become bigger the chance for teachers to recognise and to nurture individual learning needs gets reduced. But that would be only a guess.

The trouble is, Parata seems to be guessing too – and as Minister, she happens to be gambling with the future of thousands of children in Christchurch. For those children in Christchurch, their schools have just become casinos, and with themselves being the chips.

Charter schools meanwhile, march onwards
Charter schools are a social experiment in education into which the government is choosing to pour money, even while it cries poor about its ability to keep open the state schools it is closing and merging in Christchurch. Ironically, the charter schools legislation is being advanced in Parliament this week just as (a) the closures/mergers are announced in Christchurch and (b) the OECD has released a report that generally showers praise on our state education system. Meaning: charter schools seem to be the solution to a largely non-existent problem. On global comparisons, our state schools are high achievers. Rather than create a parallel education system for nutcase Act Party reasons, the government should be funding the due maintenance needed in the existing system.

Look, for evidence, at the OECD findings on NZ education contained in the Better Life Index comparative report. On most comparisons of participation in education, New Zealand is at or around the OECD average:

In New Zealand, 73% of adults aged 25-64 have earned the equivalent of a high-school degree, close to the OECD average of 74%. This is truer of men than women, as 74% of men have successfully completed high-school compared with 72% of women. This 2 percentage point difference is in line with the average OECD difference. Among younger people – a better indicator of New-Zealand’s future – 79% of 25-34 year-olds have earned the equivalent of a high-school degree, also close to the OECD average of 82%.

On the quality of that education though, the New Zealand education system continues to punch well above its weight:

New-Zealand is a top-performing OECD country in reading literacy, maths and sciences with the average student scoring 524. This score is higher than the OECD average of 497, making New-Zealand one of the strongest OECD countries in students’ skills. On average in New-Zealand, girls outperformed boys by 15 points, more than the average OECD gap of 9 points, with an overall score of 532 points compared with 517 points for boys.

In passing, it should be noted that the best performer of all in the OECD – i.e., Finland – continues to get these optimum results while resolutely turning its back on the national standards that have been fetishised here by the Key government, and without having any private schools at all. However, there are some warning signs in the New Zealand evidence, which suggest that growing income inequality in this country is having an effect in our school system as well. For example:

The best-performing school systems manage to provide high-quality education to all students. In New-Zealand, the average difference in results, between the 20% with the highest socio-economic background and the 20% with the lowest socio-economic background, is 119 points, higher than the OECD average of 99 points. This suggests the school system in New-Zealand tends to provide higher quality education for the better off.

Are charter schools the answer to this aspect of our performance? Dr Pita Sharples evidently thinks so, and he likens them to kura kaupapa schools. On the overseas evidence though, charter schools only deliver as-good educational outcomes as state schools if and when they receive similar inputs of funds. So – as you might well think – it would make more sense to put the money being earmarked for charter schools into the state school system that is already delivering top results – rather than create a parallel system that will cost just as much to deliver similar results. Unfortunately for the nation’s taxpayers (and not to mention the children who will be subjected to the charter schools experiment) this doesn’t fit with the political and ideological agendas of the National Party, or the Maori Party. Their mantra is that state provision is always bad – and no evidence will convince them otherwise.

Some have tried to convince them, regardless. Reportedly, 65 people including prominent Maori, Pasifika and education academics and children’s advocates have signed an open letter urging MPs not to experiment on children by introducing publicly-funded charter schools. But hey, to cite the failure of charter schools to surpass the performance of state schools – on any dollar for dollar level playing field – would be to rely on the kind of pointy-headed overseas evidence that Pita Sharples refuses to consider as being relevant here. According to Sharples, we should adopt the American model of charter schools, but not consider the American evidence of its performance as being relevant. As he told RNZ:

“You have to try new things and if they don’t work, ditch them….It is about giving charter schools a chance – we’re not England or America and what they’ve done there, and we’ve got to see how it can work here.”

Brilliant. With the likes of Parata and Sharples choosing not to learn from experience and precedent, what could possibly go wrong with entrusting them to steer the nation’s course in education?