Saturday, August 28, 2010

Aotearoa/NZ: Education ‘Reforms’ pave way for privatisation

The NACT Government has introduced a large number of education cuts, alongside moves towards privatisation, National Standards, and targeted cash injections to support its assessment focused agenda. To justify this, it has created a “crisis” which does not exist. The NZEI teachers’ union is strongly opposed to National Standards and has conducted protests and campaigns but stopped short of striking or an outright refusal, instead calling for a trial. The education cuts are part of an assault on the welfare state including health, benefits and social services, designed to make the working class pay for the international capitalist crisis, and to make private providers rich at our expense. Assessments of students and teachers paves the way for rewarding the well performing schools and teachers at the expense of the failing schools opening the way for the privatisation of education. These attacks on public provision of universal, compulsory education funded by taxation has to be resisted by mobilising teachers unions alongside parents and students.

Early Childhood Education 

The cuts to Early Childhood Education, where instead of 100 % funding for qualified teachers, there is now only 80%, is an absolutely shameful and short sighted attack upon the most vulnerable members of society. 

 The cuts affect 2,000 centres caring for 93,000 children. $285 million will be cut over the next four years. Centres are losing between $20,000 to $80,000 per year, and are faced with the choice of either cutting staff or raising fees. The majority are raising fees by up to $40 per week. These cuts will hurt low income families the most, especially the one in four families living in poverty, most of whom are beneficiaries.  There is no way these families of can afford a fee increase, so they will be forced to withdraw their children. More than a quarter of affected centres are planning to leave the 20 free hours per week scheme and half are considering reducing staff to student ratios. 

Early childhood education (ECE) is the foundation of all other learning and numerous studies have shown how it is linked to higher achievement and quality of life for an entire lifetime. However it is a very long time before any profits can be made out of children attending ECE. In fact capitalists have an interest in shifting the costs of ECE to ‘user pays’. This may be why it is already the Cinderella of the teaching profession with centres operating already on stretched budgets.  While the NZEI has achieved pay parity for kindergarten and primary teachers this does not necessarily apply to private centres, and non -qualified staff, like teaching assistants in primary schools, are paid poverty wages scarcely above the minimum wage.

Some have argued that a grandmother type of figure can care for the young just as well as a qualified teacher. However surveys have shown that the presence of an educated qualified teacher or carer with their wider vocabulary, theoretical knowledge and practical skills, enriches the learning environment of children at all ages, and enhances their development and learning.

 Whilst quality ECE from age three onwards produces excellent results, some studies have indicated that the attachment needs of babies up to age two or three are better met by consistent committed care by a known adult.  Achieving this would need more funding not less, for example by reducing adult to child ratios considerably at centres, increasing funds for professional home based care, extending paid parental leave, increasing the domestic purposes benefit, and increasing funding to parent co-operatives such as play centres. The low pay or no pay of workers at this level, and up through the education sector, are an example of the non-valuing of women’s work in general, particularly caring and mothering work, which has generally been done for free, despite the high skill and commitment level that it demands.

A society with a genuine commitment to equality in education would begin at pre-school level, with free early childhood education for all, and more funding for Kohanga Reo’s and centres for Pacifica children.  Instead ECE funding cuts may be forcing some of these centres to close. Cutting costs at the pre-school level, where much future crime could be prevented, goes hand in hand with increased spending on prisons, which like schools, are to be run as public private partnerships, where massive public spending will end up as private profit. It is therefore hypocritical for the NACTs to claim they have the interests of children at heart!

University and Adult Education

Restrictions on university entrance are reversing a trend which has seen large numbers of New Zealanders gaining tertiary education. Unemployed and beneficiaries were amongst those benefitting from university education. Even so, some groups still have low university attendance, such as Pacific Island students.  There are few Pacific language early childhood education centres available, and Pacific Island students are channelled into non-academic NCEA (National Certificate of Educational Achievement) exams at secondary schools so the schools can achieve higher pass rates.

5% of university funding is now linked to performance, and National has warned that this is just the start. John Key has made grumbling noises about the poor investment that interest free loans make; and the government restricts loans to those with a good pass rate.

The cutting of the Training Incentive Allowance has stopped many single parents from being able to get qualifications which would take them out of poverty and into professional occupations. Others have gone to extreme lengths to try to study under starvation conditions.
National does not really want beneficiaries to have higher education. Instead it prefers them to do short cheap training courses so that they can quickly be put on the labour market offering their skills to employers for low pay.

The cuts to Adult Community Education have meant the loss of a very cheap cost effective service to immigrants for English as a second language classes, literacy classes, and other classes which enrich people’s lives and provide social cohesion. The PPTA, to whom many of the teachers belonged, campaigned against this.

National Standards

The Government is determined to impose National Standards on primary schools despite almost universal resistance from teachers, academics, and international evidence. To justify this, National would have us believe that education is in crisis, rather than their capitalist system, and that national standards are needed to ‘pull up the tail’ of those failing in the current system. That is, to close underperforming schools or force them into private hands where the focus will be to train cheap, compliant wage-workers!

 In fact, New Zealand does not have a crisis in education, and is doing very well by international standards.  As John Hattie put it in recent radio discussion with Charmaine Pountney and Gordon Dryden: “Where is the problem we are solving?” Where there is a problem, the reason is poverty which affects about twenty to twenty five percent of students.

Notwithstanding more funding being allocated to lower decile schools (in low SES working class areas), these schools have far too little funding; and sometimes lack cultural relevance.

According to Charmaine Pountney, former principal of Auckland Girls’ Grammar School, what is lacking is a commitment to equality.  The Child Poverty Action Group has explained at length how poverty affects children’s ability to learn, from lack of food, books, clothing, ability to pay for uniforms, school trips and cultural activities etc. An immediate answer would be to raise benefits and wages; re-introduce a universal child benefit, and provide more education resources where they are needed.

The NACTs answer to this manufactured crisis is ‘National Standards’. This involves requiring every child from age six, every year, to sit tests which measure’s the child’s literacy and numeracy against a “standard” which is deliberately set higher than the current national average, and higher than is needed for the child to succeed perfectly well at NCEA later on. This is a bit like deliberately setting benefits below the level of needs, which the government has been doing since 1991. Just as a beneficiary cannot live on benefits that are deliberately set too low, so a child cannot possibly succeed in a test where the pass mark is deliberately set above their developmental level.

This scandalous and cruel assault upon young children’s self esteem, where children are labelled as failures from age six,  is deemed by National to be the way to “bring up the tail” of the children who are currently performing below the average.  In fact, results of similar national testing overseas, and a whole barrage of educational experts and teachers in New Zealand, show that they do not improve learning at all.

Academics John Hattie,  Martin Thrupp, Terry Crooks, Lester Flockton, wrote an open letter to Education Minister Anne Tolley, asking her not to introduce National Standards.  They are not against assessments, but point out that we already have these. They talk about the international failures of these kinds of tests, the dangers of publicising results (eg having been used as league tables overseas) and the impoverishment of the culture of teaching and learning. They point out that some of our most remarkable adults have had unremarkable school achievements. They are even willing to work with Anne Tolley to devise better national tests which focus upon a child’s progress.

Charmaine Pountney said in the radio discussion, that class hegemony was maintained by national standards which will be fine those already achieving well but make no difference to students in lower decile schools. She said that that the tests wrongly focus on “outcomes not incomes”, and “output not input”.

According to John Hattie only 50% of infants who would have passed PAT tests (Progressive Achievement Tests), would pass National Standards, and only 35% of year 8 students would. The tests are thus unfair, and “out of kilter with existing assessment tools”. Children who are well on track to pass NCEA (National Certificate of Education) at secondary schools and well within current norms, are deemed ‘failing’, and said to be below the National Standard which is deemed to be ‘aspirational’.

This is disputed by teachers who say it is grossly unfair to judge today’s students by tomorrow’s standards (Education Aotearoa p 20-21). Jan Tinetti, Principal of Merivale School in the Bay of Plenty which has a 98% Maori roll, describes the standards as Eurocentric and “almost middle class.”. “They miss a lot of what is aspirational for my kids...they miss the cultural richness.” (Education Aotearoa. p 19)

National Standards run counter to learning through play which is vital for younger children in particular, and discourage creativity, imagination, or other subjects, while the focus is simply on passing tests in literacy and numeracy. Parental support for National Standards is dropping after the first test results have come out.

An article in the Independent  entitled “My little Boy’s Class Struggle”- also on the NZEI website- describes the difficulties faced by a 6 year old child who left behind a nurturing, warm, creative classroom environment in Ireland, to face a classroom focused almost entirely on passing tests in Australia. There was no more fun, no more cuddles, no more school plays.
Children in Australia face increasing pressures with a big national test at age eleven, and miss out on the arts.

Teachers and Unions Resistance against National Testing

In New Zealand the primary teachers’ union, the New Zealand Educational Institute (NZEI ) strongly opposes National Standards, and is conducting a campaign against it. It has a facebook page NZEI-Te-Riu-Roa.

 Some teachers are trying to protect their students from the tests because of the hurt they can cause. Professional development has been inadequate and therefore abandoned, or refused because of opposition to national standards. Principals are refusing to waste school’s budgets on training courses on it. Most teachers are either not implementing or struggling with the process (Education Aotearoa, Winter 2010, 20-21)

Recent surveys (have indicated that more than a quarter of teachers do not understand the tests, and that around 40% do not feel prepared for them.

NZEI organised a bus trip from Kaitaia from the Bluff to protest the National Standards, with rallies in all the major centers, and a petition which they took to parliament. They have issued thousands of postcards, and have set up   websites and facebook pages. They have also set up a group called “Project Orange” for community supporters to join to oppose the standards.

Teachers and principals (who are both in the same union although the principals are also in a Principals Federation) are united against national standards, with school boards (technically their employers) reluctantly behind the principals, but the School Trustees Association has  been telephoning teachers with warnings about their resistance to the standards. Anne Tolley, backed by the media, has tried to portray teachers as failing in their duties by publically criticising the standards; and generally portraying them as hostile and disobedient. Teachers have responded that they are not bound by the confidentiality of public servants, but by their professional duties as teachers.

But the NZEI is not calling for an out and out refusal of the standards, but only for a trial of them. Nor have they called for stop work meetings or strike action over the issue. A strike would be illegal, which is the excuse used by union officials not to take action. NZEI is also engaged in wage negotiations as their collective contract comes up for renewal.

The Post Primary Teachers Association (PPTA) say National Standards could have ”disastrous effects upon students and teachers”, and could lead to league tables that wrongly label schools as failures. They say it would be “most unwise” to ignore the international evidence against them.

However the PPTA is not very supportive of the NZEI. PPTA members are opposed to pay parity with primary teachers and resent primary teachers achieving pay increases on the PPTA’s coat tails, as they see it. This disunity weakens both unions, which as public sector unions with high union membership, could have some impact.

Teachers in Australia voted to boycott the then Minister of Education Julia Gillard’s league tables being published on the website “My School” which forced her to take them down.

In the UK, national testing happens at age six and age eleven. Lessons are increasingly structured, with every single reading lesson requiring an assessment.  Teachers unions have refused to implement the tests in 2011.

There are important lessons here. The education unions must unite in an all out opposition to the cuts in education and to National Standards as deliberate moves to attack the foundations of publicly funded, secular, universal and compulsory education. Strike action by the combined teachers unions supported by other unions would send a clear message that they are prepared to put their professional standards and the rights of children to the test in a showdown with this NACT government.

Ultimately to realise our education needs, along with all our other needs to food shelter, health as well as meaningful work and social equality, we need a program to end capitalism and plan for a socialist society.

(to be continued)

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