In his 2014 State of the Nation address, delivered yesterday at the West Auckland Business Club, Prime Minister John Key used the word “equality” only once, immediately prompting criticism from opponents who accused him of overlooking one of the country’s most pressing social challenges. However, there was another word, said nine times, which perhaps carries even more meaning in terms of its ability to address the issue of inequality in New Zealand, and that word was “education”. Despite speaking before a crowd of business people, it was the future of education in New Zealand, and not or the economy or the nation’s finances, which dominated Key’s vision for 2014.
As the Prime Minister was eager to point out, by referring to his own apparently blue-collar upbringing, education is a very important determinant of a child’s future success.
“[That] education opened the world to me [...] I visit a lot of schools around the country, because they play a huge part in shaping the lives of our young people.”
And when used effectively, education has the potential to not only provide people of all social backgrounds with the critical knowledge and understanding to find employment and succeed, but it also has the ability to increase the collective wealth and happiness of an entire nation. Education, therefore, is inextricably linked to the issue of equality.
At a time when the income gap in New Zealand is a lowly 20th among 34 OECD countries, and our achievement levels relative to other countries have recently taken a nose-dive, Key’s sense of urgency wasn’t surprising.
“Today’s 15-year-olds in New Zealand are performing worse, on average, than 15-year-olds in 2000. That’s despite a lot more money being spent on education. So that has to be a call to action for all of us.”
But we’d heard all of this before. It is one thing to say that our education system is at a standstill, and quite another to propose solutions, at least without setting off any political landmines. Something had to be done, however, and Key settled for what was a very shrewd compromise, one which could just as easily have come from the Labour party as National.
Stating that, “A mountain of evidence shows the quality of teaching – inside the classroom – is the biggest influence on kids’ achievement,” Key focussed less on school facilities or class sizes, and more on incentives for better quality teaching. Historically, this has been shaky ground for the government. Unions are strongly opposed to any suggestion of performance-based pay, arguing that performance is too difficult to accurately assess and that such a policy would create harmful infighting within the teaching profession.
Instead, Key settled for a more nuanced approach, creating four new teacher and principal roles:
“Executive principals will provide leadership across a community of schools, and be paid an additional allowance of $40,000 a year. Each will work with an average of 10 schools.
Change principals will be employed to lift achievement in schools that are struggling. About 20 of these positions will be needed a year, and principals in this role will be given an additional $50,000 a year.
Lead teachers will be “highly capable” school teachers who will act as role models for those in their own school and those in their area. The Government anticipates around 5000 will be needed.
Expert teachers will work with executive principals and include experts in areas like maths and science.”
“Key: Leadership of NZ schools overhauled”, Nicholas Jones, NZ Herald.
These new roles are not exempt from the criticisms which have halted previous, more extensive performance-based pay measures, but they definitely act to minimise some of those concerns. And when packaged together, they appear to offer a very compelling solution to the issue of under-performing schools going largely unnoticed in the current system, as well as the lack of a compelling career ladder for classroom teachers other than entering management or admin type roles.
For one, these policies should hopefully result in better collaboration between teachers. It has always bothered me the way in which public schools, far from working together to deliver a better education, appear to compete against one another to win over new students. The creation of the new executive principal role, over-seeing a cluster of 10 schools, will hopefully foster far more sharing of knowledge and resources between schools, so that they can collectively deliver a higher and more consistent standard of teaching.
The lead and expert teacher roles address another nagging concern about the teaching profession: the lack of an incentive for teachers to lift the quality of their teaching. It is a concern which has long been acknowledged, but proposals to address it have faced overwhelming opposition from teachers unions and sections of the public. Under this new model, however, lead and expert teachers will be paid for taking on new responsibilities, over a fixed two or three-year period, and not for simply doing the same job—a subtle but important distinction. As well as rewarding the individual teacher, these new roles should also help to lift the performance of lower performing teachers, and encourage more highly skilled individuals to enter into the teaching profession in the first place.
If these ideas really do work as intended, we could see more collaboration across school clusters, more effective action in the lowest performing schools, and better retention of high performing teachers in the classroom, where they can have the best effect on the achievement of their students.
After having weathered a number of storms on the education front—from controversial school closures in post-quake Christchurch, to the introduction of bigger class sizes in 2012—it finally looks as though the National party is taking the high ground on education, an issue which deserves all the attention that it received in yesterday’s State of the Nation.