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Editorial: A tale of long tails

The Minister and the Secretary for Education should lift their performance.

A tale of long tails

The proposal to exempt charter schools from the Official Information Act (OIA) shows how detached the Government’s education agenda is becoming from the requirements and expectations of parents and children. There is no justification for a special right to secrecy for these schools, which are to be given taxpayers’ money to run a variety of new agendas in the classroom. That they are a trial, and therefore are effectively experimenting on children, is all the more reason their activities need to be open to scrutiny. That this trial is largely a sop to the almost defunct Act Party only underlines the offensiveness of the OIA exemption. Yet the Government’s handling of school restructuring in quake-ravaged Christchurch suggests it is developing a new appetite for secrecy in education planning.

Parents of children affected by the planned closures and mergers have shown just how important the OIA can be, having been forced to use it to find out what is really going in the minds of Wellington bureaucrats. It is understandable that the Ministry of Education is embarrassed by the misinformation that has been uncovered so far – such as the long-jump pit mistaken for liquefaction. Continuing to maintain secrecy over the decision-making process behind the “cluster schools” policy raises the question of what else it wishes to hide. Equally unfortunate has been the high-handed observation of Education Secretary Lesley Longstone that New Zealand can no longer claim to have a world-class public education system. As evidence of this, she cites the continuing under-achievement of Maori and Pasifika pupils in particular. That there is a worrying “tail” in our public education system is well known, but to claim that the blame for this lies squarely in the laps of schools is remarkably unfair. As an import from Britain, where the “tail” is also a significant issue, Longstone should know better.

England’s chief school inspector, Sir Michael Wilshaw, acknowledged the problem this year when he launched a major inquiry intended to tackle the gulf in achievement between rich and poor students in the English education system. He noted that the gap was particularly acute in deprived urban areas, where an “anti-learning culture” had developed. But for this he blamed communities, rather than teachers. British studies reveal the issue with their long tail of underperformance is not simple. Poor white British boys are significantly less likely to succeed than deprived children brought up by immigrant parents – including Indian, Pakistani, Black Caribbean or Black African parents. In what has been seen as a damning disclosure, the figures show children who speak English as a second language make more progress in the three-Rs throughout their secondary education than those who grow up speaking English at home.

A disturbing statistic is that the boys who do worst in British schools are those poor enough to be eligible for free school lunches. Free food is no panacea. Wilshaw has noted that working class communities in Britain once valued education, showing a spirit of support for schools and technical institutes. But particularly in cities with high inter-generational levels of unemployment, there is no longer a culture of self-help. Teachers in such areas are often expected to act as surrogate parents, in place of families “who can’t or won’t support their children”, he observed, and unless a will to engage from within the child’s home could be ignited, achievement levels would be very hard to change. British schools, however, are being given extra cash to help tackle the problem and more powers to crack down on disruptive behaviour.

It is certainly vital for any education system to encourage all students to engage and learn. No teacher should be complacent about that. But it would be tragic if comments by our Secretary of Education undermined our state school system in the public’s eyes and encouraged parents to turn to private or charter schools. Instead of discrediting teachers’ attempts to deal with a problem that extends far beyond these shores, Longstone should support schools’ achievements and focus on how to improve them further.