Letters: January 4, 2014

by The Listener / 26 December, 2013
Child poverty; Bill Ralston; housing; Pisa rankings; Radio NZ; Pike River Mine; and PR spin.


Whatever definition of child poverty in New Zealand you care to use, few people would deny that there is too much of it. The December 21 Editorial points out that the options available to combat it are hard and your list stops at three or perhaps four. And only one of these – to prioritise welfare support for the poorest and youngest families – is offered by the Children’s Commissioner, and it seems to me to be a no-brainer, anyway.

If there are answers, we should not be looking at the public sector for them because, broadly speaking, it does not directly deliver all the crucial services. There are front-line agencies, largely funded by the Government, such as Great Potentials (operating from Kaitaia to Christchurch), that have the most direct experience of child poverty and, I contend, are likely to have more answers.

In its newly released annual report for 2012/13 – available on its website – Dame Lesley Max sets out Great Potentials’ vision for its work and for the country: “Every child wanted and nurtured”. I urge everyone interested in the issue of child poverty to read her report; it is inspirational, moving and hard-hitting and pulls no punches for the sake of political correctness.

Could this be a practical blueprint for action? First, Max tells us it is “foolish and unproductive to turn a blind eye to the inequality that is not strictly income-related”. It is, she explains, “as much, or even more a matter of the capability, mindset and actions of the child’s parents as it is purely a matter of income. This can mean children who are impoverished, in terms of having their needs met, even while adequate income comes into the home.”

Children are often impoverished because they are not central to their parents’ minds and actions. Max notes that today, in comparison with the 1950s, for example, expectations of parents are higher but their “skills have diminished”. Her carefully and thoughtfully composed piece cannot be summarised here, but I conclude with a précis of her action plan:

• improve universal services in the earliest years;
• accept that parenting is not an instinctive behaviour and provide parent coaching in the early weeks for every parent and step-parent who needs it;
• increase provision of Family Service Centres in disadvantaged areas;
• recognise the concept of family planning: “the concept of sustainable families should be at least as much of a national priority as sustainable environments are”, and young people should be targeted to help them make wise decisions about becoming parents;
• parents should be considered as critical to their children’s education as teachers; and
• “education for parenthood” should be integrated into the school curriculum.

All of this seems eminently achievable to me.
Christopher Johnstone
(Grey Lynn, Auckland)


In this grim old world, there are times when a few kind words should be given. I really must thank Bill Ralston. He and I are of a similar age and his Life columns reflect the stages I find myself in. I now have two of his columns laminated and stuck on my office wall.

Last January he wrote one entitled “All I want is a shack somewhere”, and in December 14 “Out with the old”. Talk about close to home. If ever I was stuck in a retirement village, I’d put up with it if I was in the same one as him. We’d laugh ourselves to death. What a way to go!
H Giles


Sudhvir Singh’s comments (“Big bang theories”, December 7) need a response. He says exchanging a long commute for a short walk is akin to falling in love in terms of happiness, according to one study, and he suggests that as a good reason (among others) to invest in high-density “walkable” development, which also means suppressing sprawl.

The problem with those kinds of (usually spurious) arguments is that they’re ultimately beside the point. If people want to live in low-density development (about 85% of the market), why don’t we just let them? How do we justify (effectively) outlawing new satellite townships via metropolitan urban limits for those who wish to live that way? Surely that is the real question. Surely we shouldn’t be forcing higher-density living onto people just because we think they should live that way.

A recent article in Scientific American Mind entitled “City blues” is also of interest. It describes neurological findings that show city dwellers are far more likely to develop psychological disorders such as schizophrenia and depression, and that there is greater hyper-activation within the brain’s stress centres in urban than in rural populations. So much for Singh’s “high-density happiness”.
Andrew Atkin
(Kingston, Wellington)


Pisa’s value lies well beyond the league table of countries, which, unfortunately, is often the main focus for comment (“The leaning tower of Pisa”, December 14). Pisa is a rich data source for researchers, practitioners, educators and policymakers.

The real value is what it tells us about students’ performance in key areas and how that has changed over time. From Pisa we know our top performers are achieving well alongside their counterparts in other countries. But at the same time there is a growing proportion of students who are not reaching the basic level of skills they need to achieve their best.

To help explain achievement, Pisa collects a broad range of information about the students, their schools, classes, families and whanau. This helps educators and researchers to better understand factors related to effective teaching and learning. The international data also allows countries to share their experiences in education to enrich their thinking. A narrow focus on country rankings works against this.

Pisa assesses a sample of students and the mean scores are the basis for constructing country rankings. Differences in mean scores between countries determine the rank. Often these differences are only one or two points and are often not significant or real in terms of how well students perform country by country. There is always error around a mean score and because of this there needs to be a great deal of caution around rankings. It is more helpful to look at those countries that have statistically performed significantly above New Zealand in the past.

Danish statistician Svend Kreiner challenges the use of Pisa rankings and encourages us to “use the Pisa data to analyse the changes over time in New Zealand”. He promotes using the Pisa dataset to better understand student achievement within our own context. That type of analysis, together with similar analysis of datasets from assessments of students at different schooling levels, is already proving invaluable in understanding changes in 15-year-olds’ performance over the past 12 years. We support the use of the data in this way.

Pisa has prompted debate in education circles since its inception, not least within and among those countries that participate in it. It offers us the opportunity to look – along with other sources of data – at our strengths and weaknesses and assess what is important for New Zealand education.
Lisa Rodgers
Deputy secretary evidence data and knowledge, Ministry of Education


Bernard Lagan asks (Bulletin from Abroad, December 21) “what Radio New Zealand – also a public broadcaster – might have done if it had access to information [such as evidence of bugging a foreign head-of-state’s phone] so adverse to New Zealand’s foreign relations”.

He might also have asked the same question of TVNZ, a public broadcaster with no charter. As it is freed from any obligation to “exhibit a sense of social responsibility by having regard to the interests of the community in which it operates”, only commercial pressures and the need to remain on friendly terms with the Government would prevent TVNZ from breaking the story on, um, Seven Sharp.
Tom Frewen
(Manakau, Horowhenua)


Thanks to the Listener for allowing Rebecca Macfie time off to write her book Tragedy at Pike River Mine. I heard her speak, accompanied by the redundant chief inspector of mines, Harry Bell, and was so knocked out by their comments I bought the book.

How could this be New Zealand? How could so many people turn a blind eye to incident reports, many of which detailed the ignitions in the mine, the lack of ventilation and escape routes, and the unsafe practices that were common and well-documented, and knowingly place so many lives at risk?

And who is to blame? The Government changed the system allowing such shoddy practice to exist, and worse still, its own health and safety officer approved what was common knowledge. Shouldn’t he have been familiar with the incident reports regularly submitted by staff raising concerns about lax health and safety standards? The writing was on the wall long before the explosion.

I felt for the families in 2010. Now I’m at a loss for words. I shed tears when a woman in the audience said how they were given false hope that their loved ones were still alive, and she wanted to put muesli bars down the shaft so the lads would have something to eat. Management assured them the guys would be sharing their lunchboxes, so this would not be necessary.

When will management start listening to those at the coal face – no pun intended – when they raise issues we confront on a daily basis? Tragedy at Pike River Mine is compulsory reading.
Ann Kidd


Newspapers don’t consider local politics “sexy” (Editorial, December 14). One clear consequence is that many people don’t vote. When they know little about council business or councillors’ performances, why should they? Democracy requires an informed public, and newspapers once saw that as their duty. Like the council, the ambulance and the fire brigade, the local paper was an institution in our towns. A great paper with a great editor was known far afield.

As a young reporter in the 1950s, I was in no doubt about those expectations, and I toiled late after council meetings. Times have changed and the PR battalions may make it more difficult, but today, as then, independent reporting of council business is of real value: better understanding and debate all round, better selection of councillors and more responsive management.

Some newspapers for their own reasons may dismiss it as dull stuff, but with the will and some stout journalism, it could make regular headlines. Papers do not simply cater to public interest; they know full well they can direct it, and a healthy local democracy is a worthwhile cause.
David Grace
(Karori, Wellington)

The Editorial on the plethora of PR gatekeepers made no mention of those practising this nefarious occupation, namely ex-journalists. Who runs the PR spin-doctor courses? Some of New Zealand’s journalistic grandees. You can always identify the graduates of these courses. They start their reply to any question with the word “so”. First question. Answer: “So …” Second question. Answer: “So …” And so on.
Lorne Kuehn

This week’s letter of the week winner is Christopher Johnstone.

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