Wednesday, December 28, 2011

"Consumer" Recommendations Confounding

I have always relied on Consumer's advice when buying major household items, however I have sometimes found their recommended buys don't live up to their status. The fridge we bought some years ago was a recommended model and yet we have been plagued by fluctuating temperatures and during Summer the fridge often turns into a freezer.

When I pulled out our first cucumber of the season to use in a sandwich and found it was frozen solid, it was the last straw, especially after the strawberries I had picked the day before were in a similar state when I tried to put them on my breakfast cereal. Over the last few years we have had a succession of appliance specialists come in to try and fix the fridge and this time I decided that another costly repair (the fridge is well out of warranty) wasn't worth it, the fridge would have to go!

I did look at the Consumer website, but rather than just going for their recommendations I also read the reviews that owners of the various models had submitted and these were interesting. It turned out that the fridge I would have bought, had I followed Consumer's advice, was not well supported. It was very noisy, had problems with the doors and one owner had had to replace a fan. A fridge that scored the second lowest, on the other hand, had many positive reviews and closer analysis showed that the area that we cared most about (adjustment to seasonal changes) was something this fridge was particularly good at. I was concerned that it did not score as well as the best fridge for energy consumption, but again when I compared the actual data the difference turned out to be negligible, I didn't think 90 cents difference for running costs per month was significant.

I wondered if my experience of using Consumer was similar to others and noticed this comment by another member:
"Generalised headings now for testing does not help the consumer. Previous testing was under headings that a consumer could assess suitability, such as; are vege and fruit kept crisp in crispers...can't do that now."

Consumer provides also their own value to each criteria but perhaps rather than use their own priorities for ranking products they could just list the criteria scores and allow members to give their own weighting for each area.

The new fridge has been bought and delivered and is purring away quietly in its allotted place in the kitchen (it was also one of the quietest of the models) and I guess a few months or years will prove the wisdom of our choice.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

The Big Southern Dry

Invercargill reached at least 25 degrees celcius today, according to the Metservice, and this was higher than Nelson, Gisborne and Auckland. We have had a month of almost continuous fine weather, except for the 14th and 15th when a total of 15mm fell (just a light shower compared to the 510 mm that fell in Takaka over the same time). The average rainfall for Invercargill in December is 105 mm and with five days left in the month we are 90 mm short. Environment Southland are monitoring the dropping river levels and those who have water consents are being advised of the possibility of having to cease taking water.

Our "quarter acre pavlova paradise" (for those of you who are old enough to remember Austin Mitchell) sits on an ancient sand dune and the continuous rays that are burning through the ozone hole fry the roots of my lawn and quickly change the lush green blades to a crunchy brown. Our new solar water heating system is steadily earning its worth, however.

My vegetable garden is thriving only because of my regular hand watering. The corn, yams and peas are growing like triffids, but if I forget to water for a couple of days my darker leafed lettuces and seedlings wilt and flatten themselves against the soil. It is best to water in the evening or early morning as there is less evaporation and the soil should absorb more, however when leaves begin to visibly dehydrate I want to immediately resuscitate them.

To minimise watering and to help retain the moisture in my raised beds I tuck fresh compost around as many plants as I can and have covered the roots of my fruit trees with mulched hedge clippings and mown grass. The flower beds also need constant hand held showers and I will be very concerned if a hosing ban is applied. When we built our shed few years ago I had wanted to capture the rainwater from the roof into a barrel that I could then use on the flower beds, but the City council refused to allow this and I had to flush the resource into the storm water system.

The positive element about our weather is the fact that we are now eating all our meals outside and with our wonderful twilights I am often still doing things in the garden at 10:30 pm.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Government Attacks New Zealand's Highest Performing Sector

Over the last three years New Zealand has had to deal with a number of crises and disasters, some man made and others caused by forces of nature. Investment companies collapsed, a mine exploded, Christchurch shook and a ship was grounded and leaked oil into a pristine marine environment. Extreme weather has struck a number of New Zealand regions with drought, tornados and heavy rain wrecking havoc with peoples' homes and livelihoods. A number of reports have also highlighted the shocking statistics around the health and safety of our children, with at least a quarter living in poverty. To top it all we discovered that around 80% of our lowland rivers are seriously polluted and we aren't quite as pure as we thought.

While all this was happening and despite working with a fraction of the funding of other OECD countries our education system soldiered on, consistently ranking amongst the top five in the world. Our curriculum and remedial reading programmes have been widely admired and adopted and our primary teachers are regarded like gold in the UK and elsewhere. With so much needing the government's attention over the next three years at least our education system is in good heart and needs little radical change.

Surprisingly we hear from the throne, and our new Governor General, that education will again be a key focus and major changes are afoot. There is a high priority for increasing accountability of schools, strengthening teacher appraisals and reforming the Teachers' Council. On top of this Charter Schools are going to be forced onto many of our low decile communities. These are major changes that will be imposed on a sector that is generally performing well and is hardly broken.

It has also been revealed by the media that the Ministry may take over the appointing of school principals from Boards of Trustees, not only will this remove one of the key elements of self managed schools but  there would also be the potential for political influence to determine appointments. Rather than having professional leaders who are driven by serving the school community and the needs of the students in their care, schools will be led by gagged civil servants who will have to blindly follow the whims and dictates of the Ministry and the Minister without question.

One would think that forcing the flawed National Standards onto all our schools, despite widespread concern, would be enough. The $60 million spent on implementing the standards could have been better utilized in supporting struggling children and their families and now we are going to have even more money spent on major structural changes with no evidence to support a need to do so.

The proposed changes to education are not driven by a general failure of the system or from compelling evidence and research, they are purely ideological and possibly vindictive. As stated earlier there are numerous areas that are in greater need of the Government's attention than education but teachers are effective organisers and the New Zealand Educational Institute is now the 2nd largest union in the country. The fact that NZEI devotes much of its energy on professional issues and has worked constructively with the Ministry of Education and past governments on curriculum development, child welfare and teacher attestation pilots means little to this National led government. Most of the proposed changes appear to be more about reducing the influence of the teaching profession then improving education delivery to children and judging by the success of similar changes internationally many children will probably suffer as a consequence.

Our education system is a great one and it could become an excellent one, but not through what is being proposed and not by refusing to collaborate with the profession.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

School Principal Appointments Becoming Political?

I have grave concerns regarding the Ministry taking over the appointment of school principals from boards of Trustees, especially when we have a government that has the potential to impose political and ideological criteria on suitability for positions. However, I also have concerns about the current system of appointing principals as the career pathway for leadership positions is flawed.

Prior to tomorrow's schools applicants for leadership positions needed to have a number of years experience and also have gone through a professional assessment (Grading) before applying and while the system wasn't perfect only those with some experience of staff management and proven professional knowledge would be considered. No one would be appointed to a position as principal of a large school unless they had proven experience in a smaller one. I am aware of many principals who have been appointed in the role for nonprofessional attributes such as just being male or because they had attractive qualifications yet no management experience. A large school that has hundreds of children and twenty to thirty staff is not an institution for a novice principal to lead and yet that is what can currently occur and I have also heard of small schools being led by beginning teachers.

It is not so much who makes appointments but the process that is followed and having appropriate career pathway that allows future leaders in education to develop appropriate skills and experience. It is also important to have professional and properly moderated verification of their abilities. A successful trial of a system of professional attestation for classroom teachers has recently been completed and could easily be adapted for aspiring leaders.

Education leadership needs the best people in these roles, people who are driven by the needs of the children they are ultimately responsible for. Principals should have an in depth knowledge of what makes the most effective teaching and learning and be able to motivate and lead a team to deliver it. They should not be solely motivated by meeting arbitrary and ideological criteria and become gagged civil servants who cannot speak out about poor policy that could potentially damage kids.

(It is interesting that even Kiwiblog's David Farrar has questioned the sense of this potential change)

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Stewart Island, Paradise Lost?

During the week on Stewart Island with my family it was easy to believe that the rest of the world didn't exist.  The Island never appears to change, the familiar landmarks are practically as they were when I first visited in the early 70s. The continuous calls of Kaka, Bellbird and Grey Warbler provide a melodious background that, like the music of the spheres, appear to be part of a continuous cycle of song that reaches back to the beginnings of time. When my days were determined by the weather or how captured I was by the book I was reading, politics and current events became surreal intrusions. Rather than being constantly aware of our environmental, economic and social decline I was surrounded by lush and thriving bush and clear water full of very visible darting fish.

Despite the ease of falling into the Stewart Island time warp and thinking all is well with the world I did become aware that some things weren't as they seemed. Our family spent two days walking the Rakiura Track, described as one of New Zealand's "Great Walks" (along with the Milford and Kepler tracks), a wonderful walk that combines beautiful beaches and lush bush that is unique in its diversity. However, the second day saw us negotiating a muddy quagmire and while mud is not unusual on Stewart Island tracks in this case it was quite unnecessary. Piled up at various intervals were stacks of boardwalk that had been removed for replacement, many had been placed in large bags waiting to be helicoptered out. Apparently the boardwalks had been dismantled some time ago but DoC budget cuts had meant completion had been delayed. I also heard that some DoC staff on the Island were probably going to lose their jobs even though, considering the size of the park, they are probably understaffed.

It seems that there is enough private money to drill a tunnel between the Dart and Hollyford Valleys but our government struggles to fund basic track maintenance in our newest National Park. I guess the sort of money that tramping tourists spend is negligible so that tramping infrastructure has a low priority, as does saving our rare flora and fauna. Tourists who want to experience our wilderness areas through coach and monorail windows and stay in sandfly free, air conditioned hotels have the highest priority.  All that we need to preserve is what can be seen through the coach windows, the rest can be mined and milled! I guess commerce before conservation will be the resonating theme for the next three years.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Labour's Leadership Change Process Flawed.

The Green Party's leadership selection process makes so much sense. Surely a party's leaders should have a proven track record within the party and have the respect of both caucus and wider membership. For Labour to quickly dump a leader then replace them through a publicly managed popularity contest is hardly the best mandate for such positions. The fact that the Greens have only had four leaders since 1995 and two of them are current is proof of the robust process we use. Surely sound decision making leads to robust outcomes and stability over time and any mainstream party should be able to demonstrate these to have any credibility for forming a government.

Leaders often grow into their roles I find it hugely concerning when Helen Clark did so poorly in early opinion polls then eventually proved her capabilities over time while Phil Goff was never given that opportunity. Whatever caused the party to go with Goff over Cunliffe originally can't have changed substantially and yet here we have a sudden replacement decision that appears to be based on dubious public perceptions.

Labour's change process has been reactionary rather than planned and rushed decisions don't tend to last well over time. Labour needs to look for stability leading into the next election and Shearer could very well prove to be the best leader over time for Labour. To throw him into publicly televised comparisons with Cuncliffe seems bizarre given that Shearer couldn't expect to perform as well as his more experienced rival. Labour should be looking at who has the most potential to put the party in the best position by 2014 and three more years in Parliament can make a world of difference. Exposing their potential leaders to public scrutiny so early on makes no sense.

The choice of a leader should be an internal process, then once elected the party needs to come in behind them with properly managed support. Russel and Metiria were both well known by the party and although both lacked leadership experience we recognized their potential and elected them with a long term vision in mind. Both have gradually grown into their roles and despite the odd human hiccup the party has stuck with them with the knowledge that, as with cheese and wine, the good ones get better over time. This was proven with Russel and Metiria's performances over the last election. Russel was widely recognized for his grasp of economics and easily became the "go to" spokesperson on capital gains taxation when Labour was still struggling to release their policy. Metiria impressed all in the "minor party" debates and her passion, humour  and measured responses made political commentators remark that the party she leads should no longer be considered minor and that she performs beyond what would be expected from a minor leader.

If mainstream media had a more altruistic approach to their role of providing informed and balanced commentary on party policy and the performance of party leadership, leading up to the election, then we may have ended up with quite a different result. Post election reviews have all praised the Greens as having the most professional campaign and recognised our leaders as having almost faultless performances. Russel's response to the billboard vandalism was politically astute and masterful, the same could not be said of Key's management of the teacup debacle or Goff's failure to quickly manage the "show me the money" taunt.

Labour will struggle to choose a credible leader using their current process and then must attempt to build a unified and effective machine to oppose a National Party that is growing in confidence and audacity.  Already the Greens are operating as the main opposition (regarding the flaws in the management of the underwriting of South Canterbury Finance) while Labour has its collective headspace somewhere else. It will be an interesting three years when Labour will need time to rebuild while the Greens will be developing even greater capability based on an already experienced and proven leadership team.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Charter Schools in NZ

It has now been announced that "Charter Schools" are going to be introduced into New Zealand through a coalition agreement with the ACT party. It appears that this idea had never occurred to the National Party and is just a minor adjustment to their education plans to accommodate John Banks. The evidence is otherwise, however. National had already secretly embarked on bringing in this system (for which they have no public mandate) and I can't imagine John Banks coming up with the Charter School idea in the first place.

It is no coincidence that the new CEO appointed to the Ministry of Education, Lesley Longstone, is an advocate for Free Schools (the UK equivalent of the Charter Schools in the US). Making John Banks an associate education minister to potentially roll out a contentious programme makes political sense. It will need a stubborn, thick skinned but expendable politician like John to do this (much like using Anne Tolley to bring in National Standards).

Introducing Charter Schools into the New Zealand educational context will be a huge waste of time and effort and will deliver few benefits that cannot be achieved through our current state system. One of the strongest drivers for Charter Schools is the claim that their autonomy and ability to meet specific community needs will bring about improved outcomes for children. New Zealand already has many of the elements that define these schools, we have Boards of Trustees who operate with a high degree of independence and a National Curriculum that allows for the development of a local school curriculum that can be tailored to meet the specific needs of communities.

The Government intends that Charter Schools will be introduced into our lower decile communities, where much of our supposed under achievement exists. This will shift the responsibility onto these communities to find their own solutions while also introducing a new private, competitive model into our largely state run system. This ignores extensive research and existing programmes, like Ka Hikitia, that provide resources and evidence to address underachievement without needing communities to reinvent the wheel.

The US is ranked around 39th in the world for primary education (while New Zealand is in the top four or five) and the introduction of Charter Schools over there has seen mixed results. Not only will schools suffer from the introduction of the flawed and politically driven National Standards but we will have communities disrupted by the introduction of Charter Schools. Surely resourcing struggling schools properly and providing appropriate professional development to teachers will make a more immediate difference to our struggling children then introducing yet another new system that has a dubious track record.

(Gordon Campbell provides his useful perspectives on this topic).

Monday, December 5, 2011

Going Solar in the South

It has been quite a journey of regulation and compliance but our solar water heating system has finally been installed and is up and running. Of the hundred or so who originally indicated an interest in Venture Southland's pilot, there are only nine determined households who have stuck it through to the end and I think ours was the last to be installed.

It is too early to judge the success of the system and it probably won't be until we have a few power bills that we will really get an idea. I used the Homestar self rating system to see how successful we have been in upgrading our 1932 bungalow to make it more energy efficient. We only managed to get a rating of 2 helped by the following:
  • Under floor insulation
  • Ceiling insulation
  • HRV ventilation system
  • A large heatpump
  • A wood burner
  • Water solar heating
  • A north facing house
  • Composting and recycling systems
What let us down was:
  • Drafty single gazed windows
  • No wall insulation
  • No bathroom extractor fan 
  • Older ceiling insulation that doesn't cover framing
  • A one flush toilet
It was an interesting exercise because most New Zealand homes apparently score between 2 and 4 and despite our efforts we could only get our home to the bottom end of the average range. There must be a huge number of substandard houses in Invercargill.