"Learning is Earning", this economic mantra appeared throughout Education Minister Hekia Parata's speech this morning when she made some pre-budget announcements regarding National's plans for education.
Unlike her predecessor, Anne Tolley, Parata acknowledges that our education system is a largely successful one:
"We have an education system that is among the best in the world. It gives our students a platform to compete here at home and internationally. Four out of five kids are successfully getting the qualifications they need from school and we must celebrate their success and the professionals in our system who make that possible every day."
However Parata still ignores the reality behind those children who struggle and continues to lay the blame for underachievement on the teaching profession.
"Too many of the kids are falling behind because they are not getting the quality teaching and leadership that all the evidence tells us makes the difference for Maori and Pasifika learners, those who come from low socio-economic homes, or have special needs."
One would think that when her government's own green paper on vulnerable children recognizes a wider issue in terms of child health and welfare and that income inequities and poverty would be major contributing factors to educational achievement. Research actually shows that the influence of a teacher on educational achievement is only 10-20% of all relevant factors. Even our decile ranking and associated funding of schools is based on the incomes of the school communities and recognizes that household incomes have a large bearing on educational outcomes.
National have continued with their policy of giving with one hand and taking with the other as they shuffle money within their commitment to austerity and a zero budget. They plan to partially fund extra initiatives by increasing class sizes and cutting expenditure on teacher salaries which, Parata claims, will free up $43 million. To justify cuts they cherry pick research and they have long made use of education academic John Hattie's claim that it is teaching, not class size that has the biggest influence on achievement. Increasing class sizes is a useful way of limiting spending when teachers salaries are a major part of the education budget, yet to say increasing class size won't have a negative impact is nonsensical. If you had an excellent teacher in a classroom, then increased the size of the class they taught there would have to be a negative impact on the children's learning and an increase in workload for the teacher concerned.
Margaret Wu, an internationally regarded education expert, warns against making wild assumptions based on data. Parata makes a wild assumption when she claims that because teacher numbers have increased over the last ten years, yet learning achievement has plateaued, it supports the view that teacher numbers are not important. Over the last ten years we have also seen huge social challenges from growing numbers of children living in disadvantaged backgrounds, the sacking of many advisors, a cutting in funding for the Ministry of Education (which also received a poor performance review) and the introduction of the highly flawed National Standards. There are many factors that may contribute to a plateau of achievement and one could easily say that if teacher numbers hadn't increased the situation could have been so much worse.
So how will the Minister's plans impact on the average teacher? There will be an increase in class size, which means an increase in workload. There will be no extra spending on professional development (which has largely been focussed on National Standards) and, with the sacking of all advisors outside of literacy and numeracy, does not support the wider curriculum. Salaries will probably be frozen as this is the area the government intends to make savings in and finally with a renewed focus on teacher appraisals and performance pay, higher levels of accountability and paperwork will probably result. Most models of performance pay also result in the end of collegiality between teachers, which is essential for ensuring the sharing of good ideas and adding to a positive school culture. Of course the added stress of having to shoulder the blame of educational underachievement and the constant media beat ups on underperforming teachers and sex offenders in schools makes the teaching environment an increasingly negative one.
And how will the changes impact on children, which surely should be the driver for any educational change? Many children will find themselves in larger classes where there will be fewer opportunities to to have individual attention from their teacher. Their teacher will be under greater pressure and will be spending more time on assessment and documentation than planning exciting and engaging learning experiences. Their teacher will not have access to as many new ideas as teachers compete against each other to access performance pay. As there is no extra funding to support professional development in curriculum areas outside literacy and numeracy and as National Standards continue to drive teaching, subjects like science and technology will continue to be under taught. With the mantra of "learning is earning" and suggestion that children's learning should have a career focus from year eight, there will probably be outside influence on what curriculum choices will fit with economic development rather than personal growth.
There is much to be worried about!