Saturday, September 29, 2012

Hekia Parata is Listening...Yeah Right!


Q + A today revealed a calm and smiling Minister of Education who was able to avoid giving a direct answer to reasonable questions and continues to give the impression that her main function is writing Tui Ads.

All those Christchurch schools that have been earmarked for closure must have felt incredibly reassured that the Minister is listening and they have been given a few weeks at the end of a stressful year to compose a defense for the retention of their schools. The Minister is consulting.

All parents and schools should be celebrating the fact that the National Standards (despite their ropiness) are providing the ability to compare their school with others and the resulting healthy competition will raise achievement overall.

Yeah, right!

Friday, September 28, 2012

National and Due Diligence.


Due diligence is a term usually used in reference to legal obligations or a robust investigation before a business deal, but I think it should also apply to the process of governance.

With this National led Government we are being continually confronted with a huge lack of diligence in ensuring decisions are supported by good advice, research, consultation or evidence. One has the feeling that papers cross the desks of our current Ministers, with major decisions needed, and yet they are signing things off based on nothing more than pure ideology and gut feelings. Seat of the pants governance may work some of the time but when such decisions relate to millions of people's lives, the health of our economy and the state of our environment it is inappropriate and dangerous.

When Julie Anne Genter asked Gerry Brownlee to reveal the evidence he used to support the Roads of National Significance, all she got was bluff and bluster. After several questions failed to get a straight answer the Speaker felt compelled to explain to perplexed Julie Anne that the Minister's decisions were probably based on "his belief" that they were a good idea. To think that $12 billion of spending is based on Gerry Brownlee's unsubstantiated views is not a thought that encourages a good night's sleep.

When Anne Tolley was the Minister of Education she drove through the implementation of National Standards despite the mass concerns from the profession. No one could question the appropriateness of the Standards just the manner of implementation and yet when Trevor Mallard asked the Minister to explain a Year 8 standard for writing, in "plain English", she was unable to do so. She explained it was the classroom teacher's job to understand them and her job was resourcing them. It was clearly obvious that Anne Tolley had no professional understanding of her own standards and yet she refused to listen to any criticisms. She even told a group of concerned Dunedin teachers (who asked questions she couldn't answer) that they just had to accept that, as Minister, she makes the decisions.

Hekia Parata has followed Anne Tolley's reluctance to consult with the profession or communities on important education decisions and admitted that she had only referred to her own struggling Ministry regarding the mergers and closures of Christchurch schools. To inflict already stressed communities with such a flawed process is pure incompetence (or unbelievable callousness). Parata's earlier handling of the class size debacle revealed that although she has admirable oral skills her understanding of the education system she is responsible for often falls short.

Murray McCully's RWC difficulties with Party Central, or his handling of the Mfat cuts again showed a complete disconnect with decisions and those who will be affected. Most Ministers also seem to share the belief that in times of austerity figures can be plucked from the air to constitute cuts to state sectors and public services, with no regard to the actual consequences. There is no appreciation of what constitutes a minimum level of staffing or service provision and the potential costs that will hit the government at a later date (already the health and welfare costs of poverty have been estimated at between $6-8 billion a year). Paula Bennett even had the audacity to claim that she had no established poverty line to help determine real needs because people "move in and out of poverty on a daily basis". If you don't quantify poverty then there can be no obligation to support those who fall below an established bottom line.

When Government appointed advisors and commissioners voice serious concerns about government policy, they should be seriously listened to. and I was particularly appalled at the treatment received by the Commisioner for the Environment, Dr Jan Wright, when she questioned proposed changes to the ETS. National Ministers are continually making decisions based on very limited consultation or advice and the rest of us have to wear them.

Of course we now have the Kim Dotcom situation and the five page Neazor report into the GCSB's total failure to ensure their spying was legal. The sole person responsible for the oversight of our two secret intelligence organisations is the Prime Minister and yet he appeared to be completely out of the loop regarding their operations. The expectations of the level of information and oversight from these organisations must be determined by the Prime Minister of the day and, while I cannot know what John Key has demanded from them or what he has actually been told, there is ample proof that he has a "the less I know the less I can be held responsible" philosophy. This does not constitute due diligence to his role and when it reflects badly on our nation's ability to protect its citizens and residents and our international reputation, we all suffer.





Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Dear John, The Love Has Gone!


"Ah, how do you sleep?
Ah, how do you sleep at night?" 


Dear John

In the beginning there was love.

For many years I admired your little Pacific paradise from afar, its low corruption and its 100% pure image called to me from advertising billboards. I loved the way that this little country had stood up against the powers of the world to become nuclear free, it had huge integrity and put truth and human rights ahead of shallow expediency. This was the place where I wished to bring up my family.

You can imagine the joy in my heart when I was welcomed to your land, established a wonderful home for my family and looked ahead to years of contended bliss. When I was granted residency my happiness knew no bounds and I had hoped that the public display of my gratitude went some way to thank you and your people for kindness I had received.

I had welcomed your eccentric little friend with the dark rimmed glasses into my home (in fact I flew him there in my helicopter) and when he asked for money I was happy to oblige. I was touched by his gratitude and offers of future support.

When a large foreign power became jealous of my business success, and there was an attempt to remove me from my paradise, I felt safe. Was this not the country that bravely sent out its battleship against a much larger power that was testing nuclear bombs in nearby waters? Was this not the country that stood up to the same power when they committed a terrorist act against them (despite the fact that no other country was brave enough to support them)? Was this not the country that refused to allow the mightiest nation of them all berth its warships unless they had an assurance that they carried no nuclear weapons? And didn't the funny little man with the glasses claim he would help me in any way he could?

As you well know the romance has now ended and the love is all but gone. I feel used and betrayed and the friends I thought I had have publicly denied their friendship. With great sadness and dismay I have come to realize that this little paradise I have loved is not what it seems. On the surface it glistens with purity and integrity but there also exists a dark underbelly of lies and deceit.

As a muso I felt these lines from a John Lennon song seemed apt:

"A pretty face may last a year or two
But pretty soon they'll see what you can do"

"Ah, how do you sleep?
Ah, how do you sleep at night?" 


Yours regretfully...

P.S. I would have written this by hand, but it still hurts.


Sunday, September 23, 2012

National Standards Defy Logic



Reading the published National Standards results in the Southland Times resulted in the following letter:

Dear Sir
The countries that have the highest educational performance do not use league tables. League tables turn the evaluations they are based on into "high stakes" assessments that do not focus on the broad needs of children. Teachers and schools will now give an inordinate amount of time to boosting the results in one area of our curriculum to the detriment of everything else. It saddens me that we will soon be changing our successful teaching and learning culture to that of education systems ranked well beneath us.

National Standards have provided us with some unmoderated and highly suspect data with which to compare schools and yet only two of the eight learning areas are covered and there is no reference to any of the following:
  • The number of children who have English as a second langauge.
  • The number of children who have disabilities (learning, physical or behavioural) and the ability of the school to meet those needs.
  • The range of cultural backgrounds within a school.
  • The number of transient children in a school.
  • The progress made by children while attending the school.
  • The other curriculum areas that are also important: Science, The Arts, Social Sciences, Technology, Health and Physical Education, Languages.
  • The Key Competencies that refer to the capabilities necessary for being a successful learner and citizen.
  • The levels of emotional and physical safety provided by the school.
  • The levels of parental and community support.
The $60 million+ that has been spent on establishing who is "below" or "well below" standard (as if we didn't already know) would have been better spent in actually helping them. What a catastrophic waste of time, effort and money!


Yours sincerely...

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Natiional Standards Solve Nothing


Hekia Parata has released the first statistics available from the collection of National Standards data and was able to claim that 76% of children in years 1-8 were above the Standard for reading, 72% were above the standard for Maths and 68% in writing. Given the flawed, unmoderated nature of the standards this is nothing more than a rough estimate that isn't far off what could have been estimated using other data. Parata also revealed that Maori and Pasifika children scored significantly lower with up to 46% of Pasifika children below or well below the standard and Maori children scoring 42% below for writing, 34% for reading and 38% for Maths.

Parata promoted the data as if we wouldn't have been aware of these concerns without National Standards and yet this knowledge has existed for many years and far more useful assessments have been used in the past to establish it. All National Standards does is give a broad idea of those above or below standards in three areas, with no qualitative detail on what specific areas cause lack of achievement of what teachers could do to address the deficits.

While National Standards has cost around $60 million to force onto schools many programmes designed to address the causes of underachievement have been under resourced or cut altogether. It seem extraordinary that Pasifika children were known to be a group that needed extra support and yet the Government has deliberately cut funding to Pasifika language nests and bilingual support. It has also under resourced Ka Hikitia which was designed to address Maori achievement in English medium schools.

The Government's cuts to the Ministry of Education has also had a direct impact on front line special education staff and resource teachers providing learning support are overwhelmed and underfunded.

The Campbell Live  TV item, that compared the lunches between a decile 10 and decile 1 school, starkly demonstrated one of the reasons many children may under perform at school. Poverty is a well established contributor to under achievement and yet any initiative to address this issue has been ignored by the government.

I'm sure there will be more announcements from Minister Parata regarding the "unique" revelations that the National Standards have uncovered, however they are not actually providing new knowledge and they won't make one jot of difference for the children who need immediate support.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Spring Bursts Through Political Gloom


I haven't posted for a number of days, partly because I have been doing other things that are more pressing and partly because of the depressive nature of commenting on the misguided and callous decisions constantly emanating from this National led Government. 

Spending time in our Invercargill quarter acre, listening to our visiting tuis and bellbirds, and watching the evidence of Spring bursting forth helps me believe that there will be an end to our political Winter as well.

Pear blossom

Tulips

Daffodils 

White turnip flowers

A Rhododendron I was given 25 years ago that first flowered only 3 years ago.

Purple sage, foxglove and grape hyacinth

A healthy bunch of wisteria buds.



Thursday, September 13, 2012

Christchurch Suffers Schooling Shock


Schools are the hubs of their communities, they are an obvious gathering point for families and tend to have a lot of community input in terms of fundraising and cultural and sporting activities. Many schools have been in operation for generations and there is an emotional attachment to them because they are the environment where lifelong friendships are formed and they contribute to a person's most important early experiences.

Many schools have had large investments of community money to assist in providing facilities not covered by government funds. The value of a school is often reflected in school reunions where generations come together to share memories and appreciate the changes to the facilities over time. Secondary schools have their honour boards with the long lists of past duxes and the photos of successful past students. Schools also have important roles in times of emergency, most are civil defense bases and many have been used as shelter or a coordination centre in the event of a disaster.

For many, schools provide an extension of their homes, a safe and familiar place where much of their childhood and youth is spent. For some, schools provide security, support and stability that wasn't always present in their own homes. The ongoing physical presence of a school provides a form of emotional security, when most of the world is in constant change, the local school can provide a sense of permanency.

When a school closes an important physical link to the past ends and the heart of a community stops beating. The closing of any school is a sad event. It is a time when history stops and the community realizes that, for their school, there will be no more pet shows, school concerts, prize giving ceremonies or sporting competitions.

In 2004 Invercargill went through one of the largest Government initiated schooling reviews, resulting in a number of merged schools and the effective demise of city's intermediate schools and middle school. The reorganisation went against the wishes of parents to retain the intermediate schools, pitted secondary schools against primary and the more affluent communities used their influence to retain all the primary schools in the higher decile area of the city. Many schools that had existed in the town's early history suddenly ceased to exist and most year 7 and 8 children had to attend a secondary school.

The many mergers created difficulties for any community that had lost their school and were moved into another, and where name changes and combined boards were used to artificially make it into a "new" school. Eight years later school communities are just beginning to settle and new school cultures are finally being established.

The physical effects of the reorganisation are still visible as most of the abandoned schools still remain, sitting empty, unkempt and forlorn and still costing the Ministry in basic maintenance and surveillance. Interestingly the initial reason for the Invercargill schooling review was a decline in population and although it may have been a reasonable assumption that this would be a continuing reality, the opposite has happened. Many of the merged schools now have roles of 300 or more pupils and many teachers feel that the helpful family atmosphere that existed in some of the smaller, lower decile schools has been lost.

Sadly schooling reorganisations are largely driven by fiscal considerations, if they were led by community aspirations or professional evidence they would probably be managed quite differently. Invercargill's intermediates and middle school were well regarded and supported by the local community as useful environments for adolescent children (which Clarence Beeby had recognized over eighty years ago when he first established them). It is my opinion (supported by a recent ERO report) that secondary and primary schools often struggle with years 7-10 and that they would be best catered for in school environments that reflect their developmental stage.

It is my experience of what Invercargill went through that allows me to have some empathy for what Christchurch is now about to experience, only we did not have the stressful effects of a natural disaster to deal with as well. Christchurch is being told that hard decisions need to be made and the schooling plan had to be a largely bureaucratic decision to remove the emotional bias that would inevitably occur if it was left for the local community to manage. While there is some truth in this, I do wonder how much professional and community considerations affected the pivotal draft plan.

Given the debacle around Shirley Boys High School and what occurred in Invercargill, I see further stress being placed on Christchurch that could be avoided until the population stabilizes and communities have a chance to rebuild and reestablish themselves. There will be some expense in maintaining under utilized schools but there will also also be gains in mental health, community resilience and maintaining teacher and school capacity for the inevitable recovery. Now is not the time to close schools and experiment with unproven Charter Schools, the people of Christchurch have suffered enough.






Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Polluters Benefit, Beneficiaries Bashed


While beneficiary bashing is growing in intensity with the latest announcement from Paula Bennett, the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment, Dr Jan Wright, reveals that polluting businesses will have their handouts assured for some time yet.

In a bizarre piece of social engineering, Paula Bennett has essentially made it compulsory for children of beneficiaries to attend formal early childhood education from the age of three, not to do so could result in a 50% cut in the benefit. It is my bet that Bennett has no evidence or research to support that this draconian idea is even practical. While most will agree that there are huge benefits for children from disadvantaged homes to receive quality early childhood education, her initiative is based on some rather simplistic assumptions:

  1. That most beneficiary parents are not capable of providing the same quality of care for their children as an Early Childhood Centre or Kindergarten.
  2. That affordable and quality childcare is accessible for all beneficiary families.
  3. That the circumstances of some children and families won't become considerably worse.
  4. That the management of the initiative can be done cost effectively and meets a basic cost/benefit analysis. 
  5. That families will receive fair and reasonable treatment.
  6. That we have the capacity and level of trained teachers to cater for the influx of children.
  7. That all children between the ages of 3 and 6 (the age when children are legally required to attend school) will benefit from having at least 15 hours a week away from their parents.
  8. That there will be jobs available for beneficiaries to access while their children are in care and to help pay for that care (while the 20 hours free care exists there are often extra costs involved).
From my own experience as a parent, we had one child who benefited hugely from attending our local kindergarten and another child for whom the same kindergarten was not a positive experience and for that child the best option was to be at home (the same child thrived in school). While I realize that our children have two, well educated parents and we have a good income, is it not possible that some beneficiary parents may also be the best caregiver for their child before the age of 5 or six?

While parents on benefits are getting the hard word to step up and be responsible, polluting business are getting the opposite message. Rather than taking responsibility for their climate changing emissions and getting a financial incentive to change their behaviour they will find that their own benefits will continue. According to Dr Jan Wright "Without a direct cost, there will be no transition to a low carbon economy, smooth or otherwise. Major polluters will still be paying for just 5% of their emissions in 2050."

The government has calculated that the taxpayer cost of the subsidies to be around $330 million a year but Wright has warned that the volatile nature of the carbon price could mean a cost of over a billion a year (based on last year's price of $19 a tone).

POSTSCRIPT:

Russel Norman has revealed that the Government's own cabinet paper predicted that up to 2,200 parents will have their benefits cut in the first year. Bill English, to his credit, did not appear comfortable in his attempt to defend the suffering (on behalf of the prime Minister) that will inevitably be passed on to the children in those families. Note that Bill English did not attempt to give a direct answer to the question regarding the morality or ethics behind the policy. It is obvious the policy is more to do with cutting the costs of benefits rather than helping children.


Dr Russel Norman: Has he seen the Cabinet paper on the social obligations for parents policy that states that 2,200 parents will have their benefits cut in the first year, and how does that help their children reach their full potential?
Hon BILL ENGLISH: I understand that that is not actually what the Cabinet paper says. But I think that parents’ knowledge of those obligations means they are likely to comply with them, precisely so that they do not put the welfare of their children at risk. In fact, if they meet those obligations, it will be positive for their children.
Dr Russel Norman: I seek leave to table the Cabinet paper that shows that 2,200 parents will have their benefits cut in the first year.
Mr SPEAKER: Leave is sought to table that document. Is there any objection? There is no objection.
Dr Russel Norman: Given that the Cabinet paper specifies that only “the most disadvantaged and vulnerable beneficiary families will be tested for complying with the regime”, what will happen to their kids once their parents’ income is slashed?
Hon BILL ENGLISH: The Government takes the view that almost all of those parents will understand that they are reasonable obligations, because they are not so much obligations to the Government, they are obligations to their own children. We believe that most parents—in fact, almost all parents—would comply with those obligations. (Still said nothing about the children whose parents do not comply)
Dr Russel Norman: Given that the Cabinet paper itself admits that around 2,200 parents will not comply with the obligations and hence will have their benefit cut, is it really moral for the Government to punish children for the perceived sins of their parents?
Hon BILL ENGLISH: In the first place, let us get it clear that it would be the parents who are punishing their children, not the Government. Secondly, we take a more optimistic view than the officials’ view in the Cabinet paper. The Prime Minister’s view is that most parents—in fact, almost all parents—are likely to comply with those obligations, and that means better results for their children. (No answer regarding morality, just hoped that most children would benefit)
Dr Russel Norman: Given that the Cabinet paper itself says that around 2,200 parents will not meet the requirements of this policy and will hence have their incomes slashed by the Government, does he take responsibility for the fact that the children of those parents will go hungry because his Government will cut their income by 50 percent?
Hon BILL ENGLISH: I believe that the presence of the sanction will encourage almost all parents, except maybe those who are completely reckless in their regard for their own children, to comply with the obligations. It is an obligation to their children in the first place, and in the second place to the taxpayers, who are providing almost all of the income on which those families are living. (In their own cabinet paper they predict around 2,200 parents will be reckless)
Dr Russel Norman: Given that his earlier answers acknowledged that there will be some parents—possibly up to 2,200—who will have their benefit cut as a result of this policy, how can it possibly be ethically acceptable to punish the children of those parents because the Government does not like the actions of those parents?
Hon BILL ENGLISH: The point of the policy is to ensure that the parents take actions that are consistent with better prospects for their children in the first place and that, secondly, they meet their obligations to the broader community, which is offering support for that family. The Government is planning to introduce sanctions, as the member has pointed out. Those are fairly robust sanctions and the relevant department would ensure that every option is given to the parents to enable them to meet their obligation in the first place. (Given the past record of this Government, and ACC especially, there is generally greater enthusiasm for not paying a benefit and a history of understaffing the departments responsible for managing the policy).


Saturday, September 8, 2012

Rio Tinto Blackmail Tactics



I don't know how many times I have heard about the imminent demise of the Tiwai Point smelter and it generally occurs at the time that their power agreement needs to be renegotiated or the ETS threatens profits. Even our local MP Eric Roy has questioned the sincerity of their claims that their profitability is under threat and suggests that it is "a case of brinkmanship from the multinational commodities giant".
One of the roles of government is to protect our country from exploitation by powerful multinationals and ensure we maintain sovereignty over our resources. While such companies provide useful capital and employment we must always make sure the cost of the relationship does not outweigh the benefits. When one considers the resources that we have made available to the smelter and the supporting infrastructure that we continue to maintain (at tax payer cost), do we really get a good return from our ongoing investment?
The smelter has averaged around $1 billion a year in export income and given the quality of the aluminum being produced and the efficiency of the plant, any downturn has generally been followed by a strong recovery. When Rio Tinto suggests it is considering withdrawing its $200,000 support to the Kakapo Recovery Programme it is stooping to an appalling level of manipulation to gain public sympathy.     
Jeanette Fitzsimons has some experience of the way Rio Tinto operates and her Herald opinion piece  provides some alternatives if the government is prepared to stand its ground.



Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Bill Gets a "D" for Science & Technology


"So whether it's Southland students working hard to break new ground, or hi-tech businesses striving to maintain their competitive edge internationally, science and innovation are key drivers of economic growth and the Government is ready to support them."


Dear Sir
I thought it ironic that Bill English was promoting the success of the Southland and Tecnology Fair (September 5) and a little disingenuous of him to imply that the science and technology teaching has good support from his Government.

Primary Schools have struggled to teach Science and Technology as well as they would like to since the funding and resourcing for these learning areas has been largely wiped since the introduction of National Standards. The fixation on literacy and numeracy has seen almost all professional development in the other learning areas cut and the school advisors for Science and Technology have been sacked. The Government's own Science Advisor, Sir Peter Gluckman, has expressed concerns about the lack of investment in the teaching of Science.

As one of the writers of our current technology curriculum it is continually frustrating for me to see how little support this learning area has in our primary schools when it is so pivotal in ensuring that our country has the capacity to compete in a world dominated by technology. While I applaud the initiative to provide broadband to all schools, such tools are useless if we don't also develop the knowledge and skills to use them effectively.

Mr English and his Government also like to mention the millions of dollars being spent on research and development but the reality is that although the budget has increased slightly to 1.3% of GDP we are still well behind the OECD average of 2.4%.

I'd have to give Mr English a "B" for recognising the importance of Science and Technology and a "D" for his Government's commitment to it. I would also include the comment "can do better if he tried".

Yours sincerely...

Sunday, September 2, 2012

RONS Wreck Rural Roads


Gerry Brownlee has already admitted that the investment in the Roads of National Significance (RONS) is largely based on his belief that they are a good idea, not because of research or cost/benefit analysis. Investing over $12 billion in motorways that fail, or barely survive, economic analysis has resulted in sucking funds from more deserving transport infrastructure investments.

Local councils are struggling to maintain rural roads and yet when you compare a region such as Southland with the Holiday Highway the economic argument in giving the motorway the priority just doesn't stack up. The motorway provides few economic benefits yet the rural roads of Southland support 11% of our export returns. Southland's rural roads are constantly being used by milk tankers, logging trucks, stock transportation and servicing and supporting the tourist industry. This roading network is an essential part of the nation's economic success and to underfund them is already having negative consequences.

Queenstown is New Zealand's biggest tourist magnet and yet it has been just announced that there is no money to build the much needed Kawarau Bridge and construction will probably be delayed for a number of years. There are currently long queues at peak times as cars, trucks and tourist buses attempt to use the one lane, historic bridge.


I generally criticize the spending on roads because of the lack of investment in rail and public transport and yet here is evidence of bizarre priorities even within the roading allocation.