Friday, November 29, 2013

National Standards' Credibility Dives

Two major pieces of research on National Standards were released simultaneously in the last week that seriously question the effectiveness and value of the National Standards in Education. Martin Thrupp published the final report of his three year qualitative study involving six schools and Cathy Wylie released the results of a comprehensive survey that included 180 principals, 713 teachers, 277 members of boards of trustees and 684 parents.

I was lucky to attend the launch of Martin Thrupp's report "National Standards and the Damage Done" at the New Zealand Association for Research in Education conference in Dunedin. Martin's research is well regarded internationally because it is the first time that the introduction of a high stakes assessment system has been so comprehensively studied in the school environment.

Through ongoing interviews and classroom observations, six schools were closely studied as they grappled with the untrialled system that was forced upon them. The schools covered a range of deciles and included contributing schools, full primaries and an intermediate, some willingly embraced the Standards initially and some openly opposed them.

Constant pressure and incrementalism over the last four years has meant that all schools have ended up engaging with the standards. There were audible expressions of horror from the around theatre when photographs of classroom wall displays depicted children being ranked according to their attainment in National Standards. This was something that Anne Tolley had embarrassingly suggested should be done during the initial introduction and I never thought any teacher would eventually humiliate children in this way.

Both Cathy and Martin produced some similar results and concerns and I have tried to list a summary of these below:
  • Schools that have opposed the Standards and had a history of positive ERO reports have been eventually bullied into reporting on the Standards. 
  • While there has been some increase in teacher understanding regarding the curriculum levels in numeracy and literacy, the negative impacts have heavily outweighed the positives.
  • Constant assessment and data collection has noticeably increased teacher workloads and shifted attention from other important aspects of teaching and learning.
  • New Zealand's previously lauded holistic curriculum has been comprehensively narrowed into a two tiered system where there is literacy and numeracy dominating and all other learning areas beneath. Even the teaching of reading, writing and maths has narrowed to fit common tests.
  • While they felt there was some value in National Standards, most parents wanted more detailed information about other aspects of their children's progress at school, including socialisation and other learning areas (Science, PE, Art...).
  • The politics around National Standards limited ERO's ability to acknowledge flaws in the system. It has been almost impossible for any professional entity to question the policy. While our curriculum was developed through a co-construction process with the profession, there has been no serious attempt to do the same with National Standards.
  • While the Government and the Ministry of Education tried to assure professionals that New Zealand's version of high stakes assessment wouldn't suffer the same pitfalls experienced overseas, this has not been the reality.
  • The difficulty of getting assessment consistency between teachers and across schools is virtually impossible and the resulting national data will never provide useful information on progress. 
  • The focus on data and performance in schools has created unfair criticisms of teaching and schools when the biggest change could be achieved by reducing the socio-economic inequalities between schools.
Martin is a serious academic and takes pride in sticking to robust research protocols and using outside moderation to critique his work. However, in speaking publicly about his research, Martin has been subjected to similar abuse from Ministers and right wing bloggers as Mike Joy has experienced for speaking out about environmental degradation.

When there is such strong evidence of systemic failure, the Government is still determined to push on with the Standards. Minister Hekia Parata is also warning that the next international assessments (PISA) will show a drop in achievement from New Zealand. I am predicting that this will mean yet another attack on supposed underperforming teachers and schools, no extra investment in resourcing and useful professional development and no change in policy. 

Monday, November 25, 2013

Charter Schools All Go Despite Setbacks

Hekia Parata is a Minister on a mission, by hook or by crook she is going to continue to shove unpalatable pills down the education throat. These pills are not liked by the profession or many communities, but they need to be taken for "the public good".

Little that Parata has tried to do to education has been successful: she has lost two court decisions regarding school closures, she had to backtrack on increasing class sizes, Novo pay is a continuing disaster and the PaCt tool will no longer be mandated. The Charter Schools are a last ditch hope to get a pill fully swallowed and digested despite the gagging and coughing from the education sector.

Charter Schools were always on National's secret agenda. Lesley Longstone was appointed to the job of Education Secretary because of her background in establishing UK's equivalent of Charter Schools (Free Schools). National had not campaigned on introducing Charter Schools but it was obviously always their intention to introduce them. John Banks was probably as surprised as everyone else when Charter Schools appeared in his coalition agreement with National, (ACT had not campaigned on them either). It was useful for National to have a disposable ally to force these public/private schools onto our public system.

The Charter School introduction has been plagued by set backs. Lesley Longstone may have had useful knowledge about Charter Schools, but she struggled with everything else she was expected to do. Longstone's exit was costly. She earned around $1 million dollars for her 15 months on the job (initially a five year contract) when you include her salary and add on the $267,953 severance pay and $157,523 outstanding holiday pay she received on leaving.

John Banks was the Minister with the responsibility for Charter Schools but he had to resign his post while facing charges over electoral fraud. Act supporter Catherine Isaac was appointed to manage the Charter Schools introduction despite having a limited education background and she found the public meetings promoting the concept challenging.

New Zealand has been advised not to introduce Charter Schools by US education experts who had witnessed their failure. Isaac has claimed that they are introducing a successful model but it is difficult to find one as they appear to have failed in any country that has used them.

Of the 36 expressions of interest in starting a Charter (or Partnership) School only five were deemed viable and even then I have heard doubts about the expertise in some of them. $19 million of taxpayer money will be spent on these experimental schools (almost $4 million per school).

Minister Parata has decided to push on with investing in even more Charter Schools well before the value of the first ones have been analysed. As with most that National does, ideology always comes before evidence and reason.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

The Greens, A Credible Alternative

The National led Government has had a painful twelve months. The sale of state assets cost $250 million to implement (well over budget) and the money raised has been well below what was predicted. The citizens initiated referendum has been stubbornly ignored as Air New Zealand was dealt to in the manner of a weekend fire sale. Novopay and school closures have been managed particularly badly and the dairy shocks have shifted international attention to our poor environmental management. There are almost daily revelations of police behaving badly, and the Government's refusal to recognize their part in the Pike River tragedy is raising questions about their moral backbone. A whiff of corruption and self-serving behaviour refuses to go away while John Banks faces court action, the SkyCity deal progresses and it is revealed that it wasn't just Bill English who took advantage of loose rules to extract personal gain from the public purse.

The National led Government are desperately talking up the positive shifts in economic performance, but most people realize that it is largely on the back of the Christchurch reconstruction and it is mainly the already wealthy who are benefitting. Income inequality has continued to increase and poor housing and child poverty has been the subject of much talk but little substantive action. National's coalition partners are imploding and desperation has made the eccentric Colin Craig and his Conservative Party a  potential saviour.

The Green Party has taken full advantage of their fourteen MPs and extra staffing to be a strong presence in Parliament and have often been called the real opposition while Labour have struggled with an organisation review and changes in leadership. Time and time again they have challenged the Government using solid research and have exposed National's reluctance to follow good advice and use sound process.

In 2008 National and the Greens had a memorandum of understanding to progress a number of joint initiatives, including the highly successful home insulation scheme, and during the 2011 election campaign National regarded the Greens as a potential coalition partner that would be more stable and reliable than the fractious Act Party. However, since 2011 the possibility of any coalition has been established as extremely unlikely and National has changed tactics accordingly.

Every opportunity to attack the Greens is now used by National. Even straight questions from the Greens in the House result in replies where the Green's credibility is questioned. As much as possible the words 'crazy' and 'wacky' are used with the hope that the terms will eventually become synonymous with the Greens. National Party supporting blogs go even further, regularly likening the Greens to the Taleban or calling them communists. Russel is regularly attacked because of his hair colour and his Australian origins and Metiria has endured references to her use of makeup and clothing.

Despite the desperate politics to discredit the Green Party it has been difficult to get any of the mud to stick when there is the constant evidence of a party that is stable and well organised. The CIR campaign demonstrated the organisational strength of the party when it collected the majority of the signatures. Changes in leadership for the Greens do not have the same destabilising impact that it does on other parties that are so reliant on personality politics and now the Greens have a leadership team who have a combined 13 years experience in the role. Labour, as a party, has had experience in Government but its front bench is full of MPs who have only experienced being in opposition and its current leader is still establishing himself in the role.

Questions about the potential ability of Green MPs to manage ministerial roles in any future Government are easily parried when you consider their reputation for detail and hard work, many have business and management experience in the public and private sector before entering Parliament. Kevin Hague was the respected CEO of the West Coast DHB and David Clendon and Steffan Browning are successful businessmen. Even if some people struggle with aspects of Green policy, an insistence on good process and transparency will bring a welcome approach to decision making that doesn't exist currently.

Many right wing commentators have had to reconsider prejudices when they have directly engaged with Green MPs. An openly right wing Invercargill journalist reluctantly admitted a Green MP was "Rational, evenhanded, and with some good ideas (and he has had real jobs creating wealth in the real world)." Julie Anne Genter has been regularly winning bouts with Gerry Brownlee over his poorly researched motorway developments and Stephen Franks (ex Act MP and National Party candidate) has recently praised her presentation at a LEANZ meeting.

When the rest of the world, especially Europe, are recognizing that we must shift to more sustainable economic management and promote innovation and green business practices, then the Green Party is the logical party to lead that change in New Zealand. Gerry Brownlee's ridiculous insinuation that Green transport policies will lead to mountains of horse manure demonstrates real desperation when the Greens clearly beat National with their understanding of high tech industries and communication. The Greens do not support moving back to the industrial revolution, with a renewed focus on coal and other fossil fuels, but look instead at smart, future focused alternatives.

The National Party have had five years to prove themselves in managing our economy and our resources wisely and they have clearly failed at every level. The Greens, on the other hand, are increasingly proving themselves as a credible alternative.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

13 Reasons for Voting No!

From Friday the 22nd of November voting papers for the citizens initiated referendum on state asset sales will be arriving in letter boxes. It is important that everyone eligible to vote does so, and votes NO,  for the following reasons:
1) It is a civic responsibility to engage in any democratic process to ensure that they continue to be used. CIRs are a useful way of establishing the public feeling on a single important issue whether they are binding or not.
2) Governments need to be able to be held to account between elections, no Government has a mandate to ignore the people who they are supposed to represent after they are elected.
3) It is important that the current Government is in no doubt about the public feeling around selling our state assets. All independent polls have shown around 70% opposition and this referendum is necessary to confirm that.
4) The whole idea of selling almost half of our power companies was flawed from the beginning as the dividends gained through retaining full ownership would bring in more revenue over time.
5) Losing partial ownership of our Power Companies would shift the focus even more towards ensuring shareholder dividends are strong and this would mean little incentive to drop power prices for ordinary consumers.
6) Many shareholders will be off shore, which would mean there will be another stream of money leaving our country that won't necessarily be spent in our local economy.
7) The fact that ownership of our power companies is not solely with the Government will make it more difficult for the Government to intervene if power charges increase unnecessarily.
8) Private control of our energy supply is not a good idea. The French have maintained state control over their power company and it is now a dominant player globally.
9) This Government has become increasingly arrogant and has been forcing through legislation that has not been well supported by research and evidence and abusing its slim majority to do so. A strong NO vote will remind the National Party that New Zealand is more than their small group of privileged mates.
10) We need to stop the flow of wealth to a privileged few. All of New Zealand did own these assets and growing inequities caused by tax cuts to the rich and keeping wages low has meant that ownership of important state assets is only going to those who can afford to buy shares. The mum and dad investor promotion was dishonest when around 25% of New Zealanders survive on less than the living wage. Only 2% of New Zealanders have bought any of the shares so far.
11)  The Government needs to also stop selling the assets in a share market that is currently saturated with new shares, not only will this depress the potential revenue from the sales but it will mean more shares will go off shore. Treasury has also warned the Government about this and yet they still went ahead with the Meridian sales.
12) The Government has spent well over their budget in progressing the sales and has now spent $250 million.
13) We don't need to sell the assets to get enough money to invest in our schools and hospitals, shifting some of the $12 billion being spent on unnecessary motorways would do the trick.

I challenge anyone to come up with as many strong reasons for not voting no and would welcome any additions to my list.

Monday, November 18, 2013

National's Position Desperate

There is an air of desperation around the National led Government, they are no closer to balancing the books than they were a few years ago and debt continues to be high (36% of GDP). Our current account deficit is still one of the largest in the OECD (as a country we annually earn around 10% less than we spend).

The Government has never had a broad economic strategy but instead have put all their faith in get rich quick schemes and supporting already successful businesses. The collapse of Solid Energy and the dairy scares have made us very vulnerable. We cannot call the boom in property prices and the construction activity in Chrischurch a sustainable economic recovery, no matter how much it is talked up. The $12 billion motorway spending has been exposed as having very limited economic benefit as has spending on irrigation schemes to encourage dairy intensification. Even their attempt to introduce ultrafast broadband has ended up to be an expensive mess.

Selling state assets, despite strong public condemnation, is more proof of desperation. The Government's tax cuts to the rich cost them around $2 billion a year in lost revenue and the need for a cash injection has meant they are even prepared to sell shares in a restricted market against treasury advice.

Across the board cuts to the state sector have resulted in security failures, unreliable service and the poorly implemented Novopay. Cutting 3500 high qualified jobs has also impacted on the Wellington economy and the regions.

On top of all of this National realizes that they now have no strong coalition partners and their steady support in the polls is partly due to the demise of Act, United Future and the Maori Party. National is now the only conservative party left to support. If Act and United Future were still credible and had around 4% each of voter support, National would only be polling in the 30s. Desperation is evident when Colin Craig and the Conservative Party suddenly look like coalition material. Despite one of the best funded campaigns in the last election, Colin Graig's extreme policies did not resonate with the voters and yet National is prepared to build their importance to fill a gap. It was bad enough giving John Banks more power than he deserved but to support even more extreme ideologies, just to remain in Government, is a concern.

The National Party is desperately talking up everything that appears successful and throwing abuse at anyone who questions their management, but the cracks are becoming more evident and the economic liquefaction is bubbling up around their feet. It will take more than Colin Craig (or the Student Army) to save them.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Another Three Years Under The Blue Taleban...

We have around another twelve months of a National led Government and there is always the possibility of them achieving another three years, possibly with the support of Colin Craig and the Conservative Party. For those who are concerned about social justice, a sustainable economy and a clean environment the thought of three more years under this regime is the stuff of nightmares. If we look at the trends up till now, what is currently being planned and the logical outcomes if National won another term, we could probably predict the following:

  • Inequality will continue to grow at a faster rate than other OECD countries and things like breakfast in schools and food parcels will be relied on by more families as the numbers of working poor continue to grow. The Government will continue to block attempts to introduce a living wage and will only increase the minimum wage by around 50c an hour ($5 short of the living wage). 
  • Revelations of widespread corruption and profiteering in the Christchurch recovery and many home owners will still be waiting for satisfactory resolutions after 6 years. 
  • Housing crisis deepens as building continues to be well behind demand and access and affordability issues increase. 
  • Large marches across the country as the primary education system reaches crisis point. Changes in decile funding (that further disadvantages poor communities), unresolved Novopay problems and mandated national testing push education workers and teachers to a breaking point. The flow of money to private schools and the lack of support for high needs children becomes more obvious. Many question the continued support of Hekia Parata as Minister as further court decisions question her processes. 
  • Government borrowing continues to spiral upwards the despite sale of the remaining power companies and Air New Zealand at bargain basement prices
  • Anadarko and Shell begin exploratory deep sea drilling and a number of protestors are arrested for getting too close to the operations and breeching the Government's new law. A near accident highlights our vulnerability if a major leak occurred and the Government struggles to reassure the country regarding protective measures.
  • New Zealand's reputation as a clean green country takes further hits as we become the highest per capita emitters of green house gases in the world through the government's refusal to substantially recognize the issue. 
  • Auckland traffic problems increase despite the new motorways and the central rail loop is further delayed. 
  • 2016 NBR Rich List reveals that our wealthy continue to do well and CEO salaries increase by another 15%. 
  • The SkyCity Convention Centre provides fewer jobs than claimed and the previous drop in problem gambling in Auckland reverses as the SkyCity casino expands.
  • New Zealand becomes world laughing stock as Colin Craig's parliamentary speeches go viral on Youtube. 
  • Many workers find themselves working longer hours without breaks and worksite accidents increase. 
Enough of the Blue Taleban, the Green version would be so much better. 

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Climate Change is Determined by Science, Not Politics!

The Philippines has experienced possibly the worst typhoon that has ever been recorded. Extreme winds battered the country and left damage that resembled the effects of a major tsunami. It has been estimated that around 10,000 people may have been killed. Guiuan, a city with a population of 40,000 was largely destroyed; Tacloban, a city of 220,000 people was flattened; many towns in the Cebu province suffered 80-90% damage and Baco, with a population of 35,000, was 80% under water. The devastation that the Philippine people suffered makes the Christchurch earthquake a minor incident in comparison.

The highest category for a storm is five and each catagory has winds of around 30 km faster than the one before. Hurricane Katrina (one of the deadliest hurricanes to hit the US) was a category five storm, with winds of up to 265 km an hour, Typhoon Haiyan brought winds of over 320 kilometers an hour, enough to easily make a sixth category.

Yeb Sano, the Philippines' lead negotiator at the UN climate summit in Warsaw, made a desperate plea to all the countries represented to do something substantial to address climate change, "It's time to stop this madness!" Sano also made a pledge that he would refrain from eating at the conference until "a meaningful outcome is in sight."

Obviously monetary donations and general aid are the immediate needs of this struggling country but  action on climate change is also considered a priority by the Philippene Government to stop further devastation.

When the leaders of political parties in the New Zealand Parliament were given the opportunity to express their sympathy and support to the people of the Philippines, Russel Norman chose to read much of the speech Yeb Sano gave to the UN summit. The following is the last part of that speech:

The science has given us a picture that has become much more in focus. The IPCC report on climate change and extreme events underscored the risks associated with changes in the patterns as well as frequency of extreme weather events. Science tells us that simply, climate change will mean more intense tropical storms. As the Earth warms up, that would include the oceans. The energy that is stored in the waters off the Philippines will increase the intensity of typhoons and the trend we now see is that more destructive storms will be the new norm.
This will have profound implications on many of our communities, especially who struggle against the twin challenges of the development crisis and the climate change crisis. Typhoons such as Yolanda (Haiyan) and its impacts represent a sobering reminder to the international community that we cannot afford to procrastinate on climate action. Warsaw must deliver on enhancing ambition and should muster the political will to address climate change.
In Doha, we asked “If not us then who? If not now, then when? If not here, then where?” (borrowed from Philippine student leader Ditto Sarmiento during Martial Law). It may have fell on deaf ears. But here in Warsaw, we may very well ask these same forthright questions. “If not us, then who? If not now, then when? If not here in Warsaw, where?”
What my country is going through as a result of this extreme climate event is madness. The climate crisis is madness.
We can stop this madness. Right here in Warsaw.
"The science has given us a picture that has become much more in focus. The IPCC report on climate change and extreme events underscored the risks associated with changes in the patterns as well as frequency of extreme weather events. Science tells us that simply, climate change will mean more intense tropical storms. As the Earth warms up, that would include the oceans. The energy that is stored in the waters off the Philippines will increase the intensity of typhoons and the trend we now see is that more destructive storms will be the new norm.

"This will have profound implications on many of our communities, especially who struggle against the twin challenges of the development crisis and the climate change crisis. Typhoons such as Yolanda (Haiyan) and its impacts represent a sobering reminder to the international community that we cannot afford to procrastinate on climate action. Warsaw must deliver on enhancing ambition and should muster the political will to address climate change.

"In Doha, we asked “If not us then who? If not now, then when? If not here, then where?” (borrowed from Philippine student leader Ditto Sarmiento during Martial Law). It may have fell on deaf ears. But here in Warsaw, we may very well ask these same forthright questions. “If not us, then who? If not now, then when? If not here in Warsaw, where?

"What my country is going through as a result of this extreme climate event is madness. The climate crisis is madness."

Throughout much of Russel's speech he was heckled and interjected by National Party MPs, who strongly objected to the references to climate change. Outside the chamber the National MPs expressed their disgust at what the Green Party leader had said and suggested that he had used the opportunity to make a political statement that was inappropriate. When asked if he believed in the science behind climate change, National MP Jamie-Lee Ross refused to give his opinion on it. 

I feel the real test of the appropriateness of the speeches would be the reaction of the Philippine people if they had been listening. What would they have thought of Russel's speech and what would Yeb Sano have thought of Jamie-Lee Ross' response? 

As one of the world's worst emitters of greenhouse gases per capita we should be doing more to cut them back. It is fairly obvious that under a National led Government the sort of support that the Philippines really want won't be forthcoming

Postscript: Russel receives support from Yeb Sano himself for his speech and more National MPs are exposed as Climate Change deniers. 

Monday, November 11, 2013

Something Rotten in the Education System

Ever since the beginning of the National led Government in 2008 there has been a history of close scrutiny of those who have very little and a blatant disregard of those in positions of responsibility. It was recently revealed that a mother had to re-verify that her son still had Downs Syndrome (a congenital condition) for a $60 a week allowance and yet Finance Minister Bill English thought it was perfectly reasonable to claim a $1000 a week housing allowance for living in his family home (other MPs are still taking advantage of this). If the Dominion Post hadn't exposed the expenses scam, English would have continued receiving the allowance and would have currently gained $260,000 (of taxpayer money) to live in his $1.2 million Wellington house.

The Government has decimated the public service through wide spread cuts across many departments and Ministries, resulting in the loss of over 3,500 jobs. There has been concern that many of the cuts were done in an arbitrary manner and there are numerous situations where institutions have struggled due to staff shortages and loss of institutional knowledge. Obviously the one that has affected my own sector the most is the Novopay debacle, but there have also been many breaches of security and examples of failing services in other sectors.

While job cuts have cost the Government almost $9.5 million in redundancies, there has been a remarkable increase in expenditure on consultants ($125 million in 2012). It appears that cutting the numbers of state servants has been more important than cost savings and the consultants who have filled the numerous gaps created appear to have tapped into a gravy train where their expenses are rarely questioned. There also seems to be a sort of consultancy club where those personally connected to Government Ministers are favoured and where hundreds of dollars of restaurant and bar charges are included in fees.

The same thing seems to be happening in Education where it is becoming more common for limited statutory managers and commissioners to take over the management of schools where they are seen to be failing or not supporting Government policy. Limited Statutory Managers (LSMs) and commissioners are put into a school for a fixed term to help a school return to strong self management and LSMs have to be paid from the school's own funds.

New Zealand Principal Federation and NZEI are concerned about system abuses where commissioners and LSMs are charging exorbitant sums for their services and remaining in positions longer than necessary. The commissioner responsible for Moerewa School has been paid $1000 an hour and claimed expenses of $53,000 for overseeing a school with a prior history of good management for largely political reasons. It has also been revealed that the same commissioner, Mr Eru, is being paid $50,000 a year to run a South Auckland school at the same time. There there appears to be little oversight of these commissioners to ensure they are doing the work they have been employed to do and they seem to determine themselves how long they need to remain in the role.

An Invercargill school has had an LSM in place because of past employment issues and it so happens that the principal has been a strong opponent of the introduction of National Standards. The school has had to pay for the services of the LSM themselves and the board began to have some concerns about the quality of support and the expenses they were expected to pay. The board (who have always supported the principal) resigned so that a commissioner would be employed who would then be paid by the Ministry of Education. The LSM immediately suspended the principal, with minimum consultation, and it has been revealed the same individual was involved with the sacking of another principal that was later found by the Employment Relations Authority to be "procedurally, and possibly substantially unjustified" (the principal was reinstated).

Every dollar has high value in any school for meeting the needs of students and fundraising and cake stalls have a vital part to play for covering the costs of basic equipment. Support staff and teacher aids, who work with our most vulnerable children (and make up around 30% of all school staff) have amongst the worst working conditions and pay of any New Zealand employee. Despite the concerns over funding shortages, and stretching the education dollar to meet demands, we have an element within the system where there is little oversight of both performance and expenses. Something rotten?

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Roast Busters Rethink

I have been thinking a lot about the issues around sex and teenagers and have decided that, rather than blame our youth for their dysfunctional and highly worrying behaviour, we (as in the wider community) should be taking greater responsibility. I am actually appalled at the whole media flurry around the Roast Busters issue and how our society is managing the issue of teenage sex.

Being a parent of teenagers (a boy and a girl) and having a background in teaching young adolescents I have some idea about the developmental stages young people have to work through. Sadly, as a society, we probably make the transition to adulthood more difficult for our young people than we need to and expect them to be more responsible than is biologically possible. Recent research shows that it is not until the age of 25 that the brain is fully developed and impulsive decision making is common until then.

Before I say anything more I would like to celebrate our youth for what they actually add to our society. New Zealand Statistics has revealed that the level of volunteering amongst 12-24 year olds has increased by 5% over the past 11 years and this group now makes up almost a quarter of all those doing unpaid work. The Student Army surprised many when students came out in force during the Christchurch Earthquakes and were a hugely important part of the recovery. 2500 students were mobilised and they collectively shifted 65,000 tonnes of liquefaction. The Rugby World Cup show cased our youth during the opening and closing ceremonies and our young people compete well on the international stage in academic, cultural and sporting events. Our youth are a taonga we should value and cherish.

While we can celebrate the achievements of our youth we also have some statistics that are a concern. We have the 2nd worst rate of youth suicide in the world, the 2nd highest level of teenage pregnancy and 12.5% of our youth are not in employment, education or training (NEET), which is higher than the OECD average (for Maori it is 22.2% and Pasifika 17.6%). We have a culture of binge drinking amongst our young people, with females now competing with males as regards alcohol consumption. Around 25% of our youth live in families experiencing poverty and 50% of all children will experience poverty at some stage. Around a quarter of our young people come from one parent families. There is an expectation that all parents should be in employment, so for many youth it is increasingly common  to come home from school to an empty house (no adult).

Young people often have access to hardcore internet pornography and they are bombarded on a daily basis by commercial interests promoting junk food, alcohol and other consumables with dubious benefits (including legal highs). Cyber bulling has accompanied greater access to technology and youth obesity statistics continue to rise.

It is in this context where we have young men who have high levels of testosterone coursing through their bodies, possibly fueled by alcohol and recreational drugs, who are biologically geared for behaving impulsively and operate egocentrically. We have young women who are also over indulging in recreational drugs and throwing themselves in situations where they also are not able to think rationally. There is a lot of peer pressure to be sexually active and despite many worthwhile education programmes and parental efforts to promote caring relationships and safe sex, stuff happens. When you consider the pressures and opportunities that young people are now exposed to, one would actually have to wonder why more stuff doesn't happen.

From what I can glean through what has been published on the Roast Busters, we have a group of young men glorifying in their sexual activities, and supposed prowess, and engaging in premeditated behaviour that involves taking advantage of younger girls. I think the behaviour of the Roast Busters cannot be condoned at any level but I think their behaviour has been allowed to develop without any checks and balances despite an awareness of its existence. These young men have made some really bad choices (which some have openly recognized) that have caused serious harm to a number of young girls, and some earlier intervention would have made an enormous difference. I don't believe that these are essentially bad young men but they have been allowed to continue their behaviour under the terrible misconception that it is acceptable.

I am also aware that our legal system is highly flawed in the way it manages sexual offenses amongst youth. There is the arbitrary line of legal sexual consent (16 years) that doesn't recognize that there can be a wide range of sexual and emotional maturity between the ages of 13 to 18. Biologically girls mature faster than boys so that a 14 year old girl can appear both physically and emotionally more mature than a 17 year old boy and, within the normal range of development, the opposite can be true.

If there is evidence of a sexual offense I have personally found that the police take this very seriously, but the law and the system are geared up for the possibility of rape and all that that involves. It is generally up to the girls to decide whether they wish to lay a complaint and that leads to an intensive interview and a traumatic medical examination. Girls are instructed that it is in their interests to go through both processes just in case, because even if they initially do not wish to lay a complaint, if they change their minds at a later date they will need the evidence to support a prosecution.

When alcohol and drugs are involved it is a hard call for young women to lay full blame on the male if an incident occurs where she feels sexual activity occurred against her will. There is also dysfunctional thinking going on with both boys and girls regarding what is considered reasonable in a sexual sense and it is interesting to note that young women are more sexually active than young men (10% more girls have experienced intercourse by 18 years) and many young women now initiate sexual activity.

At the moment there is no middle ground in terms of intervention when sexual activity goes wrong, it is either the full weight of the law or shut up and put up. I am aware of situations where a lower level of approach would be far more useful, where skilled people would sit down with those involved (when they are sober and rational) and talk through an incident and attempt to establish some safe parameters for future engagements. As a society we cannot ignore poor behaviour just because it doesn't reach the threshold for prosecution. We are also expecting a high level of responsibility from young people when they do not have the developmental maturity to operate consistently and yet we often punish them severely when they stumble.

It is unreasonable to expect the police to operate as parents and parents can't be police, we need to rethink how we can support our amazing young people through the difficult journey of becoming an adult in an increasingly challenging world. We can start by recognizing that what we are currently doing isn't working!

It appears that this post has offended and upset some people who felt that I lacked sensitivity around the issue and that I implied that the young men were not responsible for their behaviour and that the victims are also somehow responsible themselves. This concerns me as this couldn't be further from my intention. What I should have made clearer is that I was not talking just about rape but on the enormity of issues that surrounds teenage sexual behaviour. What we probably don't recognise is that there is a lot of sexual activity occurring with young people between friends and acquaintances and when a girl is assaulted (from unwelcomed attention through to rape) it is extremely difficult for them to lay a complaint when they will still have to move in the same social circles as the perpetrator. Even with the Roast Busters Group there were girls prepared to go on TV in defense of them. For any victim who stands up they will also have to confront their wider peer group. I have actually talked about this problem with young people who have experienced assaults and there seems to be widespread support for having a way of managing many situations outside of the police. We have to keep remembering that over 90% of sexual assaults probably go unreported for some of the reasons I have outlined.

It is important for me to say that I still think that rape should be regarded as a serious criminal offense but the current justice system is still not able to manage most cases in a manner that is sensitive to the victim and has the outcome that we would wish.

Post Postscript:
Here is a link to a post on Hand Mirror that explains well why educating boys to be properly functioning men should start before they can walk.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Roads, PPPs and DDDs

I struggle with the fact that our Southland roads are under-funded while the Government pursues its flawed Roads of National Significance programme. It also worries me that there is interest in developing new roads through national parks when we can't even maintain our existing ones. The following letter to the Southland Times supports a decent long-term transport strategy that seems only possible under a Green influenced Government:

Dear Sir

We desperately need a national transport strategy that has a long-term vision and ensures any project using taxpayer money passes a thorough cost-benefit analysis. Sadly we have another Government, blinded by thinking big rather than thinking smart, that has committed the country to $12 billion worth of dubious motorway projects. Obviously nothing has been learned from the Solid Energy debacle (anyone want a briquetting plant?).

Dr Michael Pickford (previous Chief Economist, New Zealand Commerce Commission) has exposed the current flawed approach to building roads. Until the last few years the economic measure of efficiency in investment spending was the benefit-cost ratio (BCR) and this has been corrupted by including such things as ‘strategic fit’ that are not based on evidence and research, but on political whim.

This has lead to our Southland roads being deemed as less strategically important and ignores the fact our region earns over 12% of our nation’s export income. Despite dropping traffic volumes the Government has made Wellington’s Transmission Gully highway a priority and has entered into a dubious public private partnership (PPP) that will cost the country $125 million a year. Based on the Government’s own traffic projections, each car trip on this road will cost $15.

The Southland District Council, meanwhile, has had to consider converting sealed roads back to gravel and milk tankers struggle to negotiate our deteriorating infrastructure. Instead of doing the basics well, and ensuring value for our buck, we are being captured by dubious developers’ dreams (DDD).

As for the Haast to Hollyford road (another DDD), do all roads really need to lead to Milford? And when will we get a decent bridge south of Frankton?

Monday, November 4, 2013

Teacher Council Plans Concerning

Education Minister Hekia Parata has announced her plans regarding the new Teachers Council. This has followed a review of the existing one that was driven by the Government's concerns that the disciplinary process was not dealing with high profile cases involving inappropriate behaviour fast enough. The review highlighted the widely held belief that an independent, higher functioning teachers council was needed to raise the status of the teaching profession.

NZEI has promoted the value of a teachers council that operates independently of both Government and unions and serves as the main authority for promoting and maintaining professional standards. For too long the teaching profession has had to endure ideological swings in education every time a government changes and the bodies given the responsibility of overseeing teachers have been under resourced and lacked real authority or independence. The current Teachers Council has done some good work in establishing new professional standards for teachers and leading the development of professional mentoring, but its current status as a crown entity has had its limitations.

Sadly the Minister has lost the an opportunity to set up a professional body that will have the support of the profession and the respect of the public, despite the goals for the new council appearing logical and reasonable:
  • Raise the status of the Teaching profession
  • Establish a focus on education leadership
  • Forge a new relationship between the profession and the Government to deliver on the public interests in education
  • Make changes to the regulatory framework for teaching-including changes to the disciplinary regime
  • lead public debate on education
However, for the new council to truly represent the profession of teaching, independence from government is vital and the council governors need to have the support and respect of those whom they represent. There will be little credibility in a council that is intended to represent the profession when the transitional board will be hand picked by a Minister who has struggled with her role and does not have the respect of teachers. 

It is well known that this National led Government has spent much of the past 5 years implementing an ideological agenda that is diametrically opposed to what the profession believes is best for education and children. The Government has bought into the same GERM reforms that have failed in other countries that are ranked beneath us in educational achievement. 

The fact that the interim and future boards will be dominated by government appointees will only ensure that despite the council being funded by the registration fees paid by teachers, the government will still have a controlling influence.