The teacher unions indirectly control the government education system in New Zealand. Its an inconvenient truth to be sure, but truth it is.
When the present National led Government introduced national standards testing in government primary schools it was full of sound and fury. However, the Prime Minister (who had claimed that it was the most important initiative of his tenure) was woefully under-prepared for the fight-back. He naively assumed that because the initiative had widespread parental support the teacher unions would fold.
But the unions have run campaigns for years actively protecting their members' interests at the expense of pupils. They are skilled propagandists. They are very adept at fighting. They have a broad range of armaments and tactics at their disposal. They are veterans. John Key and education ministers Tolley and Parata have been novices. They have been outflanked, out-thought, and worked around.
When national standards for reading, writing, and mathematics were introduced we predicted that teacher unions would not rely just upon an up-front assault upon the policy. They would also tinker with it to make it meaningless over the longer term. And so it has come to pass. A very successful guerrilla campaign was run to the effect that teachers did not oppose standards, nor testing against those standards, at all. Actually, many schools were doing very effective testing already. The opposition was not to testing per se, but to adding just one more test to an already test-driven teaching regime.
Consequently, they gulled Education Minister Tolley (and the Prime Minister, John Key) to leave their own testing regimes in place and to have them used in lieu of the new government tests. A test is a test is a test, right?
The diversity is so widespread that national comparisons are rendered useless. The whole national standard initiative has been rendered redundant and irrelevant. This has finally dawned upon the government and the NZ Herald, which has hitherto supported the government initiative. In an editorial, the paper writes:
As part of its education policy for the 2008 election campaign, the National Party pledged to deliver National Standards that would give parents clear and factual reports on their children's progress at primary and intermediate schools.The government has lost its stomach for a fight with teacher unions--if it ever had one. This despite the fact that "in a recent Herald-DigiPoll survey that found almost 59 per cent of those surveyed approved of publishing the National Standards material, either by the ministry or the media, or both."
This was the cue for strong resistance from teachers, who insisted this was already being done quite satisfactorily.
Four years on, what has been achieved? Very little, given the Prime Minister's statement this week that National Standards data provided by schools was too "ropey" to show how well a school was doing in reading, writing and maths.
John Key said the "patchy" material supplied to the Ministry of Education made it difficult to create anything coherent for parents. This meant, most pertinently, that it would be impossible for either the ministry or the media to compile the sort of 'league tables' that parents want and which they receive at the secondary school level through NCEA results.
With that admission went the essence of the Government's promise of a more rigorous reporting of children's progress. Parents, therefore, are quite justified to query the whole point of National Standards. Many teachers will, for their part, be having a quiet chuckle. They have been able to utilise a belated Government concession to set their own goals and measure their pupils against them. Absent has been a single nationwide test, as is the case in Britain, Australia and the United States.
The resultant variations in reporting have effectively scuttled the whole policy. Denied information that should be theirs, parents are in no position to accurately monitor their children's level of achievement and help them to catch up with their peers if necessary.
We repeat: the government education system is now effectively run by the teacher unions. The government ministers and functionaries are little more than puppets.
What is desperately needed, if the government education system is to survive, is an effective powerful parental voice to emerge which can stand up to the unions and demand what the majority of parents want out of the government education system. At the moment there are only two antagonists in the education sector: the unions and the government of the day. Both claim to be acting on behalf of parents; both claim parental support. But there is no strong, vocal national parental voice to speak out forcefully and independently on behalf of parents whose kids risk getting lost in the oxymoronic government education system--in the way that Sensible Sentencing Trust speaks out for victims of crime and their families, or Family First does for parents raising children.
National should get real. Machiavellian Helen Clark understood all this. What Clark would have done is quietly funded the establishment of a national parents' group to advocate for literacy and numeracy in the nation's schools. She would have ensured a subterranean network of support, platforms in the media, organizational resources and within twelve months, lo and behold, Parents for Quality Education ("PQE") would be advocating loud and long against union interference with national standards, etc. She would have used PQE as a foil to name and shame unions and entrenched influences within the government education system. Given the formerly high-yet-inchoate levels of parental support, now given voice, she would have easily won the political battle.
The current government is too green, too easily rolled. Its greatest strength--not being led by career politicians--is also its greatest weakness. It consistently underestimates the breadth and depth of the entrenched interests arrayed against it.