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  • Writer's pictureLiam Rutherford

Time to get politicians out of our schools

This article was first published in the Herald on 30 August 2023.

The barrage of low level campaign slogans started early in this election cycle which on one hand highlights the shortcomings of our current democracy, but does speak to a practical reality that often slogans are how we get the attention of voters. However, it is this worry that is top of the mind for those that work in education as we are not quite getting to the real issues that need to be addressed in education.

The National/ACT approach to the election highlights just how out of touch they are with the issues in the education sector. While National is talking about banning cellphones and minimum time requirements for reading, writing, and mathematics, teachers and principals are scratching their heads wondering if these ideas came out of focus groups rather than the classroom. But when we ask about the policy announcements to do class sizes, funding learning support, and attracting teachers to stay in the workforce there is radio silence. You have to wonder what they have done with their 6 years in opposition, and their failure to get alongside those working in schools to understand the issues, more importantly suggestions that they haven't come to terms with why they were kicked out of government in 2017.

But the profession has its own gripes with the current Labour Government. Most agree that Labour has not gone as far and as fast as they would have liked. After removing failed policies like charter schools and National Standards of the Key Government, there was optimism that we would see a transformative approach to public education that placed children at the centre of decisions and built a new approach to education on the expertise and leadership of those that worked in it. While they have been deliberate in involving teachers and principals in shaping decisions, the transformative change in areas like learning support and staffing has gone far too slow. The pressure on schools to meet the needs of young people right now means that the government's top notch response to Covid doesn't earn them any credit – even if they do deserve it.

Given all this, it is no wonder that at the recent Education Crisis Hui, hosted by NZEI Te Riu Roa and attended by the Minister of Education,principals from around the country called for a depoliticising of education – an ironic thing to call for months out from an election. But it does speak to a genuine belief about how the profession views the current state of education. One where frustration and stress are symptoms of not having the resources to meet the needs of young people with diverse and complex needs, one where the only surefire way to employ a new teacher is to bring one in from overseas, and one where principals with less than 5 years experience make up nearly 30% of the school leaders in Aotearoa.

The profession isn’t naive enough to think that depoliticising education means no involvement from political parties, but instead one where the major parties get on the same page about the long term future of education in this country. It is often said that while the major parties agree on ‘what’ the solution is, it is the ‘how’ that they disagree on. But it is the ‘how’ that teachers and principals are tasked with implementing. Given the slogans coming out of the National/ACT election campaign machines the growing fear is that we are returning to National Standards 2.0, and yet again asking the profession to ping-pong between the whims of different governments.

Instead let's set in place a long term plan for the future of public education. One where the curriculum acknowledges the language, culture and identity of all tamariki and recognising that literacy and numeracy are foundation skills for accessing a range of learning areas and the workforce. One where we step out a long term plan for growing and retaining the number of teachers we need, as well as, all of the other workforces we rely on like teacher aides, speech language therapists, and education psychologists, and one where schools are resourced to meet the needs of young people when and how they need.

There will still be lots for political parties to debate, the future impact of AI and how to curb vaping spring to mind. But as a country we should aspire to an education system that allows our young people to meet their full potential.

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