Catherine Delahunty

National Standards race to nowhere

by Catherine Delahunty

Yesterday, Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard visited our Parliament and promoted free trade agreements with all the fervour of the faithful.

This position was predictable, but less well known is her stance on education. Julia is the leader who imposed the Australian version of National Standards on Australian schools against the wishes of the teachers’ unions.

On a school visit, John Key admitted to Julia Gillard that we’re having a few problems with our “trial” of National Standards. If only it was a trial! In fact, it’s been rolled out to all schools, but he was right to admit that it’s not going well – many of our teachers and principals have rejected the standards outright.

The Australian education system is not the model we should follow in the race to educational inequity. Their record on public education is tainted by privatisation and underfunding. The Finnish education system is far more successful and innovative and is based on rewarding teachers and uplifting the status of public education. While there are some key differences between New Zealand and Finland – like the fact that there’s very little immigration in Finland – we could learn a lot from the Finnish system. However, I doubt the National Government is interested in anything that challenges its present orthodoxy.

The National Standards are in trouble because they were not a response to a key need identified by students, parents, teachers or academics. They were part of a new Government wanting to deliver on a particular election commitment. By ACT’s standards they are limited response to the call for vouchers and total privatisation in education. But it’s far easier to slowly weaken the public sector and set up the steps towards league tables and performance pay than announce your passion for the private system.

Of course, the signals have been clear since Budget 2009, which granted an extra $35 million to private schools. The present fondness for Cambridge exams over NCEA, and moves towards public private partnerships in schools are more evidence of this trend.

Last year National Standards were the major debacle in education, and the pitched battle over them created the sense of a Government that would not listen to teachers. Now with the resignation of the Ministry of Education’s senior official working on National Standards the cracks are widening. Will the Government acknowledge the need for a review of the mess, or will they plough on further to in the educational race to nowhere?