Catherine Delahunty

National Standards – fake it till you make it?

by Catherine Delahunty

Some school principals have revealed that they are getting some interesting advice from the Ministry of Education about how to incorporate the National Standards into their school charters. The suggestion that they should essentially fake it – by inserting the words “national standards” into their charters, even if they are not actively using them – highlights the mess this policy has created since day one.

Many aspects of the National Standards have angered parents and teachers, but at heart, they fail the simple test of helping our children get the best possible education.

In their current form, the National Standards have the potential to hurt our children. To be labelled a failure from the beginning of your school career is not a recipe for self-confidence. It runs contrary to our instinctive knowledge that encouragement and support works better than being measured and labelled at an early age.

The National Standards focus only on literacy and numeracy. In doing so, they have already undermined the status of other important subjects like science and the arts. Anecdotal evidence suggests teaching and support jobs in these areas have already started to go, and if we are not careful we will end up with a deficit of skilled science and arts professionals to work with schools, which will weaken the whole public education system.

But most of all I am now being told stories of children feeling like failures and parents experiencing high levels of bewilderment. A parent told me last week that their child had “failed” to meet the National Standard for literacy, but was then placed in an accelerated learning class in recognition of their capabilities. How confusing is that?

This story highlights the contradictions between the reductionist approach to learning via arbitrary standards, and the existing New Zealand Curriculum, which is far more holistic and comprehensive and is still being rolled out. Many teachers and principals have told me that the National Standards imperative is interfering with the roll-out of the curriculum in their schools.

Everyone is in favour of clear and honest reporting to parents about their children’s progress, but schools already have robust methods of providing this. What would be decidedly unhelpful would be league tables of “achievement” against arbitrary and flawed standards being printed in newspapers, as currently happens with NCEA results at secondary level.

If you want to read up on the first year of this debacle the, this survey – published by the New Zealand Council for Educational Research in 2010 – has some fascinating graphs which show that many Boards of Trustees don’t understand National Standards and most (whether they support them or not) don’t think they will raise student achievement.

Hang on – wasn’t that the point in the first place?

Principals and teachers are also highly dubious of National Standards, as are the 37,000 New Zealanders who signed the NZEI petition expressing concerns about the standards last year.

The wheels are falling off the National Standards juggernaut. Might be time for Education Minister Anne Tolley to admit defeat.