The point is not the kids; it's the rest of us

The quick-fix slogan for education is to say you will ram the three Rs into kids by hook or by crook. Listen for Don Brash to say that in his looming big speech on education.

Such rhetoric will resonate with employers scraping the employables barrel and scouring the surrounds for escapers. But will it re-skill the nation?

Only if it also reflects the work of his shadow education minister, Bill English, who recognises education is a matter of subtle complexities and interconnections with other policy areas.

English’s starting point is that “teachers can make a difference”: social class and family background do not determine a child’s learning capacity. A well-trained, motivated teacher can spot potential and nurture a child to stronger self-belief and higher aspirations and make up for lost time and missing parental attention in early years.

This has been the focus of a project begun under National’s Nick Smith in 1999 in decile 1-3 (lowest socioeconomic) schools in South Auckland, where, the Ministry of Education’s 2002 summary of progress said, there is a “common belief that if children go to a low-decile school, they run a very high risk of not getting up to the expected national level of achievement in literacy”. The aim is more effective teaching, focused on how much and how well pupils learn and especially how well they can read and understand what they read.

The project has been extended to the West Coast, Ngaruawahia and Huntly and covers children up to age 13. It is led by Professor Stuart McNaughton of Auckland University, working with willing principals and deputy principals (unwilling ones have mostly moved on) and with syndicates of teachers to develop, test and apply techniques.

Teachers I recently saw in action in two overwhelmingly Maori and Pacific decile 1 primary schools in Mangere exuded determination and energy; the kids seemed alert and enthusiastic; a class of 10-year-olds was doing comprehension exercises miles above anything I did at that age.

There is also a secondary-level programme aimed at improving learning by Maori pupils, led by Professor Russell Bishop of Waikato University. Both programmes are buttressed by Auckland University Professor John Hattie’s AsTTle programme for teachers to assess their effectiveness in getting pupils to learn.

Education Minister Trevor Mallard says he wants “engaged students”. He is steering part of the $120 million teacher professional development programme towards alignment with the McNaughton and Bishop initiatives.

Put that together with the finding by Cathy Wylie of the Council for Educational Research from a longitudinal study of some Wellington children up to age 12 that those who got quality pre-school education did better that those who didn’t — and that the gap widened with age. This was regardless of ethnic, family or socioeconomic background.

Wylie’s study is a one-off, ethnically and geographically limited and by definition reflecting pre-schooling of a decade ago. But, as far as it goes, it seems to validate Mallard’s push for pre-school education for all and also his insistence on trained pre-school teachers (which English rejects). Wylie also, by the way, found no evidence to support assertions by some on the right that children do better if they are in two-parent and/or stable families than if they are not.

Mallard notes some short-term gains in literacy and numeracy among those on the programmes. But they are not quick fixes. They will take a long time to show up in better statistics at workforce age.

And that is the rub.

Apart from the life-chances benefit to the children, what is the point of such a long-range investment? If parents can’t be bothered to talk to their children, let alone read to them, why should the rest of us make good their irresponsibility?

Because we need these kids. We need people who can perform well in the workforce. We need them to provide for the larger numbers of old people when the baby boomers retire.

The easy answer has been: import ready-made workforce participants.

But now there are two problems. If they come from Asia, that stirs political resentment and trouble. And importing whites pits us in fierce competition with all the developed world — Britain has recently made it easier for the skilled to get residency, for example. This is not the 1950s and 1960s when a surplus of motivated, skilled people in Europe lined up to come here.

Factor in the statistic that more New Zealanders leave than return and we face a workforce shortage which will worsen as the baby boomers start to retire.

So we cannot afford any more to let kids fail at school and not join the workforce. We have grow our own workforce from within, including from kids out of decile 1 homes where books are a foreign commodity.

That means high-skill, intensive teaching along McNaughton lines. Slogans do not produce such teaching. It comes at a high cost in taxes. Which may be too hard a comprehension test for voters.