Friday 9 April 2010

‘National Standards’ in primary schools – first big defeat for the government?

by Grant Brookes
The growing campaign against “national standards" hit parliament on March 31, when around 200 teachers handed over signed Appeals to the government from nearly half the school communities in New Zealand. The Appeals call on the government not to implement the standards without trialling them first.
It was the culmination of the nine week Bus Tour organised by the NZEI primary teachers union. The Tour had visited schools and held hundreds of community meetings from Kaitaia to Bluff.
Labour and Green Party MPs lined up on parliament steps to greet the noisy teachers. Some Labour MPs had even spent time on the campaign bus to show their support. A wide array of trade unionists – from the Nurses Organisation to the Maritime Union, from the Finsec bank workers union to the National Distribution Union – joined the teachers' rally.
The protest reflected the scale and breadth of the movement that’s building around this issue. A UMR poll in February found that two thirds of people, and 71 percent of those with primary school age children, support NZEI’s call.
Their campaign has the potential to deliver the union movement’s first comprehensive defeat of the government and tip the balance back in favour of all grassroots people.
Yet just a week earlier, Labour education spokesperson Trevor Mallard told a Wellington campaign meeting, “I think in the end, we’ll end up with something that looks like some kind of compromise.
“NZEI is pushing hard for a trial... But public reporting is almost inevitable now.”
Put simply, "national standards" are like exams for primary school kids – in reading, writing and 'rithmetic – with the results published in the media.
The government touts them as the solution for low educational achievement by a minority of school children, mainly those from disadvantaged backgrounds.
But as NZEI has explained very well, these are the kids who'll be worst off under a national standards regime. "Not all children come to school equal", says the union. A child may have strengths in many areas, but not in literacy and numeracy – which are the only subjects to be tested. Labelling them as failures because they can't do these tests will damage their motivation to learn.
The exam results will also be used – officially or unofficially – to rank schools. Richer, more mobile families will gravitate even more to the "elite" schools. The rest of us will be left with struggling, underfunded schools.
The pressure on teachers to get good test results will inevitably force some to neglect a child's broader needs for learning and development. And the pressure will be passed on to the kids, too. It will no longer be OK for them to progress at their own rate.
Not surprisingly, with so much riding on the results, similar schemes overseas have seen widespread cheating and are now being abandoned.
The government has been unable to counter these arguments from the union. But national standards aren't really about helping poor achievers, anyway. The real reason for introducing national standards is to control teachers.
Teachers are a difficult group for the government to manage. Not only are they highly unionised, well educated professionals, who work with a degree of autonomy in the classroom, their immediate bosses (principals) are former classroom teachers and union members, too.
Above the principals are the boards of trustees. Managers and businesspeople tend to dominate on school boards. Even so, board members are elected from the school community, and in lower and mid-decile schools the boards, too, have ties to the working class.
The government wants tighter control over teachers in order to dictate what is taught to the next generation of workers. It's no coincidence that national standards are focusing only on literacy and numeracy, and not on skills like critical thinking or developing self-esteem and a sense of self-worth (part of the current health curriculum). National standards are about serving the interests of employers by creating a productive, obedient workforce.
The most insidious aspect of all is the effect that "national standards" will have on the ethos of cooperation and on working class values like solidarity which are nurtured in many primary schools.
The tests will pit children against their peers from a very young age, in competition for the good grades. Each school will likewise be in competition with all other schools for places higher up the public league table.
NZEI president Frances Nelson told the rally at parliament, "Huge concern exists over whether this is politically driven, rather than being a policy in the best interests of children and their learning."
National standards, ultimately, are about corroding cooperation and nurturing the anti-human, competitive values underpinning capitalism.
But as Frances Nelson said, "As professionals, we have both a right and an obligation to challenge an educational policy that has no evidence that it will work".
“We did meet with minister Anne Tolley just a little while ago. We gave her a list of all of the schools that have signed up to trial the standards.
A cheer went up when she added, “We also indicated there are a number of schools who weren’t interested in trialling the standards at all, because they intend to boycott.”
With this level of industrial strength and community support, there's no need to heed Trevor Mallard's suggestion to settle for "some kind of compromise" that leaves National's agenda largely intact.
Teachers have comprehensively beaten the National government before, through a community-backed campaign of industrial action. In 1991, National introduced a policy of "bulk funding" for schools. It aimed to divide and weaken teachers by breaking up their national collective agreement, and to make schools more reliant on fundraising and less on government money.
For the next seven years, primary and secondary teachers took action, including nationwide strikes and dozens of wildcat strikes. Foreshadowing today's talk of boycotts, both primary and secondary teachers boycotted the introduction of the government's new curriculum. Many of these actions were in defiance of National's anti-union laws.
When National was finally voted out, eight years later, there were still only 17 percent of schools signed up to bulk funding. The policy was dropped. Teachers held onto their national collective - the only major group to do so. This later aided other unionists to regain national agreements for themselves.
Building up to a huge campaign of boycotts against national standards is what's needed now. Primary teachers are due to enter bargaining for their collective employment agreement soon, making industrial action over both pay and national standards a possibility.
But to have the confidence to win, teachers will need strong public support. The next phase of the campaign will focus on the public petition, 21,000 signatures and growing. Download it here and get collecting!

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