Friday, February 26, 2010

Latest Learning Matters

If we accept that age old saying that it takes a whole village to raise a child it makes sense that schools and families have to forge a close relationship if we wish all of our young people to realise their potential.

The Ministry of Education requires schools to develop close relationships with whanau and when ERO visits a school it meets with community members to assess how strong that relationship is.

Traditionally parents have quite a strong and regular relationship when their child is at primary school, but for a range of reasons this relationship weakens and becomes much less regular at secondary school. This may be because a secondary school is a much larger institution so may not seem as welcoming or even that parents themselves didn’t enjoy their secondary school experience so feel a little daunted.

In many secondary schools the relationship concentrates on supporting the school with fund raising. At Opotiki College we do very little school-wide fundraising and prefer to have our parents form a relationship with us in other ways.

As with most schools we have a number of parent teacher report evenings at which we get between 25-35% of our families present. We do, however, run Bilingual whanau hui every term which are well-attended and other evening sessions to explain subject choices, enrolment and qualifications. The attendance at these is still at about the 25-35% level.

Our parents have other opportunities by attending sports events and kapa haka practices and noho.

It is important that parents and whanau find a way to make a link with their local school. Last week we tried something different at Opotiki College. We had a mix and mingle evening for the parents of our Year 9 students. It was quite informal with a shared supper and introductions followed by parents meeting and chatting with the teachers from their child’s class. 50% of our families were present and there was a neat buzz as teachers and parents got to know each other.

I explained to the parents that it was not important if they could not assist their child with some of their homework but that it was important that they were active in taking an interest in their child at school and being present for them wherever possible. Those parents who turned up last week had taken the very first important step in being present for their child and showing their strong interest.

We now expect stronger turnouts from these parents at future report evenings as we have broken the ice with them.

One interesting question asked at the evening was about decile rankings and what it meant for schools. The Ministry of Education assesses each school’s community as to its socio-economic status and then groups the schools into ten (decile) groups with decile 1 being in the lowest 10% socio economic group and decile 10 in the highest. It doesn’t mean the decile 1 schools are in poorer condition, or get less money or get poorer teachers.

Many schools are burdened by such a label and as a result have lower expectations and settle for less. Consequently lower decile schools tend to have lower achievement levels. Opotiki College refuses to be limited by such a label and operates under a belief that our students can and will do as well as students anywhere in the country. We prove this with our results year after year.

Students, schools and communities cannot be limited by labels such as decile rankings. The way forward is by learning and learning matters.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Latest Learning Matters

Right now there is a large debate going on in education circles, especially in the primary sector, around the National Government’s policy of introducing national standards at each year level up to and including Year 8.

There is a huge amount of overseas experience, notably in the US and the UK, which shows such a policy has a negative rather than positive impact on student achievement so it is being treated with caution and, in some cases, hostility in the primary sector.

The Minister of Education claims that what is being introduced in New Zealand is quite different and has been developed fully aware of the faults in overseas models. She may well be right as New Zealand has a record of leading the way in educational practice.

Primary teachers are worried that they will be forced to ‘teach to the test’ and that the inevitable publication of league tables will show some schools, typically those in lower decile areas, are falling quite short of the national standard.

Good or bad; welcome to the world of the secondary sector. We have been operating in such an environment for ever with the national standard determined by School Certificate and now by NCEA and the publication every year of league tables.

One of the arguments against pay equity between the primary and secondary sectors is the lack of any external accountability for student achievement in the primary sector, something which secondary schools are faced with and fall or stand against every single year.

I don’t think I like the new policy but I will wait and see.

My advice to colleagues in low decile area primary schools in New Zealand is to take the opportunity to throw off the yoke of low decileness and show the Minister and your community that this does not limit achievement opportunities for your children. There are plenty of places where this happens.

Once again, decile 1 Opotiki College students have done impressively well in NCEA from 2009. With 83% of non-Maori gaining Level 1, 75% gaining Level 2 and 77% gaining Level 3 and with 62% of Maori gaining Level 1, 83% gaining Level 2 and 68% gaining Level 3 our students have done our school and community proud. In all but one of the groups above this puts us at or above the average level of achievement for deciles 8-10 schools (the highest grouping) and in the other we are above the average for decile 4-7 schools.

These figures are not a figment of my imagination and will soon be available to the public on the NZQA website.

The primary schools in Opotiki are doing a great job and despite their best efforts our Year 9 students do arrive well below the national average for their age group. This is normally the case in a low-decile community.

A combination of innovative programmes, committed staff, supportive parents, great resources and a ‘never give up’ attitude help our students to achieve these great results. The most important thing, however, is that we have learned to ignore our decile ranking and to operate in a way that shows we expect all of our kids will achieve national qualifications. This is the learning that matters.