Groundhog Day Down Under

16th April 2004 at 01:00
Neil Munro in Wellington and Sydney with the Education Minister

"Uncanny" is a word that has been used often on this trip.

In a hectic two-week swing through New Zealand, Australia and Singapore, Peter Peacock and his advisers have been repeatedly struck by the similarities with educational issues in Scotland - and with the attempted solutions.

From early education and assessment to curriculum reform and child protection, governments, it seems, are singing from the same hymn sheet.

Even the political rhetoric is similar. Trevor Mallard, New Zealand's Labour Education Minister, said recently: "This Government believes in quality education and access for everyone, regardless of their background.

We want an education system that is focused on lifting achievement so every single learner has the chance to reach their full potential."

The criticisms, too, have a familiar ring. New Zealand is in the third year of implementing a new qualification system for upper secondary pupils, the National Certificate of Educational Achievement (NCEA).

Phil Smith, president of the country's Post Primary Teachers' Association, has welcomed the reform in principle but criticised its "abysmal implementation, poor resourcing and nearly intolerable workload".

Wherever we looked, all seemed familiar. As well as the NCEA reform, New Zealand has been having a "curriculum stocktake", a project on assessment for learning ( following hostility to a regime of national tests) and a schooling strategy aimed at "making a bigger difference for all students".

It even has its very own national educational priorities. Uncanny.

Australia is treading a familiar path, with a "national consultation on schooling" which ends this month. Supporting and attracting teachers, school autonomy and performance, parent involvement and the education of boys are some of the subjects touched on.

It may also be comforting to Scotland to learn that a sports conscious country like Australia, no stranger to success in many fields, is facing up to growing concern that at least a quarter of its children - about a million youngsters - are overweight. Uncanny.

Mr Peacock stressed the importance for ministers of tuning into what is happening in other countries as a benchmark against which to test policies in Scotland. But such contacts could also confirm that what Scotland is doing is right when tested against the alternatives. A case in point is local government in New Zealand or, to be precise, the absence of local education authorities.

As one professional we met on this trip observed: "New Zealand never does anything by halves." Overnight, it moved from direct Government control of its 2,700 schools to putting parent-led boards of trustees in charge of each of them - the reform that enticed Michael Forsyth to visit the country when he was Tory education minister.

One consequence has been that Mr Peacock's opposite number gets involved in micro-management. Since self-governing schools are unlikely to become turkeys voting for Christmas, Mr Mallard finds himself proposing the closure of schools; inevitably, there have been embarrassing U-turns.

Special needs, pupil exclusions, financial management, school transport and human resource matters are other areas in which he has to issue directions to schools. Teacher pay is also determined nationally.

New Zealand's education ministry has tough powers to intervene where schools are failing to live up to their charters, contracts each school draws up with the Government. In any one year, Mr Mallard told us, he orders commissioners into 50 or 60 schools which means the trustees are sacked and the schools run centrally for a period.

Mr Peacock observed with satisfaction that, by comparison, the powers he is seeking to intervene in struggling schools are "measured and modest" - likely to amount to a case of one a year compared with one a week in New Zealand.

If there is one lesson Mr Peacock is returning home with, it is a new appreciation of the role of local government - for good democratic reasons, of course, but also with a sense of relief that the Scottish system prevents every buck stopping at his desk.

"I don't look for powers to micro-manage schools and, having seen the system here, I am more convinced than ever about that," Mr Peacock said.

On the other hand, he believes Scotland can learn from New Zealand's approaches to assessment and to its long experience of attempting to improve education for the Maori (a key lesson being that education, while important, is not enough to preserve a language like Gaelic).

As in Scotland, New Zealand has been through a tumult of education reform over the past 20 years. But both countries appear to have learnt lessons.

As Martin Connelly of the education ministry in Wellington told us: "We are trying to get better at school reform - to find out what it is that's important to change and to where the research exists to support it."

Mr Peacock aims to keep in close contact with New Zealand. "Our links are potentially strong for us to be able to benchmark our performance against each other," he suggested. "We are following similar agendas, we have the same scale of operation and we share a similar geography and history."

More from Down Under next week

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