Peacock brings a Kiwi lesson home
During a visit to New Zealand as part of a three-nation tour (page four), Peter Peacock uncovered a "fascinating" research study which was highly revealing about different perceptions on the relationships between teachers and pupils.
Mr Peacock intends to commission similar research in Scotland to find out if the same factors apply.
The study into the experience of 13 and 14-year-old Maori children produced remarkable findings. Asked what makes a difference to classroom effectiveness, 80 per cent of students and 70 per cent of families said it was the relationship with teachers - a view held by just 30 per cent of teachers.
A similar contrast emerged when questions were asked about external forces on the school, such as family and community circumstances. Only 10 per cent of students and their families believed this was the deciding factor in pupils' performance - whereas 60 per cent of teachers said it was the critical issue.
A report from the Ministry of Education in Wellington, which commissioned the research, described such views among teachers as a "deficit" approach.
Explaining away Maori students' underachievement by pointing to deficiencies over which teachers had no control meant that "they put themselves in a position where they have little influence".
The report states: "Unless teachers address their attitudes and beliefs, they will continue to feel powerless and unable to bring about change."
Mr Peacock said: "If teachers think they can't make a difference or have any impact on their pupils, they won't," he said.
The minister added: "We know there is little schools can do to influence pupils' home backgrounds. But we must never use that as an excuse for why schools cannot make a difference.
"What we can influence is the impact of teachers and teaching on many youngsters. Through continuing professional development and other means, we have got to keep emphasising how crucial the craft of teaching is, and why the behaviour and performance of teachers in the classroom matters."
Mr Peacock said there was a danger of teachers developing an attitude of "socio-economic determinism" that nothing can be done for pupils in disadvantaged circumstances. "The message I want to get across is that there is nothing inevitable about it and that we have to stick by all our youngsters," he said.
The issue also emerged during discussions in Australia. "We have got a number of communities where teachers don't believe pupils from deprived backgrounds can achieve," Alan Laughlin, acting director-general of education and training in New South Wales, said. "It's an ingrained attitude because they have never achieved."
The education of Maori children is particularly sensitive in New Zealand.
Indigenous youngsters are disproportionately represented in the "tail of underachievement". While 63 per cent of leavers in 2002 had achieved the Sixth Form Certificate (now replaced by a new Higher Still-type qualification), only 39 per cent of Maori students had done so.