I have a friend who is one of those people who can strike up a conversation with anyone. You know the type - he's the master of those awkward social situations where you don't know anyone and are forced to make polite conversation with someone you've never met before and will likely never meet again.
I once asked him how he copes so well and his answer was that he has a collection of ice-breaker questions that he rolls out. Genius.
Since then, I've collected my own and used them on all sorts - from politicians to social workers, workmates to strangers who've since become close friends. Questions such as what your Mastermind topic would be (mine would be Sex and the City or the use of the apostrophe). Or who would play you in a movie of your life (Carey Mulligan). Or which would win in a fight between a tiger and a shark? I'm still not sure of my answer on that one. Maybe a tiger shark?
One of my all-time favourites, though, is what did your school report card say? Mine always said the same thing - "Rosie achieves well, but is not working to her full potential. She needs to talk less and focus more."
My husband is a high school teacher and he's said I'd be his least favourite student. Not because I'm annoying or under-achieving (though the annoying part probably holds some truth). No, I'm a teacher's worst nightmare because I'm that frustrating student who can do next to no work all term, then cram at the end and ace the exam. I don't get fair marks for the amount of effort I put in. I've been known to smash out an essay in a few hours and get top marks.
I was always this way. School was easy for me. But then, my childhood was pretty idyllic, so it made sense that I had no trouble passing with flying colours. School is easy when life is easy. I had a stable home. My family, though large, wasn't dysfunctional. I always had enough food - breakfast, lunch and dinner every day, without fail. No family members in prison, no abuse, my mother has a tertiary qualification. My father spent some time on the dole in the 1990s, after he was made redundant, but it was short-lived and he was soon gainfully employed again.
This week Education Minister Hekia Parata announced a proposal to change our school funding system from the current decile ratings to one where students at risk of failing are identified and funding is allocated based on those individual children's needs. Those risk factors include having a parent in prison, child abuse, a family that's relied on welfare and a mother with no formal qualifications.
While I think it's admirable that the Government is recognising that there's more to student achievement than what happens within the four walls of a classroom, this issue is one of those big, hairy ones that cannot be fixed by simply labelling a bunch of our kids as being likely to fail from as young as three or four and throwing money at it.
Talk to any teacher and they'll tell you that they could do everything in their power to help a child achieve, but if things aren't right at home, no amount of classroom help will get them passing. Many educators have expressed concern that this approach will end up stigmatising those with the greatest needs even further. Schools with a high number of at-risk kids will be labelled as having dysfunctional communities. But what I want to know is how will schools use the funds? Are they specifically attached to the child? How will they ensure the money goes to helping that child? And what happens when those at-risk kids change schools? Does the funding go with them? What about kids who have learning difficulties but are from good backgrounds and have a stable home life? Or the thousands of kids in our school system who aren't at risk of failing? They still need funding, how are we doing that? The proposed policy leaves me with more questions than answers.
I think we absolutely should be using whatever data we have available to us to address the wider issues in our community affecting our kids. Every child has a right to a fair start in life, which includes a good education. But we need to be careful about allocating funding based on those factors alone.
Yes, we should address the inequities in our schools, but not without also addressing the inequities in our society. A wholistic approach is needed otherwise we risk not actually helping anyone.
- Last week I said 500 pages of the 262,000 that makes up the human genome was 2 per cent. It is 0.2 per cent.