Editorial: Trust parents with the facts about schools

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Minister of Education Anne Tolley. Photo / Christine Cornege
Minister of Education Anne Tolley. Photo / Christine Cornege

One theme pervades the National Party's education policy. Schools, it says, are going to be made more accountable so that parents and pupils get the most from them. "We are determined to increase accountability and give parents better information from early childhood education through to primary and secondary schooling," says the party's education spokeswoman, Anne Tolley. Most parents will have little argument with this approach, but the hackles of the teaching profession will, undoubtedly, be raised.

National plans to impose its greater accountability in a variety of ways. It talks of more effective teacher and principal appraisals and means to make secondary school performance information available to parents. Additionally, education agencies would "actively engage" when schools were identified as potentially failing pupils and struggling boards of trustees would be provided with improved support at the governance level.

Further, National wants to make better use of other performance information. This includes the use of national standards data to identify schools, as well as pupils, that are falling behind. Cumbersomely titled "student achievement function practitioners" would be dispatched to improve performance.

Much of this policy is patently short on detail. It is easy, however, to foresee objections. One of these will be the data used to measure schools. National standards for reading, writing and counting were intended to provide reliable and comparable assessment in primary school education. But this has been muddied somewhat by schools being able to set their own goals and measure their pupils against them. Clearly, that makes it more difficult to accurately identify schools that are failing pupils and parents. Indeed, it has meant that, in many ways, national standards are mainly about the information supplied to parents, so they can play their part in helping the education of their children.

There will also be opposition to secondary school performance information being available to parents. Many teachers will resent their schools being portrayed as failures in any league table.

They will also claim a comparison of school results by, say, aggregating test results, takes no account of the advantages, or lack of them, that pupils bring to school. A school that draws most of its pupils from homes that are well off and where education is valued will produce higher marks than a school in a lower socioeconomic area. Yet that latter school may actually be doing a better job in terms of the improvements it is cultivating in its underprivileged attendees.

But whatever the veracity of such complaints, they do not really matter to parents. They simply want to know where their child has the best opportunity of being in a successful and motivating environment. They will take variables into account. They are aware, for example, of the benefits to a school of social advantage and will incorporate that into their assessment of performance information. Thus, they will not expect a lower-decile school to match the results of, say, Auckland Grammar School, but they do want to know it is serving their child relatively well.

National says the current accountability system for schools is "good" but is not being used as well as it could be. Its instinct is right. If schools are placed under greater pressure to perform, they will, in most instances, improve.

Voters have already backed National's approach by endorsing national standards. At some time, the teaching profession will have to accept that parents have a right to information, and trust them to use it wisely.

- NZ Herald

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