Rodney Hide: State fails students with costly Soviet style system

Schools are failing too many students. Photo / Getty Images
Schools are failing too many students. Photo / Getty Images

The Ministry of Education runs schools the way the Kremlin ran the Soviet economy. The result is distressingly similar.

Three in 10 students leave school without NCEA 2. That's the level we are told is necessary to succeed in the modern economy. The figure for Maori students is five in 10.

Three in 10 students leave school ill-equipped to prosper in the modern world, the very reason for attending school in the first place. The education system falls short for 30 per cent of all students.

No other business would survive with 30 per cent of its delivery not up to scratch. Its customers would disappear. Its income would dry up. And it would go bust.

The Ministry of Education has not only stayed in business, it has flourished. The reason is simple: its customers are guaranteed. All children must attend school. Its income is also guaranteed: taxpayers must pay, regardless of the quality of service.

Indeed, in the world of education, poor service justifies more money. All failure is attributed to the "lack of resources".

And so successive governments have increased real spending per student 20 per cent over the past decade. The result? Nothing. There has been no discernible improvement despite a huge boost in resources. The money has poured in but nothing better has come out the other end.

All too often we meet the failed result: that young man or woman who is bright enough but whose life chances are cruelly curtailed because he or she is innumerate and illiterate.

The education system has somehow frittered away 10 years' schooling and $65,000 in operational spending. More unforgivably, it has frittered away that person's chances.

My recent example was working with a young man to cut up a load of timber. He was bright, keen and could work. What he couldn't do was calculate that a 3m post cut in half would give us two 1.5m posts. He wasn't stupid. He was simply innumerate.

It made me want to cry. How tough is this young man's life because he can't do simple arithmetic?

His failure at school is not that of his teachers. Nor of the lack of commitment from successive government ministers. And I know that Ministry staff are hard-working, professional and dedicated.

His failure is that of the system: he simply fell through the cracks. Somehow he didn't fit in. Somehow no one picked up his difficulties. Somehow he didn't learn to do simple arithmetic. Somehow the system passed him by.

Our education model is a top-down, Wellington-knows-best system. There is no school autonomy and parents have no say over the schooling of their own children. It's run by Wellington dictate.

That's what did it for the Soviet economy. And that's what's failing students.

That's why the Government's proposed partnership schools, or charter schools as they are otherwise known, are so exciting. For the first time communities, businesses, charitable groups, parents, teachers and principals are to have the opportunity to set up their own school and to receive government funding, just like state schools do now.

The teachers and the groups who can make a difference in the lives of the students now missing out are to be given the chance to make that difference. It's a wonderful development.

No student will be forced to go to a partnership school. No teacher or principal will be compelled to work for one. They are simply to be given the opportunity.

And that's the marvellous thing. There are individuals and communities who can make the difference for the students now falling through the cracks. But the current top-down education system has no place for them - just like it has no place for their potential students. Partnership schools will provide that place.

Not from the top down. They can address the problems as they see fit, not have answers forced on them.

Teacher unions are hot-to-trot in opposition. It's easy to see why: the teacher unions are powerfully embedded within our monolithic system. The apparatchiks didn't like glasnost and perestroika either. Partnership schools are the chink in the Berlin Wall of our education system.

Debate on this article is now closed.

- Herald on Sunday

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