Editorial: For parents' sake, insist on consistency

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The National Government introduced the national standards policy during its first term in office. Photo / Paul Estcourt
The National Government introduced the national standards policy during its first term in office. Photo / Paul Estcourt

As part of its education policy for the 2008 election campaign, the National Party pledged to deliver National Standards that would give parents clear and factual reports on their children's progress at primary and intermediate schools.

This was the cue for strong resistance from teachers, who insisted this was already being done quite satisfactorily.

Four years on, what has been achieved? Very little, given the Prime Minister's statement this week that National Standards data provided by schools was too "ropey" to show how well a school was doing in reading, writing and maths.

John Key said the "patchy" material supplied to the Ministry of Education made it difficult to create anything coherent for parents. This meant, most pertinently, that it would be impossible for either the ministry or the media to compile the sort of 'league tables' that parents want and which they receive at the secondary school level through NCEA results.

With that admission went the essence of the Government's promise of a more rigorous reporting of children's progress. Parents, therefore, are quite justified to query the whole point of National Standards.

Many teachers will, for their part, be having a quiet chuckle. They have been able to utilise a belated Government concession to set their own goals and measure their pupils against them. Absent has been a single nationwide test, as is the case in Britain, Australia and the United States.

The resultant variations in reporting have effectively scuttled the whole policy. Denied information that should be theirs, parents are in no position to accurately monitor their children's level of achievement and help them to catch up with their peers if necessary.

Mr Key has sought to put the best possible light on this by suggesting that consultation with the education sector would allow the ministry to produce information as an alternative to league tables. "The sector needs to consider what they think will be the most productive way of presenting that data," he said.

If a format could not be agreed, there was nothing to stop the media going to schools for the data, said Mr Key. The problem will be agreeing on a way of presenting information that will be clear, specific and useful to parents. The type of information that will steer parents towards schools where their children have the best chance of learning among motivated and successful peers.

The teacher union, the NZEI, has its own preference for reporting to parents. It remains adamantly opposed to any ranking of schools by aggregate test results, saying this takes no account of pupils' socio-economic advantages. But that concern is irrelevant to most parents and, in any case, they are quite capable of factoring in decile rankings.

Parents want only to see their children in schools that promise the best results. They do not care about the home circumstances of other pupils. As much was confirmed in a recent Herald-DigiPoll survey that found almost 59 per cent of those surveyed approved of publishing the National Standards material, either by the ministry or the media, or both.

Mr Key's conciliatory approach to the teachers may owe much to the Government's backdown over increased class sizes. In that instance, most New Zealanders could not be convinced that teacher opposition to the policy was misplaced. National Standards are another matter altogether.

The Government has the support of most people, who want parents to have a better sense of how their child's school is performing. It should be insisting on a formula that results in more consistent information being delivered to the ministry. Anything else and the National Standards policy will have been largely a waste of time and effort.

- NZ Herald

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