Peter Lyons: Teaching's public face needs makeover

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A truly representative professional body, not a union, would have a real say in curriculum and performance.

Unlike doctors, lawyers and accountants, who have a professional body in charge, teachers often have to protest to get their message across. Photo / Doug Sherring
Unlike doctors, lawyers and accountants, who have a professional body in charge, teachers often have to protest to get their message across. Photo / Doug Sherring

Many teachers recently marched against the Government's perceived attacks on the state education system. They were protesting against initiatives such as charter schools, national standards and the shambolic implementation of the Novopay payroll system. I couldn't help but think that we were marching to defend an inadequate status quo.

The issue should be whether our state schooling system is optimal in meeting the needs of our students and the answer is no. Our schooling system can best be described as moribund in its current structure and regressive in the status of teaching. I don't believe teaching in New Zealand is a profession in the true sense of the word. A profession such as law or medicine or accounting controls entry into its own ranks. It ensures meaningful professional development for its members. It disciplines its own and does so to maintain the credibility of the profession. Most importantly, it has status as a profession in the eyes of the wider community. Few teachers would regard the Teachers' Council as their professional body despite it claiming to be so.

It would be an unlikely sight for accountants or doctors or lawyers to stand on traffic islands with banners proclaiming we are worth it! . The telling factor of the status of teaching is how few school students perceive teaching as a credible career option.

In over 20 years since I began teaching little has changed in the determination of teacher pay and conditions or teacher accountability. Sadly there is scant attention paid to input from teachers in policy changes such as national standards or charter schools. Eduction continues to be a political football subject to ill conceived political whims.

In most staff rooms the teaching fraternity can be divided into three groupings. The few inadequate, the mostly competent and the few stars, as with any occupation. The competent vary broadly in effectiveness but there are few tangible incentives for them to outperform.

Sometimes there is even a disincentive because a result may be larger classes as students flock to their option. The stars tend to be young, energetic and ambitious. Eventually many either leave teaching or move into management or private schools. There is no pathway for further career advancement in the classroom.

The problem is not about the need for competition between schools. It is how to attract and retain quality people into teaching and ensure they remain motivated. Charter schools and national standards are not the solution.

Politicians are eager to be seen to support a quality public education system. Often this is lip service due to budget constraints and the three-year electoral cycle. Meaningful change could be expensive and lengthy in fruition. In the other corner are teacher unions wary of politicians and desperate to defend the status quo, no matter how inadequate. In the middle are parents and students and many teachers and management aware that the current system is mediocre.

The schooling system that has evolved over the past 20 years is very inequitable. There are clear winner schools and loser schools. This is sometimes based more on perception than reality. Some schools have become adept at playing the PR game. In secondary schools there has been a fragmentation of qualifications. Some schools have adopted international exam franchises in an effort to differentiate themselves. This is a ridiculous development for a supposedly first world education system.

The current status quo is not worth defending if credible alternatives are explored. A starting point could be the demise of teacher unions to be replaced by truly representative professional bodies. These bodies would have a real say in curriculum, assessment, professional development and teacher appraisal and pay. Teachers would be more accountable for their performances but should also be paid accordingly.

A high quality and dynamic education system is a key determinant of a good life for our young. Our current system is dominated by an industrial landscape and entrenched attitudes that are holding us back. Sadly there are few mechanisms for constructive change.

Peter Lyons teaches economics at St Peters College in Epsom and has authored several economics texts.

- NZ Herald

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