Derision for speech given to business circle is unfair, writes Dr John Langley, chief executive of Cognition Education Auckland.

On Tuesday the Secretary to the Treasury, Gabriel Makhlouf, gave a speech to the Transtasman Business Circle. Education was a focus of the speech. Already his comments have attracted much attention and derision from a number in the education sector. Such derision is less than fair.

The overall theme of the speech was about economic leadership. A significant part of the speech was devoted to education as it relates to economic performance and leadership.

That is as it should be because we will have little in the way of economic leadership unless it is driven off the back of knowledge, innovation and performance. Knowledge, innovation and performance will not occur without an effective education system that fosters high levels of achievement and wellbeing for all of our students - not just some as is currently the case.


Put bluntly, we cannot claim success in our education system while 15 to 20 per cent of our children and young people are not achieving to the levels we might reasonably expect. Not only is this economically unsustainable but also morally indefensible. To defend the status quo under such circumstances defies belief and that is what many of the critics here appear to be doing.

Such a position is usually based on defensiveness because of perceived attacks on teachers. That should not be so. Like any profession in this country teachers have variation in performance. That is normal.

Perhaps the problem in education is that the variation is just too great? We have many wonderful teachers, some who do a sound job, some who probably need a rev up and some who should not be in front of a class at all. Why can we not stop pretending that they are all brilliant and without fault?

The public understand the difficulties and, rather than defensiveness, seek acknowledgement, professional honesty and a way to move forward. There is no other way.

The medical profession readily acknowledges those areas of the population that have greater levels of illness and are harder to treat without doctors being roundly blamed.

The police clearly have more problems in some areas than others without falling on their Tasers. Lawyers lament certain kinds of cases without appearing to climb into their professional shells. The problem in education is that when any comments such as Mr Makhlouf's occurs it is seen as an attack that requires wagons circled and "the enemy" defeated.

So, what did Mr Makhlouf actually say? Essentially there were three key points. The first is that what is important is achievement and not just class size. The former, he says, is not improved by the latter. That is not to say that class sizes should burgeon out of control but that the real focus must be on the quality of teachers. Smaller class sizes without the best teachers will be little different from larger classes with the best teachers.

In New Zealand class sizes are somewhat of a sacred cow. They should rather be seen as one of a number of factors that must be considered in the improvement of achievement. Perhaps, in order to make such a shift we need to separate out industrial arguments from professional discussion. At present they appear to be one and the same and that is mighty dangerous in terms of sound policy making.


Mr Makhlouf's second point was that we need to look across a "range of tools" to develop, support and reward teachers. He mentions initial teacher education, appraisal, remuneration, reward for performance and opportunities for career progression. Hardly anything revolutionary here. All of these are bog standard in other professions and trades across the world. Rather than treat them as too hard, perhaps the time has come for all of us in education to treat them as legitimate challenges that we must discuss and develop.

Thirdly, and in many ways most significantly, he talks about the need for improvements in school performance to be driven by data. He went on to say, "I find it frankly incomprehensible that data on student achievement is seen as dangerous". I find it equally mystifying. How can valid and accurate data that might assist in the improvement of our education delivery and outcomes be "dangerous"? Perhaps the real problem is not that such data is dangerous but rather scary for some?

The debate must be shifted. What is needed more than ever is professional leadership and dialogue and not the continual positioning that we get with education debates time after time.

Professional leadership is about what the profession of teaching should look like, what ethical and performance standards are needed now and for the future, what evidence we will accept to inform and change our practice, how we will use our positions to engage in public discussion and debate and how we must engage with those who make and implement policy in education to ensure that there is clarity and consistency in approach. Most importantly, that what we do works.

In essence, there are four questions that must always be answered:

* What does success look like?
* What do we currently know will get us there?
* How will we measure progress?
* What next?

Unless we base our policy and practice on those four questions we will continue to puddle around seeking different answers to the same questions for generations. We simply do not have time.

As a country we have the very best potential of any. We have a robust democracy, a keen sense of social justice and an eye for progress and being smart in the right ways.

Unless we change some of our approaches our children will look back in a generation and wonder what on earth happened. We are the guardians of our future. Mr Makhlouf seems to understand that and good for him.