In the 50 years or so, since I began teaching in 1964, New Zealand secondary education has increasingly become a battleground of conflicting educational and political ideologies. It has seen the marginalisation of sound Ministry of Education institutional memory and advice, as bureaucrats have become more and more risk averse to oblige the minister of the time.
It is pleasing to see the current minister, Chris Hipkins, is putting so much up for review. The big questions are, will the right things be reviewed, and will a balance of voices be heard?
A major challenge has always been how to retain the best from the past while not being afraid to bring in tried and well tested innovations. This is best tested and resolved by open debate, especially that which parents and public can more readily understand.
However, by far the greatest challenge is how to speak up without fear and favour in support of methods of teaching and learning which conflict with ideologies behind innovations which too easily become the holy grail, and as such are immune from criticism – despite a lot of unease among sections of the profession and the public.
Last week I heard Katharine Birbalsingh describe the highly conservative educational philosophy and practice which she has implemented, as principal of the Michaela Community Charter School in London, to make it such a nation-wide success.
The 400 or so students at Michaela all come from lower socio-economic backgrounds, and are given a strict diet of content-based learning of the basics, especially of English and maths, including some daily doses of rote-learning and phonics. The teacher is the fount of knowledge, the students are taught in rows, with disciplines such as punctuality and uniform standards rigorously enforced.
I would personally have wanted to know more about how she encourages individuality, enterprise and all round education among her students. However, I have no doubt that she has her priorities right for those who come from disadvantaged backgrounds by giving them huge confidence in the basic skills in literacy and numeracy.
Following from this outstanding example of someone who has put teachers and (albeit somewhat limited) subject content back at the centre of student learning, I sincerely hope her visit will lead to a far better, less prejudiced debate about where we may be going seriously wrong in New Zealand.
I refer to the growing if not now prevailing orthodoxy which has put the student at the centre of his or her learning, rather than the teacher. How can young students learn if they have no knowledge of the content of their subjects, which can be imparted by well-trained, well-qualified teachers. How do they know what to look up and research, if they have no deep knowledge with which to think?
In my view, the increasing drift towards the teacher as facilitator has been a strong contributor to the demeaning of the profession. A well-qualified teacher who knows his or her subject well will inspire effective student learning, both towards examinations, and inquiry based. Balance is all.
How can those principals I meet speak up about innovations which many believe deep down are wasteful and counter-productive, such as Modern Learning classrooms, in open plan mode, and Communities of Learning, which take many senior leaders away from their schools, at great cost to no great effect? Only well-informed debate will ensure that those many capable teachers are not wasting their time trying to make poor practices work.
How can those concerned about such high priorities as lifting the supply of well-qualified teachers, implementing far more high quality initial teacher education, and the need for a common core of knowledge up to Year 10, especially of history, for all young New Zealanders, make their voices heard?
The major problem we have in New Zealand at present is that there is not enough genuinely open debate about the effectiveness and acceptance of prevailing orthodoxies, such as the campaign against teacher–centred learning.
This leads to parents getting very concerned and, with good reason, choosing schools which most suit their views of what constitutes a good education.
If Katharine Birbalsingh's visit does nothing else but encourage a lot more educational leaders to lift the heads above the politically correct educational parapet, and express some of the real concerns they have, it will have been very worthwhile. A lively debate on the literacy, numeracy and project-based year which the NCEA review's ministerial advisory group have proposed for Year 11 would be a good place to start.
• John Taylor was headmaster of King's College, 1988-2002.