The following suggestions for debate and action are based on our experiences and observations as secondary school teachers and principals over the past 50 years.
We appreciate that times have changed and that, as revealed in the recent NZ Institute publication, "More Ladders, Fewer Snakes", the underperformance of our disadvantaged youth in our schools is as much a societal as an educational problem, and a key cause of NZ's being anchored in the bottom half of the OECD.
However, despite that clear and very challenging linkage, as a well connected country of only four million people with huge potential, we strongly feel that much can be achieved relatively quickly. Given the right will, public endorsement and leadership, NZ needs to be far less silo-driven and far more boldly coordinated to become the best-educated and most productive country in the world.
Currently our top level school leavers are as talented as any in the world - this is proved by their performances on scholarships at Universities such as Cambridge, Oxford and Harvard. That echelon contributes heavily to the very good aggregate performance of New Zealand 15-year-olds in reading and maths in the 2009 OECD survey, which unfortunately masks the fact that we have a long and demographically growing educational tail of underperformance and disaffection, especially among too many of our 16 -18 year olds.
Our focus is not on those able students who will succeed no matter what schooling system we put them through. It is about lifting the performance of our middle and lower echelons of students and how to engage and stimulate them to have similar expectations and aspirations to those of our top achievers.
It is about creating far more respect and dignity among our teaching profession so that it can once again become the desirable and satisfying career which attracted us into it many years ago. It is about reinforcing the importance of inspiring students through their teachers' passions for the subjects they teach, as well as the thrill of seeing another side of difficult students through their extracurricular talents.
Most importantly, it is about promoting a sea change from excessively boring, mechanistic and assessment-driven teaching, to the celebration of whole subject expertise, the inculcation of good values, and the importance of all round student involvement beyond the classroom.
* We need to be far more pro-active and bold in attracting, retaining and rewarding high quality teachers. Our current teacher recruitment, training and remuneration arrangements are not attracting and producing the quality of teachers we need and should be rigorously reviewed, including the current certification standards required, which in our view are too low.
However, much can be achieved by enlightened incentive payments, including the universal adoption of a lead teacher scale for talented teachers not wishing to take on promotion and responsibility beyond the classroom.
Much can also be achieved by attracting talented, graduates into the profession, through proven, in-school accreditation schemes, such as Teach for America or Teach First in the UK. As a result of the current economic recession, we have a golden opportunity to attract more broadly experienced graduates into teaching, especially males given the current large gender imbalance; but we must be prepared to adopt bold initiatives to achieve that.
* The role and importance of the Principal needs to be more effectively recognised, supported and rewarded. The role of the principal must be made more attractive, given the vital importance of effective leadership in the implementation of aspirational, standard-lifting change. When principals have to be excessively consultative and collaborative, their ideals and resolve dim, their schools stagnate and their students suffer. There needs to be more effort and incentives to put dynamic principals and teacher teams into hard to staff areas.
* NCEA should be fixed to make it more acceptable to, and adopted by, all secondary schools throughout NZ. Our top scholars now confirm that, after a disastrous beginning, NCEA Level 4 Scholarship has become the most challenging Scholarship exam in NZ. It has once again become the academic gold standard, comparable to any other national exam world-wide. However, there is still much to be done at Levels 1, 2 and 3, to review the deleterious impact of breaking down whole subjects into far too small component parts, and to use external assessments more extensively to guarantee consistent and reliable internal moderation throughout all schools. Such improvements should also ensure that all students make far better core subject choices and are not given false hope by passing lots of internally assessed standards in subjects which will unfortunately deny them a balanced education, and all hope of entry into too many tertiary courses.
* The Board of Governance structure set up under Tomorrow's Schools 20 years ago should be reviewed and enhanced. Arrangements should be made to encourage the co-option of professional expertise (eg in IT, Law, Accounting, HR, PR, Marketing, Engineering, Health, Architecture etc) on to all Boards. Well-established schools have always benefitted from a ready supply of professionals to serve on their Boards, and we know of many who would be keen to put themselves forward for selection to give such voluntary service, especially on the Boards of schools in lower socio-economic areas.
* There should uniformly higher expectations and insistence on basic disciplines and respect for the rules. Standards of discipline in dress and behaviour have generally become very poor, and need to be raised dramatically across the country. Pride in one's appearance is one life's small but important disciplines, both in perception and reality. What do reforming Principals throughout the world do when they go into underperforming schools? They focus on attendance, punctuality, dress and behaviour - then tackle the academic, sporting and cultural issues.
It should be noted that this observation very much ties in with the findings of our Chief Scientist, Sir Peter Gluckman, who reports that we have a far too liberal attitude to the upbringing of our teenagers, who are currently rushing far too quickly into their lives and careers without enough parameters and guidelines- with increasingly disastrous national statistical consequences in terms of driving-related deaths, depression, alcohol abuse, drug dependency and suicide.
Napoleon said "There are two ways to move people - by interest and by fear". To achieve that vital interest and engagement, we need to attract and reward more high quality, broadly experienced principals and teachers to motivate learning and achievement, especially among disaffected 16-18 year olds.
To achieve the fear factor, it is high time there were clearer, nationally agreed parameters on the ostensibly "minor" disciplines of life, so that respect for rules and fear of consequences helps to prevent the great majority of our young people from making the wrong choices too many are making at present.
Finally, no major improvements will happen unless there are strong compacts of support from parents for the higher standards of imposed discipline leading to self discipline, and for the strong leadership which motivates all students to give of their best, no matter what their ability or backgrounds. As long as those aspirational goals are clearly set by the board, articulated and implemented by the principal and staff, and supported by parents, great things can happen for our students - and our nation.
Sir John Graham, former HM of Auckland Grammar School, John Taylor, former HM of King's College