One Bad Apple: Between them, the Education Minister, Hekia Parata, and the Finance Minister, Bill English, hope to develop a government-wide data-capture system which will allow schools to identify the "at-risk" apples in their catchment area and prevent them from turning bad. At-risk identifiers include: families in which at least one parent has been to prison; the child, or a sibling, have suffered abuse; the family has been supported by social welfare benefits for a prolonged period; and the mother has no formal educational qualifications.
ROOT-AND-BRANCH RADICALISM is not something we tend to associate with the National Party. But, Education Minister, Hekia Parata, is ready to change all that. Her review of education funding promises to lead New Zealand towards a radically new way of allocating resources for our children’s education. Some of the ideas under consideration will leave the world gasping.
That the Minister has her heart set upon something truly radical is confirmed by her treatment of professional educationalists.
When it became clear that the Minister was ‘thinking big’ in relation to education funding reform, NELP, the National Educational Leadership Partnership (an umbrella group encompassing school trustees, the teacher unions, principals’ representatives, parent-teacher associations and special-needs students’ advocates) eagerly offered to help.
Ms Parata was having none of it. Before you could say “provider capture” she’d informed NELP that the “consultation phase” would come later. That would be the proper time for people like themselves to get involved.
Now, some might argue that any government intent on making its policy innovations stick wouldn’t dream of embarking on a programme of radical reform without the sector’s enthusiastic support and participation.
And, let’s be clear, NELP did offer. In a statement of principles to the Ministry of Education its members declared:
“NELP is proposing that it work with the Ministry to co-construct the principles and terms of reference of the resourcing review, and be part of the review process, including the analysis of the research and data, and in the subsequent development, testing and implementation of promising model(s).”
The radical solutions being contemplated by Ms Parata, however, are not the sort that lend themselves to indulging such airy-fairy participatory notions as “co-construction”.
Like her colleague, Finance Minister, Bill English, Ms Parata has been seized by the notion of using “government-wide data” manipulation to identify all those very young citizens unfortunate enough to have been born into inadequate and/or under-performing families. Statistically-speaking, these are the apples most likely to turn bad and spoil the whole bunch.
Who are these “at risk” citizens? According to advice supplied to Ms Parata by the Ministry of Education, they are the pre-school offspring of families in which at least one parent has been to prison; either themselves, or a sibling, have suffered child abuse; their mum and/or dad have been supported by social welfare benefits for a prolonged period; and if their mother has no formal educational qualifications.
The Ministry argues that if resources could be directed specifically to those schools preparing to enrol these potentially ‘bad apples’ – thereby dramatically improving their chances of remaining fresh and wholesome – then the outcomes, both educationally and socially, would be far superior to those achieved by the present, statistical scatter-gun approach of decile funding.
In those suburbs of our major cities where “concentrations” of these bad-apples-in-waiting are detected, the local school (using a yet-to-be-devised formula) would find itself in the running for an extra-specially thick wad of additional cash.
Radical stuff! But why stop there? If it is possible to identify early these bad-apples-in-waiting, and if the key factors in their breaking bad are all related to domestic dysfunction and family failure, then why not remove the children from that environment altogether? Why not set up special schools for the children of inadequate families and break the cycles of failure and dysfunction once and for all?
And if acting on government-wide data works for the bad apples, why not develop a statistical profile for families likely to produce exceptional children?
These would be the families in which no one had ever been sent to prison; there was no history of child abuse; no record of a relationship with the Ministry of Social Development; and in which both Mum and Dad had gone to university. The statistical likelihood of above average success would be further boosted if the family income was sufficient to endow the children with truly massive lump-sums of cultural capital.
In suburbs where there were concentrations of these potentially ‘super apples’, the state could facilitate the setting-up of special schools where their particular talents could be identified early and fully extended in an environment free from family distractions.
Ms Parata could call the schools for fixing bad apples “Borstals”, and those for producing upper-middle-class super-apples, “Private Schools”. National would be lionised for instigating an educational revolution. What could possibly go wrong?
This essay was originally published in The Waikato Times, The Taranaki Daily News, The Timaru Herald, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 18 March 2016.