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Brash Speech: A More Equal and Innovative Education System

Speech – ACT New Zealand

Speech by ACT Leader Don Brash at ACT Education Policy Launch, Corelli School, Browns Bay, Auckland Thursday, November 17 2011A More Equal and Innovative Education System

Speech by ACT Leader Don Brash at ACT Education Policy Launch, Corelli School, Browns Bay, Auckland Thursday, November 17 2011

Let me start by thanking David Selfe and all of the good people here at Corelli for hosting this speech in this wonderful auditorium.

Often when I talk about a more equal and innovative education system, people find it hard to picture exactly what I mean.

In the picture around us though are many thousands of words. They are in the eyes and the musical voices of the children who have a very different schooling experience to what the bureaucrats in Wellington would tell you all children need.

This school is a both a haven and a beacon for children who embrace music and drama, whose aspirations are not served by the one-size-fits-all approach that dominates education in New Zealand.

Their story might be epitomised by a woman whom I’m sure many people in this room will know. The story of Gillian Lynne, as told by British creativity expert Sir Ken Robinson, is the story of what a more flexible and diverse education system can do for any and every individual student.

Lynne was a so-called underachieving student whose concerned mother took her to visit a child psychologist. In a diagnosis that now seems advanced for the 1930s, the psychologist told Lynne’s mother that she was not an underachiever but a dancer. ‘Take her to a dance school,’ he said.

Gillian Lynne went on to be a star of the Royal Ballet and London’s West End. She teamed up with Andrew Lloyd Webber where she choreographed the hit musicals Cats, and Phantom of the Opera.

As Sir Ken summarises it, she made millions of dollars and gave pleasure to millions, but our current approach to education system would probably ignore her potential, put her on Ritalin, and tell her to get on with it.

Gillian Lynne’s story shows that a different educational setting can be the difference between potential realised or lost forever. I fear that in today’s education system in New Zealand, too many Gillian Lynnes are lost to all of us.

But not here.

Earlier this week, the Kiwi music sensation Hayley Westenra rehearsed for two days here. This is a place where the students’ dreams of tomorrow and the reality of today’s achievers come together. Some might think that I am suggesting a musical education is the only kind of education suitable for our children.

It is true that music has a lot to offer. The ancient Greeks saw the value in a musical education and taught it on an equal basis alongside mathematics. But to put all our eggs in the musical basket would be to precisely miss the point.

The real point is that all of our children are different and special. Let me give another example: Around 500 kilometres south of here is quite a different school that also offers a unique and tailored approach to education.

Tū Toa is a school just outside of Palmerston North. Two ACT candidates, Hayden Fitzgerald and Andrew Sharrock, are here today, and both volunteer as tutors at that school.

Tū Toa is special school whose mission is to educate students with a special interest in Maori culture. They place emphasis on sport, as Corelli places an emphasis on music. What they have in common with Corelli is that their students achieve exceptional academic results.

Tū Toa is a school of 50 students that has won the National High School Netball Championship. It is a school that has broken the mould and, like Corelli, shown what is possible when principals and teachers are able to tailor education to the specific needs of their students, rather than run the lines given to them by the Ministry of Education.

If the education system was the restaurant industry, these would be the specialist suburban eateries faithfully serving their unique local markets.

The rest of the education system would be McDonalds, serving the same stuff consistently across every location. The head office being the Ministry of Education, sets the menu being the curriculum, the performance standards, being the exams, the décor, being the bricks and mortar of the school, the pay rates, being the national teacher pay scale, and the way customers are served, being the teaching style.

It’s my firm belief that our children deserve better than McEducation.

The problem is not from a lack of innovative education in New Zealand. Corelli and Tū Toa prove it exists. The problem is one of equality.

Considering the benefits that Corelli and Tū Toa deliver to their students, you might be forgiven for thinking that the New Zealand Government would be falling over itself to fund children into these kinds of opportunities. You might be forgiven for thinking that the New Zealand education system would support the choices of children to pursue their musical, sporting, and academic potential, and transfer those children’s share of government funding for education to the schools they choose.

Sadly, you could not be more wrong.

Innovative schools exist and succeed in spite of, not because of, New Zealand’s education policy.

Many parents of students here at Corelli make tremendous sacrifices to send their children here. They get little or no government support. When they take their children out of a state school, the state does not respect their decision. Instead, it forces them to sacrifice the government funding afforded their child and effectively pay twice. Once in taxes, and again in school fees.

The ACT Party says that parents should be able to use their child’s share of taxpayer education funding at the school of their choice, be it independent, integrated, or state – not state only.

Worse still, is that many students’ parents cannot afford to even contemplate such sacrifices. You might be forgiven for thinking that the New Zealand education system would be even more willing to support their choices, but alas it is not.

What we have is a system that promises equality of opportunity and delivers the opposite. The ACT Party says that’s wrong.

The ACT Party says that education should be first, second, and third, about serving the child.

As part of any future coalition government, the ACT Party would demand a more innovative and equal education system for all New Zealand children.

We will push as hard as we can to ensure that the opportunities offered to children at schools such as Corelli and Tū Toa cease to be the exception and become the norm.

As I said in my speech at our campaign launch, ACT would push for three key changes to empower parents and students.

The first and most important is that the money the New Zealand government puts towards a child’s education does not belong to any particular school, or schooling system, it belongs to the child.

That child should be able to take that funding to any school of their choice, be it state, integrated, or independent. It is time for those who currently pay twice to get a break, and those who can only pay once to get a chance. Attending a school such as Corelli or Tū Toa should not be a rare privilege, but a normal right.

The second priority is to make sure that school choices are informed choices. Under Julia Gillard’s Australian Labor Party, Australian parents are able to visit a website called My School. It is administered by the Australian Government and allows parents to compare the performance of almost 10,000 Australian schools.

The New Zealand government has similar information. It is simply absurd that a supposedly centre-right government in New Zealand is unwillingly to do what Julia Gillard is willing to do. If you go to the SchoolSMART website hosted by the Ministry of Education, you are asked for a username and password.

What an insult to New Zealand parents. The government says to Kiwi parents and their children, ‘yes, we have information on your school’s performance, but, dear citizen, we needn’t share it with you.’

A vote for the ACT Party is a vote to give New Zealand parents the same standard of information as Australian parents expect by opening up SchoolSMART to the public.

The third priority is to allow successful and established state schools such as Auckland Grammar, Epsom Girls, Rangitoto, McLeans, and Christchurch Boys’ to become Trust Schools. Such schools would be exempt from the usual constraints of Ministry management and given control over their own affairs.

Such freedom would allow them to make the most of the resources and the knowledge they have for the benefit of their students.

But that autonomy should not be limited to those schools as they stand. Those schools should be able to expand. If there are students who desire their particular style of education in areas they do not already serve, then they should be able to set up satellite campuses. This already happens in the tertiary sector.

Massey University, which started in Palmerston North, now has campuses in Albany and Wellington. Why should there not be an Auckland Grammar campus in Porirua? If there are sufficient students in the Porirua area who desire that kind of education, then the management of Auckland Grammar should have the opportunity to set up such a satellite campus and collect those students’ share of the funding.

In addition, there should be no reason why educational entrepreneurs such as David Selfe, let’s call them edupreneurs, should not be able to set up completely new schools to attract government funding.

These proposals may seem radical, but in fact the danger is not that New Zealand might stray too far from orthodoxy by adopting choice, competition and entrepreneurship in education. The real danger is that we will be left behind.

In the Canadian province of Alberta, teachers can apply to set up special charter schools where they believe there is a need not served by the mainstream system. These schools attract the kind of funding that conventional schools attract, but use those funds in the way that ACT proposes.

The result? In Alberta, schools of special character are not a curiosity, but accepted as normal. Alberta now boasts the Calgary Arts Academy, which emphasises arts immersion. It has the Calgary Science school, which has its own special approach to teaching according to scientific principles. It has the Mother Earth Children’s charter school, which emphasises the teachings of Canada’s indigenous first nations. It has the New Horizons School, which aims to serve gifted children. All in all, Alberta has over a dozen charter schools which can access government funding.

What’s more, according to the OECD, Alberta, if it were a separate country, would be the top performing academic jurisdiction in the English-speaking world.

David Cameron’s government in Britain is rolling out a similar regime of ‘Free Schools’ where groups of teachers can set up schools and access government funding without having to be managed by the one-size-fits-all vagaries of the British Ministry of Education.

Since 1992, Sweden has had a regime of school vouchers. There, government funding for a child’s education follows the child to any school the parents choose. Public or private, for profit or not for profit. The result, as in Alberta, is a flourishing of schools such as Kuskapsskolan, which has grown into a franchise of 25 schools serving 10,000 students with its own unique style. Such an innovation could not exist in New Zealand today, but it could under ACT policy.

The Swedes put the child first and so should we.

Ladies and gentlemen, the ACT Party presents a clear choice on education this election.

We can choose to continue with the status quo. We can choose to ensure that there is limited choice, limited innovation, and that only the few can access it. If that’s what you want, then any other party will deliver it.

Alternatively, you can vote for ACT. A party vote for ACT is a vote for more of the kind of educational opportunities such as you see around you today.

It is a choice to be able to see your child’s share of the education funding go to the school that you choose.. You needn’t pay twice, and those who can’t afford to pay once would have choice too.

It’s a choice to at least have Australian standards of information about schools online and accessible, instead of the Ministry telling you to accept what you’re given while they keep the information on SchoolSMART to themselves.

It’s a choice to let successful schools manage themselves as trust schools.

It’s a choice to let groups of innovative teachers set up new schools like Corelli and Tū Toa.

If you favour an education system that is more equitable and more innovative, then I ask that you give your support to ACT, and we will support you.


Authorised by Garry Mallett, 809 River Rd, Hamilton.

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