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Twenty Bucks!

By Wayne Bainbridge

Over the holiday period I stumbled across many media reports on the huge costs of children starting school. I read of huge school donations suggested by schools; $500 for inner city schools, $1,000 at a Remuera school (per child). Even in West Auckland, $150-$200 per child is not uncommon. Then we read of uniform routs where a polo shirt with a school crest costs $45, but the same polo without the crest sells at $12.

Another reported cost is all sorts of ‘compulsory’ levies:
− $5 I.T. fee.
− $5 photocopying fee.
− $10 art fee.
− $10 classroom consumable fee.

These ‘fees’ are illegal, yet schools continue to charge them. School donations are not compulsory, they are voluntary. The compulsory levies are criminal.

It is very common these days for schools to have BYOD – bring your own digital device to school. Not only are parents responsible for the cost of the device, but also for insurance in the event of loss, theft or damage.

What makes me irritated is that schools seem to get away with it. The Ministry does nothing to enforce its own policies and seems to turn a blind eye to it. Later in the year, we hear of high schools refusing to let children to go to the school ball if they haven’t paid this school donation.

I am proud of the fact that at this school we have no compulsory levies. We have no uniform so there is no extra cost to parents. We don’t rip people off with stationery costs charging just $20. The amount of profit the school makes on stationery sales over the year is around $600. School donations are $70 per child or $100 per family. They are not compulsory and there is an incentive of a lucky prize draw – this year the prize is a Sharp Microwave and a second prize of a free car oil service.

I have talked about several emotions in this blog: anger, embarrassment of some of my colleagues and finally pride in the position of our school. Best wishes for a relatively free education this year. Twenty bucks is all it costs to start school at Matipo!

School Underachievement; the Great New Zealand Myth

In New Zealand, there is frequent mention made of our ‘long tail’ of educational underachievement – 20% of the school population.  Schools are exhorted to do better, to work harder, to design intervention strategies and to apply National Standards as a means of positive intervention.

At Matipo Primary School (Decile 6, 410 pupils) over the last three years 92% of children right across the school, achieve at or above the National Standard in Reading. In mathematics, it is 85%.  We report separately on all cohort groups; boys, girls, Maori and Pacific.  There is little variation between boys and girls and Maori pupils generally out perform all the other cohort groups.  Pacific children consistently underperform against all the other cohort groups (when they start school their achievement gap is at the widest point, when they leave it has narrowed markedly.  In other words, school makes a difference).

We have had a number of requests to visit the school to see why Maori kids do so well here and what ‘special things’ we must do to facilitate their success.  In essence, we do nothing special.  As a school we are strong on engagement, expectation, personalizing learning, structure, routine and striving for excellence and achievement, encouragement and recognition of success in all areas.  The reason is that most of them come from two parent, employed, middle income families.  Conversely, our Pacific children come from low income backgrounds.  Because of such, they live in overcrowded, shared homes with little money to ensure adequate warmth, nutrition, health care and everyday incidental learning experiences like going for a drive to the mall or the supermarket.  They tend to come from homes without books.

The great New Zealand myth is that school underachievement is caused by failing schools and teachers.  The real truth is that it is caused by poverty and indirectly by successive government policy.  Underachievement has nothing to do with ethnicity and everything to do with socio economic status, income and poverty.

New Zealand has very high rates of child poverty, certainly amongst the OECD countries – reckoned to be between 16-20%.  Paula Rebstock’s Welfare Working Group Report linked child poverty to households dependent on benefits.  One in five New Zealand children live in a welfare dependent household.  Robstock quotes the OECD repeatedly pointing out that if New Zealand could foucs on lifting the sole parent employment rate, it would substantially improve the child poverty rate.

My premise is that if New Zealand governments wish to improve our 20% school achievement tail, then they need to radically improve and reform the economy.  New Zealand is a low wage economy with encouragement to remain so, to be internationally competitive on world markets.  But at what cost to our children?

Governments need to be acting to improve employment and the economy by investing in jobs (as for Australia’s 2011 budget), by tax and welfare reform, by job creation incentives and the like.

Essentially the best way to improve school achievement of our failing children, is to reform the economy to attack the real causes of achievement failure, which is family poverty.

Recipe for a Successful School

In September 2011 we received an excellent Education Review Office report on the school. It was highly complementary, no compliance issues and a 4/5 year return review cycle – limited to 20% of New Zealand schools.  We have had a history of positive reviews, have a healthy and growing roll and have received a number of other positive affirmations and recognitions over the years.

What is the recipe for this success?  It isn’t rocket science and the recipe is not unique to this school.  It is a number of relatively simple concepts which perhaps could be wrapped up under the heading ‘positive’ school culture!

Over the years, staff have had the opportunity for growth and innovation and exposure to a lot of leading minds both at courses and conferences and through school professional development.

John Hattie, Lane Clark, Mark Treadwell, Martyn Weatherill, Helen Baxter, Andy Hargreaves and Sir Ken Robinson have been major influences.  Young staff in particular have had opportunities to grow professionally and to try new ideas.  The school has a track record of long term, whole school professional development.  Study grants and 50% subsidy for tertiary study fees have been available.

Leadership is understood.  The role of the principal is to be the leading learner, leading learning.  Leaders lead and make decisions.  As far as possible, wide input is sought and the reasons for a decision made clear.  Transparency and fairness are important.  Professionalism, in all that it means, is promoted.  There is an expectation that staff will be well planned and prepared and that data should inform and drive their teaching.  Planning across the school has been exemplary.

Part of the success is due to strong leadership but equally critical is strong staff and actively recruiting staff members with intellect, passion, work ethic and ability to contribute to the wider corporate life of the school.  Matipo is a child centred school and that is a major factor in all that we do.  We have an incredible range of opportunities for children and proactive interventions.  This is however a balancing act as to how much intrusion into the regular life of the classroom can be balanced against giving kids the widest extra curricular opportunities.

The school has four critical drivers or pou.  These are promoted across the school and to the parent community and hopefully all staff, Board, children and parents understand these.  Our drivers are engagement, achievement, excellence and care, set in a context of structure, routine and expectation.  We expect all our children to do well in all learning areas as well as sport, arts, behavior, etc.  Our expectations and routines are clear and there are consequences if children don’t behave in a manner consistent with the expectations.  We expect and promote excellence in all areas.  We expect all children to succeed and ethnicity or poverty are not accepted as barriers.  We recognize and reward excellence and achievement.

Our major driver is engagement.  This is one of Hattie’s ‘top ten’!

Engagement of teacher to child and of child to teachers is critical.  There is an expectation that teachers will be in class before school, engaging with children.  Children must know that a critical adult in their life cares about them, trusts them, believes in them.

As part of our proactivity, at the beginning of the year, all children potentially at risk of academic failure, challenging behaviors, emotional fragility or sheer boredom are identified and plugged into an intervention programme.  At lunchtime, we have teachers involved in traditional duty but other teachers are involved in sports coaching, computer room, library, kapahaka, Polynesian club, strategic games, etc.

We have after school classes, opportunities to learn violin, drums, guitar, keyboard etc.  All teachers identify target children.  We provide home-help ‘kits’ for children not achieving.

Together, our emphasis on structure, routine, expectation, care, engagement, achievement and excellence in a proactive setting with a skilled staff, excellent resources and lots of opportunities for children, with good communication all makes up something called ‘school culture’.  It has an invisibility as well as a real presence.  Essentially, children are highly engaged in purposeful learning environments in a school without rules but with high expectations.

“It ain’t rocket science!”