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Headmasters Message

John Laurenson —

Greetings, tena koutou katoa, talofa lava

This is my last major newsletter for 2018.

May I therefore take a moment to thank you for your continued support and  pass on a few end-of-year thoughts.

Obviously at this time of the year,  it is appropriate to encourage students to focus on their examinations, and in particular for students sitting NZQA and CIE examinations. This year it is no different.  Hard work will pay dividends that will last a life time. However, and it is a big however, there are other educational things that are important as well, and it is on these things that I would like to draw your attention to.

'Had I the heaven’s embroidered cloths
Enwrought with golden and silver light
The blue and the dim and the dark cloths
Of night and light and the half light
I would spread the cloths under your feet
But I, being poor, have only my dreams
I have spread my dreams under your feet
Tread softly for you tread on my dreams'.

The author of this powerful poem is W B Yeats. It resonates at the most human level with me, because it has great beauty.

It is almost fifty years ago that a teacher introduced me to Yeats and through her work with me, and the endless discussion that followed, new horizons were opened and I grew as a person. I do recall examinations in which I used Yeats to elaborate on an idea.  However I do not recall my teacher ever suggesting that the reason we studied Yeats was so that I could be assessed.

I wonder what she would make of the people who develop policy that governs education today;  those who determine the path that a student must follow, a path that leads to NCEA, and beyond.  A pathway that in my opinion, is fraught because it features endless administration rather than the unfettered opportunity for teachers to provide insight and excitement for their students.

We are in the grips of yet another Union-Government squabble over pay and conditions, and while I for one would agree that staff should get more in their pay packet, I would also argue that they need, more than anything else, to have a reduction in the amount of administration they are currently required to do. The sheer density and quantity of “administrivia” required of them, is to the detriment of quality teaching based on the strength of their relationship with their students.

Furthermore, the current educational pathway set by successive governments has forced many schools to diminish the time spent on learning opportunities that develop character, and that is to the everlasting detriment of society in general.

In our recent Senior Prize-giving, a large amount of time was spent bringing all Year 13’s over the stage as “Shirley Men” The reason for this is simple. Shirley recognizes that the development of personal character is critical if a boy is to achieve success in life.

Shirley will transition to a new site in March 2019. However, it will remain unwavering in its belief that for a student to succeed in life, he/she must have a strong character, one that permits dreams to be realised, success to be achieved, and failure to be dealt with positively and, most importantly, translated into important lessons for the future.

It would be worthwhile  to actually check out what is spent on education. It is unarguably a colossal sum. If you then asked what that is spent on, you will see  a great deal of it actually makes no difference  to the development of young people.

Let me explain NZQA has as its focus, compliance, verification, proof, recording, assessment and moderation and the administration associated with this has forced teachers to treat that administration as their core purpose. Fewer teachers now involve themselves in developing the passion and  joie de vivre in their students that engages them and ensures  they take responsibility for their own learning and continue to explore beyond where their teacher finished off. In short, fewer teachers are concerned with developing character in their students.

NZQA and the demands of compliance have pushed so many New Zealand teachers into a role where all they do is put material in front of students and then  assess that material when the student is done with it. The material is often linguistically dense and impenetrable, the product of academically-driven people who try to achieve scientific precision in something that by its nature defies precision. Such a person does not spend much, if any, time thinking about how their work might actually inspire a child.  They leave that to someone else. What they conveniently forget  is that the system, with its endless administrational demands, ensures that the teacher loses the passion, the energy and the will to engage young people.

As I travel around this country and visit schools, I see the result.

Many schools have become glorified assembly-line factories, places where students turn up in the morning, where they are housed for the day and where the students have “elements” placed in front of them, so each “element” can be assessed. At the end of the day the students go home.

In such places, time and passion and excitement is in short supply and seldom, if ever, do students encounter great teachers who open doorways and invite their students to enter a world where passion and excitement is in abundant supply.  In such places, typically, students are encouraged to read about something then write about what they have read before they are assessed, have the assessment checked, then moderated, then debated, before having it recorded and subjected to central scrutiny, before in the end, hopefully, being awarded a couple of credits.

If that is all that a school can offer, it becomes truly a sad featureless desert of a place! Now, as I suggested before, this letter is not a criticism of NZQA or of NCEA which has a lot going for it, especially since it is enormously flexible. My suggestion is that NZQA’s system is administratively-expensive to run in dollars and in its endless demands on a teacher’s time. My belief is that when we are told by government about its commitment to education as proven by increases in the education budget, we are really being told about an increase in the number of dollars needed to support a bureaucracy of Byzantine proportions! I would rather have Vote Education spent on having more teachers and a re-focus of NZQA towards recognition that schools are places where time must be spent on developing character as well as academic and practical skills,  these things together are necessary to ensure that a student is best prepared to meet the demands of life in the 21st Century to occur.

I started this comment with a poem from Yeats, and will finish with another,  from this side of the world. Albert Wendt is a Samoan man who writes with all the lyrical grace that is so richly abundant in Samoa.

“This school, chromium hide deflecting
summer, collects the waking children
as if preparing for some ritual sacrifice
The wind whispers through barbwire fences
The children do not hear it......................
“The wind, the storm and the hawk
have no voices here; visions, no blessing.
There are only exams to sit;
the real questions are left unanswered.”

Shirley continues to aim for balance; a school where examinations are taken seriously, but also one where there is the time to engage in real life experiences that build relationships, empathy and creativity.  I think most schools in New Zealand recognise that this is important but sadly those at the centre continue to support a system that is no longer fit for purpose. Those who have the temerity to suggest otherwise are treated exactly the same as the little boy, who was honest enough to state that The Emperor was in fact naked!

May I wish you well for the coming festive season.  Ann and I will not be travelling out of Christchurch this year. Under the eagle eye of my wife, I have gardening, sons and mokopuna to catch up with.  If you need to contact me, for any reason, please do not hesitate to give me a call.

There will be plenty of challenges for us in 2019, but we are well placed to meet these. As always, I am looking forward to them.

Regards and best wishes