Principals’ conference in Hamilton regarded as world class

Phil HardingFour hundred educational leaders assembled at Claudelands Conference and Exhibition Centre in Hamilton in early July for an annual New Zealand Principals’ Association Conference which was branded “world class” by a number of attendees.

Delegates from Atiamuri to Woodend gathered for a three day conference on the theme of Power to Innovate with presentations from an outstanding group of New Zealand and international speakers. Their backgrounds covered everything from advertising and comedy, to film-making, pharmaceuticals and rugby, and they focused on the challenges of leadership in the 21st Century. MC for the conference was TV personality and comedian, Te Radar.

Insights from offshore included the inspiring presentation of Khoa Do. Having crossed the ocean in a small, overcrowded boat from his home in Vietnam as a child, Mr Do was well qualified to speak about overcoming big obstacles to win significant opportunities.

He explained how he built teamwork and motivation amongst a group of marginalised and troubled young Sydney-siders in 2002. The collaboration resulted in a celebrated film which saw the group walking the red carpet with major international film stars two years later. Khoa Do went on to be voted ‘Young Australian of the Year’ in 2005.

Finns offer successful example

In his opening address, Principals Association president, Philip Harding, challenged principals to think about what teaching and learning should look like when they are preparing children for a world in which the job that will one day pay them a living, quite possibly does not even exist yet – “A world in which the smart phones we use every day are fast replacing thousands of traditional careers – such fields as banking, retail and even the food trade.”

He offered Finland’s education system as a successful example to follow, noting that the issues that were often protested against in New Zealand – such as National Standards, children’s achievement data being made public, league tables and public comparisons of schools – are all absent from the Finnish system. Instead, he said, Finland has prioritised building high levels of societal equity and elevated the status of the teaching profession and the quality of teaching graduates. Both politicians and the public placed high trust in the professionals to get on with the job of teaching and learning, and it was these factors that allowed Finland to consistently do so well as a country, Mr Harding said.

He talked about achievement data and the limits of its use by quoting astronomer Clifford Stoll who has persuasively argued eloquently that:

“Data isn’t information…Information, unlike data, is useful. While there’s a gulf between data and information, there’s a wide ocean between information and knowledge. What turns the gears in our brains is not information, but ideas, inventions, and inspiration. Knowledge – not information – implies understanding. And beyond knowledge lies what we should be seeking: wisdom.”

Mr Harding then took his audience through some of the government’s educational reform agenda which has brought our school system to the position where the profession feels anything but appreciated, trusted and revered, and remains confused as to why the government would want to destroy all that is so good about its world class education system. In his final attack on National Standards, he said:

“The tired conservative argument of back to basics has been around for decades, but a modern 21st century education seeks to engage children in broad, rich, and meaningful learning, in a world that is changing so fast that it is breath-taking. Parents did not support this policy in two elections. Most were oblivious to it in 2008, and confused in 2011. Teachers have remained consistently opposed – not to protect their patch, but because it is bad for children when the only thing that matters is two curriculum areas out of eight.”

He acknowledged that more needs to be done to make schools more culturally welcoming for Māori children, and then introduced NZPF’s plan to establish ‘Māori Achievement Collaboratives’– (MACs) a system of professional development led by the profession. He launched the initiative at the conference, encouraging the principals to register for the programme.

Viviane Robinson, Academic Director of the Centre for Educational Leadership at Auckland University, began her address with an attack on the much vaunted change and innovation. Although they had acquired a notion of desirability, they should not be uncritically revered, she warned.

“Just think about what innovation means. Innovation refers to something novel or new. ‘Novo’ also means new. Think Novopay.” By its reaction, her audience appeared to understand her message. What we should be aiming for, she said, is improvement.

School improvement efforts were in the context of the government’s ‘Better Public Service Targets’ policy which include 85 per cent of students achieving NCEA level 2 by 2017 and 85 per cent of children years 1-8 meeting National Standards within the same time-frame.

While the government’s attempt to reduce the equity gap in student outcomes should be applauded, she pointed out that in the past 15 years there had been no appreciable gains in the equity of achievement statistics and that simply defining targets was unlikely to make any difference.

Achieving real improvement would take a great deal more.

Ms Robinson quoted Richard Elsmore to define improvement. Elsmore says improvement is change with direction and is sustained over time.

It moves entire systems and it raises the average level of quality and performance while decreasing undesirable variation amongst units. It means engaging in analysis and inquiry, which is central to our curriculum, she said.

Pharmaceuticals entrepreneur and benefactor Sir Ray Avery inspired with his address, which encouraged people to look at challenges and difficult circumstances from a different perspective to discover what could be achieved. He recommended his latest book about New Zealand inventions: The Power of Us: New Zealanders who dare to dream. Did the audience know, for example, that the plastic syringe was invented by a pharmacist from Oamaru called Colin Murdock? “It changed the world.” If we want this culture of invention to continue, that future is in the hands of New Zealand’s teachers, he said.

Ad man Michael Hutcheson,UK educational consultant James Nottingham and rugby coach Sir Graham Henry covered the topic of leadership and innovation, sharing their strategies and drawing on lessons from around the world.

Hard-hitting media release

The conference was not afraid to enter into a political debate by resoundingly rejecting any further association with the development of the Progress and Consistency Tool (PACT), set to become a de-facto national test. In a hard-hitting statement released to the media, delegates said: ‘The Minister had made it quite clear that national tests are not conducive to children’s learning and that we won’t be having them in New Zealand. The Minister recognises that such tests narrow teaching and learning to a small number of key areas at the expense of a broad and balanced curriculum experience. Well someone needs to tell the Minister that by using PACT to support national standards she is doing the same harm as a national test,’ said Philip Harding, President of the New Zealand Principals’ Federation.

‘Further, introducing PACT will do nothing to help our priority learners who are supposedly the target group of this Government,’ said Harding. ‘We already know who these children are – why can’t we talk about their learning needs rather than foist a test on them so we can say yet again that their achievement results are poor.’

The unanimous endorsement from today’s national conference sends a clear signal that principals remain bitterly opposed to national standards, and that they fully support the earlier call to disengage with PACT. This is not schools breaking the law – but we will not assist in building a weapon of mass destruction within our world class education system.”

On the final day of the conference, Phil Harding was full of praise for both the conference and for Claudelands. “Having attended major international education conferences I can say that both this meeting and the venue were absolutely world class,” he said.

“Claudelands flowed like a dream. We used three beautiful spaces and the venue has everything that an international conference venue needs. The standard of catering and organisation has been outstanding”, added Mr Harding. A highlight was the masquerade-themed dinner, held in Claudelands Arena, featuring feather plumes, red velvet, comedian Te Radar and pop-funk band ‘Late 80s Mercedes.’

After the conference, President of the Waikato Principals Association and co-convenor of the conference, John Coulam, said he was also well pleased with how it all went. “The quality of speaker was matched by an outstanding modern convention centre at Claudelands, quality food and an enjoyable social programme.

“With the theme of the conference: Power to Innovate, it was fitting that Te Radar added continuity as the MC. Many of the speakers told of their life story and how innovation and leadership go together. I have had a number of emails from colleagues around the country praising the conference. The Waikato Principals’ Association was pleased to be able to host colleagues from around New Zealand,” Mr Coulam said.


Image: Phil Harding

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