Saturday, July 25, 2009

Dirty words in the teachers' lexicon

(Published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, July 22.)

Who controls the education system?

It’s a question that arises again in the light of the fuss over the proposed introduction of numeracy and literacy standards in primary schools.

The primary school principals’ organisation, alarmed that the introduction of mandatory standards might lead to the publication of “league tables” which would enable parents to make comparisons between schools, got up on its hind legs and threatened a boycott.

In the education sector, “league tables” are dirty words. Teachers’ organisations have fought tooth and nail to prevent reforms that might better equip parents to make judgments about which school is best for their children. We are expected to simply trust the teachers.

Other dirty words in the teachers’ lexicon include “bulk funding”, “performance pay” and “education vouchers”, mention of any one of which is guaranteed to make teachers’ union leaders look as if they have just sucked a lemon.

All of the above concepts offend the entrenched notion that teachers should be exempted from the performance measurements and competitive pressures that other industry and professional groups are subject to. Any time one of these ideas is mentioned, teachers’ organisations put up a smokescreen of largely spurious arguments against them.

Bulk funding of schools is opposed because … well, because it would give schools a degree of autonomy and flexibility, particularly in crucial areas such as individual teachers’ pay, which the teachers’ unions find threatening. And why do they find it threatening? Because it would undermine the highly centralised education model that enables teacher unions such as the PPTA to wield such power.

Once the centralised system starts to unravel, so does union control. That explains why the PPTA fought a determined campaign of sabotage and intimidation against bulk funding during the term of the Bolger National Government.

A compliant Labour-led government obligingly shelved bulk funding after winning power in 1999. With a caucus packed with former teachers, Labour couldn’t help but be sympathetic to the education unions, which is why they have been relatively docile in recent years. But the primary school principals’ rebellion over National’s intention to introduce standards may be a sign that the truce is over.

So what’s the objection to standards, then? Well, they are said to be too narrow. “Summative assessment of data from two just two learning areas from young children has limitations,” according to one teacher’s letter to a paper, couched in the fuzzy jargon familiar to generations of despairing parents.

In fact most parents are probably smart enough to realise that literacy and numeracy standards are not the only means by which to judge a school’s performance. But there’s no getting around the fact that they are the two most vital aspects of a child’s education and therefore the ones parents most want to know about.

“League tables”, which would enable parents to assess schools’ performance against national standards, are opposed because they would supposedly disadvantage already under-privileged schools. Teachers complain that publication of league tables would encourage parents to withdraw children from poorly performing schools and thus accelerate the schools’ decline.

Better, then, to keep parents in the dark about schools’ performance and deny them the right to make an informed choice about which school will best serve their children’s needs – or so the primary principals seem to argue.

And don’t dare suggest that the publication of league tables might actually have a beneficial effect by forcing under-performing schools to make a choice between lifting their game or losing more of their pupils. That’s far too radical for the teachers’ organisations to comprehend.

Government-issued education vouchers, which would enable parents to “buy” education from the school of their choice, are vehemently opposed for similar reasons – they would shift power from teachers and education bureaucrats to parents. Rather than being forced to put up with inferior schools, parents could withdraw their children and take them elsewhere. We can’t have that, can we?

That simple word “choice”, which we take for granted in so many other facets of our lives, is denied parents when it comes to their children’s education. (That is, unless they have the money to buy a house within the zone of an elite state school such as Auckland Boys’ Grammar – but don’t get me started on the illogic of zoning, which has produced consequences that are the very opposite of those envisaged by its architects).

I also mentioned performance pay. This offends the sacred notion of collegiality, which seems to hold that one teacher should never be paid more than another of equivalent qualifications and experience, regardless of how good they are.

I can’t think of any other profession or industry in which this rule applies, but teachers insist they are different. Why? Well, they just are.

What collegiality means in practice is that indifferent, lazy or bad teachers are protected while good, conscientious teachers are denied proper recognition and reward. This may help explain why there are so few talented male teachers; the career prospects just aren’t there.

The big question hanging over all these thwarted ideas for education reform is the one posed at the start of this column: who controls the education system?

This is much more than an industrial question; it is about respect for the democratic process. Voters give governments a mandate to effect change, and organisations which set out to forestall that change – as the teachers’ organisations have done in the past, and are now showing signs of doing again – are effectively giving voters the fingers.

Whether we will see a re-emergence of the bolshie, arrogant PPTA that we remember from the 1990s remains to be seen. The current union president, Kate Gainsford, is a personable and intelligent woman who bears little resemblance to strident PPTA leaders of the past such as Martin Cooney, so perhaps there will be a rational policy debate rather than the bullying intransigence of old.

As the people who have to make the system work, teachers are entitled to a say in how education is run. Governments owe it to them not just to listen to their concerns, but where they are valid – as teachers’ concerns sometimes are – to try and allay them. But ultimately, teachers need to pull their heads in and accept they are the paid servants of the system, not its masters.

Friday, July 24, 2009

We'll know who to blame when the wowser backlash hits

(First published in the Curmudgeon column, The Dominion Post, July 21.)

THERE could be few more unlovely cultural confluences than the one where boy racers meet binge drinking.

On its own, either phenomenon is ugly. Together they make a vile and lethal combination, as we saw in Invercargill a couple of weeks ago when a hotted-up Honda Civic slammed into a wall and three teenage lives were extinguished. According to the police, that made six boy-racer deaths so far this year in Southland alone.

Was alcohol a factor in the Invercargill crash? Well, the TV cameras showed what looked like a crushed Speight's carton in the boot of the wrecked car, and we know that alcohol occupies a place of honour in boy-racer culture.

This was confirmed by the young men’s tribute pages – replete with moronic phrases like “party on” and “go hard” – and by the inevitable roadside shrine at the scene of the crash, where friends placed bottles of alcopop and Tui in a perverse homage to the dead.

But these people are mere kids. Immaturity provides them with an excuse for indulging in maudlin sentimentality that romanticises sudden, violent death. Not so excusable is the role of adults in this continuing tragedy.

By that I mean people like the family spokesman at one of the Invercargill funeral services who wore a Tui hat and told the mourners to “keep cruising” and “party hard” before leading the congregation in a drinking song. What a clot.

Other adults may like to think they are safely distanced from the mayhem, but they cannot be entirely absolved of responsibility. Breweries and their advertising agencies continue to promote the booze culture while sheltering behind sanctimonious corporate statements promoting responsible drinking.

If I were on the board of Dominion Breweries, I don’t think I’d feel comfortable about Tui’s celebrated status among boy racers and binge drinkers.

Then there was the liquor entrepreneur Michael Erceg. When the tributes flowed following his death in a helicopter crash in 2005, people politely overlooked the fact that Erceg was behind the explosive growth in the sale of alcopops – “ready to drink” mixes that marketed alcohol in a form irresistible to teenage drinkers, and none more so than the insensible young women whom the police regularly scoop up from the footpaths in Courtenay Place.

Also culpable are well-meaning parents who look on while their children mark their passage to adulthood at 21st birthday parties by downing a yard glass, a tradition invariably accompanied by violent vomiting (and in one tragic case a couple of years ago, sudden death).

I could go on. There are idiot publicans who still think it’s a good idea to offer 50 crates of beer as a prize in a pub competition, and rugby players who promise to shout their teammates a keg if they win a big game.

Clearly, some people in the liquor business are not good at reading the signs. Largely because of public alarm over binge-drinking and alcohol-fuelled crime, the wowser lobby – which never really went away – is now collectively rubbing its hands at the prospect of the liquor laws being tightened up again after five decades of gradual liberalisation.

Those who favoured sensible relaxation of the liquor laws, in the belief it would ultimately lead to more civilised drinking, can only their shake their heads.

No one should be in any doubt about where the blame should lie if the current review of the liquor laws gives effect to a public backlash against excessive consumption. The promoters of the drink-to-get-pissed culture were too thick or too greedy, or both, to see it coming.

* * *

THIS Friday, July 24, is Montana Poetry Day, which seems an appropriate time to ask: what is poetry?

Much of what passes for contemporary poetry isn’t poetry at all. It’s prose, chopped up and arranged so as to suggest some sort of poetic structure. Punctuational gimmickry – which often means no punctuation at all – completes the artifice.

If it reads just like prose once you remove the contrived line breaks, then it isn’t poetry. Amy Brooke, a Nelson writer who frequently locks horns with the self-ordained priesthood that rules New Zealand’s incestuous literary scene, calls it “post-poetry”.

It’s an ironic twist that Sam Hunt’s mongrel verse, which once drove literary purists into a frenzy of denunciation, now looks positively Shakespearean alongside that of some more recent arrivals on the scene.

In the 1960s, “poets” hijacked rock and roll and almost succeeded in giving it a bad name. (“Hi, I’m Bob Dylan, and I’m taking this plane to a place where only people with PhDs in modern literature will pretend to know what my songs are about.”) Now they’re trying to do the same with poetry itself.

* * *

AMONG ALL the initiatives suggested for combating obesity, has anyone considered good old-fashioned shame?

Here’s an idea: install compulsory weighbridges at the entrances to all McDonald’s, Burger King and KFC outlets. The moment an overweight person sets foot on the threshold, klaxon alarms could sound and the words “Obese! Obese!” could start flashing in bright red lights.

No one’s freedom would be curtailed, since the customer would still be allowed to proceed to the counter to place his or her order. But what’s the bet they would slink away in shame, perhaps to enrol at the nearest gym.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

The last Stand-Off

I’m a few days late with this, but I think it’s worth recording nonetheless.

Monday’s Dominion Post reproduced parts of The Dominion of July 22, 1969 – a special issue marking the first moon landing.

That 1969 edition contained several erudite, reflective pieces, including one contributed by the late Kim Keane, who for many years had been the Dom’s greatly respected chief reporter, and another by the then editor, Jack Kelleher. Jack died only a few months ago.

But the one I particularly want to comment on was the typically eloquent column written by W P (Bill) Reeves, whose Stand-Off column (subtitled “A radical view”) was an institution in the Dom for more than two decades.

Bill died in Rotorua on July 14, only days before that commemorative publication appeared.

Himself a former editor of the Dom from 1964 till 1968, Bill was dumped in favour of Jack Kelleher because Rupert Murdoch, who had a controlling interest in the paper, thought Jack was more attuned to tabloid-style journalism. At that stage the Dom was about to go tabloid. Murdoch thought because tabloid papers worked in Australia, they would work here. He was wrong, and the Dom reverted to broadsheet format in 1972.

It was characteristic of Bill Reeves that he bore Murdoch no ill will. In fact when he graciously agreed to provide a memoir for the centennial history of the Dom that I put together in 2007, he wrote kindly of Murdoch. A gentlemanly left-winger (a diminishing species these days), Bill admired Murdoch’s drive and newspaperman’s instincts and wrote that the Australian never interfered in his attempts to give the traditionally conservative Dom a more liberal image. In fact he recalled that Murdoch himself was something of a left-winger then.

After moving from the editor’s office to a back room, Bill devoted himself to crafting stylish and insightful editorials and Stand-Off columns, continuing the latter until well after his retirement in the 1980s.

It was a further measure of his equanimity that he appeared to bear me no ill will for curtailing his column when I was editor. Looking back it strikes me as having been a breathtakingly impudent action on my part, given Bill’s distinguished history with the paper.

A tall and imposing man, but quiet and modest, Bill had a formidable range of friends and contacts from every point of the political compass. It was typical of him that he didn’t want an obituary written, but his good friend Phil Campbell, editor of the Rotorua Review, quite rightly disregarded his instructions. I understand Phil’s tribute to Bill will appear in the Dom Post in due course.

That's news to me, Judy

I never cared much for Judy Bailey’s cloying style as a newsreader, but I think I care for her even less as a children’s rights activist.

Yesterday’s Dominion Post announced that Bailey is the spokeswoman for a well-funded coalition (Plunket, Barnardos, Save the Children etc) campaigning for a “Yes” vote in the anti-smacking referendum. She was reported as saying: “This whole debate was never about light smacking or good parental correction, it was all about the parents who choose to beat their children with jug cords or bits of four-by-two.”

Pardon me? Among supporters of the referendum I know, the referendum against the repeal of Section 59 was never about the right of parents to beat their children with jug cords or bits of four-by-two. Responsible parents who support the referendum find that type of “discipline” just as abhorrent as Bailey does.

The referendum’s backers may have shot themselves in both feet by stupidly appearing to back the right of a bullying father to shove his young son to the ground repeatedly because he didn’t want to play rugby, but that doesn’t alter the core issue: that is, the right of conscientious, caring parents to give children a sharp, corrective smack when they are behaving badly or dangerously, as generations of good parents have done without traumatising or physically harming anyone.

To say the referendum is about the right of parents to use unreasonable force is at best naïve or obtuse, at worst a gross misrepresentation.

The irony is that violent parents who think it’s okay to whack their kids with jug cords or bits of four-by-two will go on doing exactly that, because they don’t care what the law says. We know that, because brutal and sometimes fatal assaults on children have continued unabated, just as opponents of the Bradford Bill said they would.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Jeez, is this the best we can do?

(First published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, July 8.)

We New Zealanders must be a dull, unimaginative lot.

I came to this gloomy conclusion after reading yet another newspaper story (they must be counted in their thousands now) recalling how the former All Black prop Keith Murdoch was sent home in disgrace after biffing a hotel security guard while on tour in Wales in 1972.

It’s now part of New Zealand folklore that Murdoch got off the plane in Australia and disappeared into the Outback, where he has since been sighted only rarely. I guess you could say he was banished, then vanished.

On the strength of this piffling episode, which in any other country wouldn’t even merit a footnote, Murdoch has become a full-blown New Zealand legend. What does this say about us?

America has Bonnie and Clyde, Jesse James, Wyatt Earp, Billy the Kid and John Dillinger. Australia has the rebellious Irishmen Peter Lalor, who led a famous goldminers’ uprising at the Eureka Stockade, and Ned Kelly. England has Robin Hood and Ronnie Biggs. But the best New Zealand can do – a collective sigh here please – is Keith Murdoch, a rugby player whose name means nothing to anyone outside the country (with the possible exception, that is, of the unfortunate Welshman who walked into Murdoch’s beefy fist 37 years ago).

The media’s fascination with Murdoch is as enduring as it is mystifying. Hardly a year goes by without his story being dusted off again.

If an altercation in a Cardiff hotel kitchen had terminated the stellar rugby career of a Kel Tremain, a Don Clarke or a George Nepia, the media’s obsession would have been slightly easier to understand, but Murdoch never achieved their exalted status. He only played three test matches, for heaven’s sake.

His main – indeed, only – claim to fame is that he threw a punch in a moment of anger and the team managers, under pressure from their snooty British hosts, decided they had to make an example of him. Then, for entirely understandable reasons, Murdoch decided he didn’t want to face the music at home.

Let’s have a reality check here. Murdoch didn’t kill the hotel security man or even leave him permanently maimed. His transgression looks almost laughably inoffensive compared with the predatory sexual exploits, drunken assaults and drug abuse that are now almost commonplace in some sporting codes. In terms of infamy, his behaviour pales into insignificance even alongside some of the on-field behaviour of more recent All Blacks.

Yet his story has assumed near-mythic proportions. Murdoch is portrayed as the enigmatic central figure in a real-life Shakespearean tragedy, when in reality he was probably just a shy sort of bloke – perhaps a bit ashamed and embarrassed too – who couldn’t cop the thought of facing a rugby-obsessed media back at home.

Maybe he thought he’d just lie low till the fuss died down and then re-enter the country unnoticed. Perhaps he then got a job in an Outback mining town where the money was a lot better than it was in Dunedin. Maybe he met someone. Who knows? But whatever happened, he hardly justifies the endless media attention.

The latest pretext for recycling the Murdoch story was that the Rugby Union was handing out commemorative caps to all living former All Blacks, and Murdoch was one of those eligible. I could envisage sports editors around the country crying as one: “Hey, let’s do another story about Murdoch.” Never mind that the story, which should never have been more than a nine-day wonder in the first place, is now so familiar it’s imprinted in our DNA.

Perhaps it’s a blokeish infatuation perpetuated by men of a certain age. Mercifully they’ll be nearing retirement now, so maybe we’ll get some relief from the Murdoch saga.

Periodically a New Zealand reporter makes a foray into the Australian desert to track Murdoch down. These quests have taken on something of the epic quality of Sir Henry Stanley’s search for the explorer David Livingstone in deepest, darkest Africa in the 19th century.

Some of these intrepid hacks have reported a brief sighting of the mystery man, much as one might recount an encounter with a yeti. Some even described a terse exchange of words. It all helps keep the legend alive.

It wouldn’t surprise me if we were told he was three metres tall, breathed flames and devoured live crocs for breakfast.

One high-profile rugby writer, seizing on the Rugby Union’s issue of the commemorative caps as an opportunity to recount a moment of glory, wrote a column in which he recalled having eyeballed Murdoch on the occasion of the former All Black’s appearance before a coroner’s inquiry into the death of a young Aborigine man at Tennant Creek in 2001. For a sports journalist, this was akin to touching the Holy Grail.

The rugby writer’s story was headlined “Time to leave Murdoch alone in peace”. It apparently didn’t occur to the journalist that the first step toward leaving Murdoch in peace would be to stop publishing his story over and over, ad nauseam.

The irony, of course, is that Murdoch himself could probably call a halt to the whole charade if he sat down and talked to a journalist. The spell might then be broken. Who knows, he might turn out to be a boring man with nothing interesting to say. But the fact that he has remained a determined recluse serves only to make him all the more fascinating. He is, in effect, the creator of his own myth.

You’d think, though, that we could find a more interesting person to elevate to folk-hero status. Even George Wilder, who of all living New Zealanders probably commands the most media curiosity after Murdoch (probably because, like Murdoch, he has resolutely shunned attention) has a stronger claim to a place in Kiwi folklore. At least Wilder’s spirited jailbreaking exploits were in keeping with the traditions of folk heroes who took on authority and defied the odds.

There’s surely an interesting thesis to be written about why a man like Murdoch should have become the centre of such a cult-like obsession. Perhaps it’s because he is seen as embodying the stoic, taciturn, man-alone quality that has been the theme of so much bleak New Zealand literature.

Whatever the explanation, it seems a damning indictment that we can’t find a more colourful and dynamic legend to celebrate.

Now the pasty-faced technology geeks have laser beams too

(First published in the Curmudgeon column, The Dominion Post, July 7.)

A LARGELY overlooked aspect of the digital technology revolution is that it has placed dangerous power in the hands of pasty-faced young men with bad skin, greasy hair and no friends.

In previous eras they were losers. They were the 90-pound weaklings who had sand kicked in their face at the beach and never got the girl (assuming they were interested in girls in the first place, which is a moot point).

Computers have been their salvation. Now they can sit in darkened rooms, surrounded by discarded fast-food packaging, and perpetrate mayhem just by tapping at their keyboards.

Hacking, spamming and phishing to their hearts’ content, these computer geeks can wreak enormous mischief without ever leaving their bedrooms. It’s a great way for socially inept nerds to get their own back on the world.

It’s safe, too. There’s no risk of getting shot, unlike those less intelligent dysfunctional young men who make the mistake of running amok with guns.

Now the technology geeks have added laser beams to their repertoire. Do they, I wonder, get some sort of sexual thrill from blinding aircraft pilots on their landing approaches, or does orgasm occur only if they actually bring the plane down? It would be interesting to know.

The only socially beneficial use I can think of for laser beams would involve shining them into the eyes of boy racers, but that’s too much to hope for.

* * *

IT WAS a big week for Maoridom. The $500 million Treelords settlement was finalised and the Government confirmed the proposed repeal of the Foreshore and Seabed Act. All of which raises a few questions:

■ Why do I get the feeling that the repeal of the F and S Act is driven not by principle or high-minded determination to resolve a legitimate grievance, but by pure political expediency: namely, the need for National to secure a long-term alliance with the Maori Party that will keep Labour out of office for the foreseeable future? (The taxpayer, of course, will pick up the tab.)

■ What faith can we have in the integrity of the process when it was carefully choreographed to the extent of appointing a “review panel” whose membership ensured the outcome was pretty much a foregone conclusion? Even Winston Peters gets some things right, and he’s right about this.

■ How much of the millions likely to be paid to Maori under the new foreshore and seabed arrangements will trickle down to dispossessed “urban” Maori? Or will the process be tightly controlled by the same tribal elites that have prospered from the big compensation deals of the past, thereby ensuring a large body of Maoridom remains out in the cold, potentially storing up further grievances for future governments to deal with? (This is a rhetorical question.)

■ When will we see Maori leaders shift their focus and energy from the pursuit of financial compensation for supposed historical grievances to the more urgent need for moral leadership of a people ravaged by crime, drugs, alcohol, violence and welfare dependency – or will that remain in the too-hard basket?

That’s a rhetorical question too.

* * *

THE FUSS over proposed national literacy and numeracy standards shows that teachers’ organisations still haven’t got over the quaint notion that the education system is all about them.

By petulantly threatening to withhold information about how schools perform under the proposed standards, the primary school principals’ organisation is placing the self-interest of teachers above the right of parents to exercise an informed choice about which school will best meet their children’s needs, and the right of the public at large to know whether schools are doing the job expected of them.

Teachers insist they are motivated only by concern for the quality of education and the need to ensure low-decile schools don’t suffer. In truth, they seem to have a deep-seated phobia about public scrutiny and accountability.

The very word “standards” is anathema to them because once standards are established, parents and the public have a means of making comparisons. And once comparisons can be made, parents will insist on the right to take their children out of poorly-performing schools and place them in better ones.

The fear-mongering teachers’ organisations insist that the publication of so-called “league tables” will create a winners-and-losers mentality and lead to non-performing schools closing as parents shift their kids elsewhere.

The corollary of this is that teachers think it’s okay for sub-standard schools to be protected by an official conspiracy of silence that prevents parents from finding out their children’s life prospects are being blighted by a lousy education.

* * *

AMID THE wave of righteous indignation that swept the country after French rugby player Mathieu Bastareaud was revealed to have invented his story about being attacked outside his Wellington hotel, it was possible to detect a large measure of relief as well. Because although the attack didn’t happen, everyone knows it very well could have.

New Zealand cities in the early hours of a Sunday morning are dangerous, violent places in which anyone walking alone is at risk. This explains why everyone – Kerry Prendergast and John Key included – was ready to believe Bastareaud’s story.

We got off the hook on this occasion because diligent police work revealed it was all a gigantic fib, but let’s not get up on our hind legs and protest that our international reputation as a safe country – a myth we desperately need to promote ahead of the 2011 Rugby World Cup – has been unfairly impugned.