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Brave whistleblower in Ministry of Education

Written By: - Date published: 1:54 pm, November 9th, 2010 - 73 comments
Categories: education, national - Tags: , , ,

Kelvin Smythe is a long standing educationalist and the driving force behind the Developmental Network Magazine. Kelvin still comments on educational matters (ht: ianmac), but the magazine has become a blog, Networkonnet. His latest entry is an interesting read:

Revolt in ministry

There has been a revolt in the ministry.

On Friday, a senior ministry official from the Auckland office refused, on moral grounds, to take instruction from Karen Sewell to organise ministry officials to ring schools about their declared stance on national standards. …

There were scenes of consternation in the Auckland office and, judging from the communications received from Karen Sewell, near panic in the Wellington one.

The Auckland office was supposed to swing into action with the first stages of the ‘Escalation Process when Schools are Not Implementing National Standards’. (A copy was obtained under the Official Information Act.) The first stage involves ringing up the principal and board of trustees in a manner deliberately intended to be threatening. The action of the senior ministry official meant the bureaucratic stand-over tactics were seriously delayed in Auckland. …

It is clear the brave senior ministry official is well informed as are most principals about the harm national standards (of any stripe) do to children. The literature from overseas is indisputable. …

That senior ministry official also knows the ‘Escalation’ process for what it is – bureaucratic bullying, and anti-New Zealand.

Shame on you Sewell and Chamberlain: all hail the senior ministry official. May your example further inspire us.

I’ll add my vote of thanks to the unnamed official who is not prepared to participate in this shameful campaign. It is bravely done. So much easier to keep your head down and “just follow orders”. But these orders are wrong. National standards are likely to damage children and they are being forced down our throats by a dangerously deluded government.

240 schools so far have said no, and now there is internal dissent in the Ministry.

Who’s next?

73 comments on “Brave whistleblower in Ministry of Education”

  1. grumpy 1

    Chalk up “1” for the new public service sinking lid policy.

    • Kaplan 1.1

      I think you meant

      chalk up 1 for the new public service “sinking lid” policy.

      Still a piece of rubbish really but moving the quotes makes the sentiment clearer.

  2. Hilary 2

    I feel sorry for the Ministry officials (including Karen Sewell and Mary Chamberlain) who are having to do the government’s bidding on this. I’m sure all of them know it is a seriously flawed policy but it’s the sort of ethical compromising public servants have to do these days.

    Are public servants there to serve the public or their ministers? At the moment it seems the ministers are demanding total allegiance and too bad if the public suffers (in this case little kids being told they are educational failures because they don’t learn in the prescribed standards method).

    • Swampy 2.1

      It is their job to do what they are employed to do. It is no different from your boss giving you instructions. Nothing to be sorry about. As Government employees it is clear who they serve.

  3. Fabregas4 3

    I don’t feel sorry for Sewell – she is on record as saying to Principals that if they philosophically oppose National Standards then they can always leave teaching – or Chamberlain who is also on record as saying that she believes in the Standards and as she is so close to retirement she wouldn’t stick around if she thought they were damaging to children.

    Both are in privileged positions that enable them to talk to the Minister about the flaws in this system, neither chose to do so and both sold their educational souls to protect themselves.

    When Tolley’s house of cards tumbles she will go looking for scapegoats – then I might pity them.

  4. Colonial Viper 4

    Sewell and Chamberlain are sell outs. And as more brave people come forwards to stand up against Tolley’s BS, it is going to be more and more clear that Sewell and Chamberlain are cowards willing to act as paid overseers against their own colleagues in education.

  5. Crumble 5

    I was told by Lester Flockton at a talk he gave about National Standards that when it was changed from the Department of Education to the Ministry of Educatuiion he was told “A Ministry is there to support the Minister”

    • grumpy 5.1

      Which is obviously correct. After all, the Minister has ultimate responsibility to the taxpayers.

      Or are you saying that the Ministry employees actually set government policy? That would not be acceptable to any government.

      • Crumble 5.1.1

        No, I’m not saying that. I saying that instead of promoting and supporting the education in the country they have to kowtow to the whims of a minister.

        • Bright Red

          and how seriously public servants take that duty is witnessed in the fact that this dumbarse government manages to get any of its dumb policies implemented at all

        • Swampy

          It is the role of the government to govern. We elect governments for this purpose.

      • Draco T Bastard 5.1.2

        The ministry is there to do the research that the minister then makes informed decisions upon. What’s happening in this NACT government is that the ministers are making ideological decisions and telling the ministries to implement it and to ignore the research.

        What this causes, of course, is bad government that trashes our country, our economy and our democracy.

      • Daveosaurus 5.1.3

        “the Minister has ultimate responsibility to the taxpayers.”

        And the boards of trustees have ultimate responsibility to the parents. As it’s the parents whose children’s education are at stake here, perhaps they should be listened to, for a change?

  6. Jim Nald 6

    The public service, or civil service, is staffed by public servants who are there to advise the Ministers of the Crown and to serve the people.
    Under this NACT Government, an element of their function to serve the public has been gradually eroded. We are now witnessing greater politicisation of the public service and we see more of the side of public servants where they are being turned into ministerial slaves.
    The NACTs just do not respect the appropriate roles of government and people should be rightly pissed off.

    • Swampy 6.1

      Rubbish. The role of the public service is to implement government policy. The government decides what the policy is. This is not “Yes Minister”.

      • lprent 6.1.1

        Teachers are not the “public service”. They are employees of their schools. Their schools get grants to provide a service to the public. They are rather like an organisation like Womans Refuge which has much the same grant-board-employee structure. About the only thing that makes them ‘civil servants’ is that through a very round about approach they are paid for by taxes.

        The particular type of public servant you are thinking of are known as the core public service. It is a quite small group of about 3000 (from vague recollection) who are covered by some quite specific laws and guidelines, including restrictions against criticizing government policy in public. Teachers are not in that group.

        Teachers are not employed to implement “public policy”. They are actually employed to implement the policy of the boards of trustees – usually specifically to teach children.

        I think that you’ve been watching too much TV (or staring into your navel far too much) because you’re getting more simplistic the more I read your comment streams.. You seem to think that everyone apart from yourself should be a slave. You seem to think of yourself as a slave owner?

  7. Anne 7

    The senior ministry official is indeed a very brave person. In due course, I look forward to hearing what ‘punishment’ is meted out to him for his subversive behaviour. As a former whistle blower (of sorts) from the 90s, I can imagine his present discomfort. I hope I’m wrong but if my own experience is an indication, fear of reprisal against them will ensure he doesn’t get a lot of support from his colleagues.

    • Colonial Viper 7.1

      Damn, people have forgotten the lessons of solidarity too quickly.

      These timid, indebted people. The capitalists really know what they are doing in hamstringing people huh.

    • Draco T Bastard 8.1

      Same link, easier to read format.

      • Garth 8.1.1


        • ianmac

          Fantastic thanks Garth. It is a lot easier and more convincing to argue from a behavioural belief. Thus if you standardise the steps and the testing with it, it follows that the learners will come out at the right level. Obvious they say, hence the National Standards.

          But to explain a constructivist way of learning where the learner learns at his own pace and by a variety of means and who is involved in setting and answering his own questions, and developing connectivity is much harder. Yet it is exactly the way that kids learn especially in the first five years. And should continue to do so.
          Kelvin Smythe is vocal and well informed though he thinks that Prof Hattie has sold out. Me too.

          • df

            My children’s school uses inquiry learning and choice theory as central to their teaching and learning philosophy. This is in line with the divergent approach mentioned in this video. Our school is also using NS in a positive way to reinforce the underpinning literacy and numeracy skills people need to participate in the community to their full potential. Looking good, in theory 🙂

            • Colonial Viper

              No, too cheery and unrealistic an outlook, which school are you referring to please. And what is your background in education, you obviously have involvement with the sector.

              df = david farrar fan?

              • df

                Ha ha, yes I chose my user name based on a blogger and have a t-shirt to boot plus his photo on my wall. No, they are my initials which just happen to be the same as a whole lot of other people.

                Sorry, I won’t name the school as I don’t think that is appropriate. My opinions are just that and you can take them at face value or otherwise. Completely up to you.

                I have been involved in education in a variety of capacities over a 20 year period both here and overseas.

  8. Fisiani 9

    National standards are like a thermometer. They give an indication. In them-self they are neither negative nor positive. They simply indicate educational progress or not.
    What scares unionised incompetent teachers is that national standards may make apparent to some parents that their children are ‘febrile’ and they will then demand treatment of their child’s illiteracy or numeracy deficits.
    Ignorance is NOT bliss. Sunlight is the best disinfectant.
    Those who have something to hide are in for a shock.

    • Colonial Viper 9.1

      National standards are like a thermometer.


      Those who have something to hide are in for a shock.

      Tolley’s attempt to control and divide schools by stealth has been found out and I think she is the one shocked now.

      What scares unionised incompetent teachers is that national standards may make apparent to some parents that their children are ‘febrile’

      Who is feeding you this fevered shite?

      One major problem with National Standards, and you have implied it in your post, is that it will is sucking up school resources but yet will do nothing to boost the academic performance of children even as it tries to enforce some kind of artificial conformity on children. And NS seems more primarily a scheme – as you have apparently accepted – to discredit and control teachers more than anything else.

    • D14 9.2

      Nice anaolgy. Fisi.
      BUT how do you measure the temperature? Buy a thermometer.

      What does the temperature mean. Do people agree what is meant by temperature.
      How do you make sure the temperature you record is the same by all measurers and all place.
      On the centigrade scale the 0 point is defined as the melting of water and the boiling point of water is 100, and then the scale is divided to 100 parts.

      But there is more – If the water is not pure there will be a variation in the mp and the bp. The other factor is the air pressure. So if the 100 point is made in Tibet the scale will be different.
      So the standard has to include the air pressure and purity of the water.
      That was achieved by agreement of the community of scientists quite a long time ago.

      So the temperature that you record on the thermometer has to be valid – measure what you think it is measuring by agreement.
      It has to be reliable- Repeated measurement have to be the same.
      And the results to be consistent between measurers has to be moderated, so they are recording the the same thing.
      Temperature is relatively easy.

      Now where can I buy my National Standards ‘thermometer’ that is valid, reliable and properly moderated.

    • ianmac 9.3

      I do know that you are just a stirrer Fisini but you do know that the existing tests are used in order to put against the National Standards? Therefore it is already known where a child fits in. For example a PAT says that a child is at the 54% in Reading. PAT has been around since 1987. Take that score and fit it against NS. Catch is that the NS are so wooly they might be taken to mean anything. It shows Fisiani of course that you don’t know or have no intention of knowing.

      • Roflcopter 9.3.1

        The NS isn’t “wooly”.

        The standard clearly defines what a child should be able to achieve at their age in reading, writing and maths. They’re either at that level, below, or above it.

        • Colonial Viper

          National’s standardisation for standardised production line cookie cutout kids. It will allow each child to be Quality Control stamped with a “passed” or a “failed” stamp, year after year after year.

          It a perfect system for the command and control Rightwing.

          Tolley’s poor judgement is now legendary. Her time is drawing to a close.

          • Roflcopter

            Where does it say “passed” or “failed”? Below the average isn’t a fail, and the reporting by the teacher gives clear guidelines on actions that can be taken to raise their level.

            • Fabregas4

              It’s not below an average but whether a child has reached “an aspirational goal’. If you don’t reach it – you have failed – the words are ‘below the Standard”. The capacity to identify groups or individuals who may have been miles below but are subsequently just below is not built into this system. Neither is there any capacity for identifying those way above the Standard. They are one of three categories- that is all.

            • Colonial Viper

              OK, not ‘Failed’ then, ‘Below the Standard’ as Fabre said.

              Which pretty much = ‘Failure’ (or if you prefer, ‘Below the Standard needed to be considered a Pass’)

          • df

            I doubt very much that teachers will take such an approach to communicating with students. Literacy and numeracy are just part of a broad set of skills which teachers develop in students and therefore wouldn’t you agree it would be quite damaging for a teacher to use language such as “pass” or “fail”? All individuals have differing strengths and weaknesses at different times in their development so shouldn’t the language be about progress towards something? My son for instance is not particularly strong in his computer studies and is in the lower half of the class, we know this, he knows this, so he is working a bit harder in that area because we all know these skills are necessary – he is only 11 so he hasn’t “failed” at anything, however he is progressing toward some point. Yes, for sure, at some stage his teacher will make a judgement and at that time we would be looking at whether or not more work is required or or perhaps a different approach might be needed.

            • Colonial Viper

              So…did National Standards help you identify that your son has weaknesses in computer studies?

              Because your description of how teachers should approach individual pupils and how they can resolve to make additional efforts, happens perfectly *without* the complication and cost of NS.

              • df

                That’s a good point…actually since our school decided to work with NS it has sharpened communication with parents across the board so, yes, I think it is reasonable to say that the introduction of NS did help, albeit indirectly, identify the low PC literacy level. A slight culture shift perhaps.

                I don’t know about other schools but I do know that prior to this year we were not given very clear feedback, next steps, or “how to” so I wouldn’t describe it as previously happening perfectly. This is our 4th year with this school (2 kids there) and the parent / teacher evenings and reporting seem to have become more focused on what that our kids need to work on. It is almost like it is now OK to talk about our kids weaknesses and what we can all do to support them (not teachers alone) which is a breath of fresh air. Easy to identify a problem…often more difficult to find a solution, right?

                Personally I don’t really care where my kids are versus other kids but I do want to know if they are on track to achieving at a level which will give them a good foundation to build on in the future. So far NS appears to have enabled this, early days but a fair start I’d say.

                • Colonial Viper

                  But what unique new educational capabilities has NS introduced?

                  The school talked to you more? Or “sharpened” as you put it, whatever that means? Thats it? They could have done that for free.

                  Personally I don’t really care where my kids are versus other kids

                  Then NS is a particularly wasteful use of teacher time and resources.

                  • df

                    When I said sharpened I meant that the information and conversations had become more focused on what my kids can and cannot do and what the next steps should be.

                    You are right, they could have done this for free but they didn’t – at least in my case they didn’t. It is still early days, I think we need to consider the long game on this one. My hope is that over time people become more aware of the type of literacy and numeracy skills needed to provide a good foundation for their futures and, most importantly, what we (collective “we” not just teachers) can do to ensure as many people as possible have those skills.

                    I don’t think that my personal view qualifies as evidence of whether the spending on NS is wasteful or not. The jury will be out on that one for some time I suspect.

        • Fabregas4

          They are woolly alright because they hinge on a concept called Overall Teacher Judgement which will vary from classroom to classroom to some degree. This doesn’t matter too much until the assessment becomes high stakes – i.e. a child or school is rated on it. Then it is a real problem because decisions will be made based on dodgy data (don’t think for one moment that this is related to teachers trying to protect themselves from criticism or review – it is not, though review based on this form of data is also problematic).

          Try to think about it this way – you get a piece of children’s writing and you try to level it based on about 15 criteria including: the message, words used, personal voice, spelling, paragraphing, structure, use of simile and metaphor, it’s opening and ending- everyone weighs these items differently and comes up with slightly (or sometimes major) differences in ‘best fit’. One will say below standard, another at standard, another above based on their view. Do this across the country and lump the data together and you can see (even you doubters I bet) that the data is fundamentally flawed.

          Better to have real in school Professional Development that lifts teachers ability to teach than to assess, approximately level kids, and do nothing. But (big sigh) this is all being cut and from 2011 Team Solutions who provide much of teacher Professional Development will, so I understand be cast adrift.

          Anyone who is anyone in education knows this stuff, and that National’s Standards simply won’t do anything that Tolley has said they would. What a laugh that the latest attack is that teachers, principals and Boards are opposed to NS on ideological grounds – the whole dam mess is on ideological grounds – the government put the children last and our world leading education system would, short of the brave and principled stand by BOT’s be at risk.

          By the way my school, so I am informed, won’t get PD funding next year because our achievement levels are too high – I for the life of me can’t understand how someone somewhere in the system can know this but not know school’s who need extra help – without the need for National’s Standards!

          Just utter rubbish from a rubbish Minister and a rubbish government.

          • Roflcopter

            The overall teacher judgement is based on existing testing regimes and the determination of not just 1 teacher, but a peer review process as well.

            It cannot be fudged, because the underlying existing testing supports the judgement. You can’t say a child is above average if existing testing clearly shows they are not, and vice versa.

            • Fabregas4

              You know little about assessment Rolf. It is not a moment in time or a single assessment it is a series of assessments and observations taken over a length of time. Moderation has been off the National Standards agenda for some time (since Mrs Tolley was embarrassed in the house about it)

          • ianmac

            ….our achievement levels are too high – I for the life of me can’t understand how someone somewhere in the system can know this but not know school’s who need extra help – without the need for National’s Standards!
            Exactly Fabregas4 ! And how come they know that there are 20% underachieving already long before National Standards were conceived? (I do not think there are 20% in the underachieving group anyway. Nearer 7% depending where you draw the line.)

    • Swampy 9.4

      Correct. Schools assess their performance using data that up until now they have not had to report to the ministry.

  9. ianmac 10

    df: Personally I don’t really care where my kids are versus other kids but I do want to know if they are on track to achieving at a level which will give them a good foundation to build on in the future. So far NS appears to have enabled this, early days but a fair start I’d say.
    Well said df. You have nailed what really matters.
    What can my kid do now?
    What progress has he made?
    Is there anything I can do to help?
    National Standards do not make this difference. Normal testing and observation does.
    It is irrelevant how he ranks with the other kids.
    Sometimes it is not in the interest of the child to be too specific with some parents especially the ones who are competing with the parents of other kids. These kids are sometimes so anxious about performing to parental expectations that it can seriously inhibit their learning. Ironic really.

    • Colonial Viper 10.1

      I rather believe df is running the story of how very user friendly he has found National Standards personally, applied to one classroom, although the relevance of that experience to a nation wide programme is questionable.

      In theory you shouldn’t have to explain any of this to df, further up the thread he has already said he is highly experienced in the education sector in various roles.

      • df 10.1.1

        Absolutely Viper, I am sharing one person’s view of a very narrow (and early) experience so there is no way anyone could say it is reflective of the situation elsewhere. So much of the NS debate seems to be based on assumptions (kids will be damaged, teachers will be distracted from core tasks, curriculum will be narrowed, league tables will surface, teachers will be blamed, govt won’t provide funds etc etc) when we really just don’t know.

        Ianmac – yep, it is important that kids not be made too anxious about their learning – students need to be encouraged and motivated and I believe teachers are (or should be) capable of achieving this.

        • Colonial Viper

          So much of the NS debate seems to be based on assumptions (kids will be damaged, teachers will be distracted from core tasks, curriculum will be narrowed, league tables will surface, teachers will be blamed, govt won’t provide funds etc etc) when we really just don’t know.

          Well, down to the truth at last. Its good to have your conclusions as an experienced education sector professional that National Standards is a mass nationwide experiment.

          • df

            I think describing NS as a mass nationwide experiment is bit ott Viper. Would make a good tabloid headline though. This is my first time posting here so I am not sure of the lay of the land. Is this your blog?

            • Colonial Viper

              “…when we really just don’t know.”

              A mass experiment conducted on the education of young NZ children. You are the experienced education professional, and this is your conclusion. Thanks again for your input.

              • df

                Gee Viper you are desperate. Way to dumb down and hijack an important discussion. Good luck in your quest although I am not sure what your objectives are.

                • Swampy

                  All the NS are doing is requiring schools to report their data to the Ministry when they didn’t before. It is not materially different from the way in which assessment is already carried out in schools.

                  • Colonial Viper

                    Meh, more Rightie falsehoods. It would be SUPRE LAME if Tolley was spending so many hours fighting so hard for a central plank of her portfolio, and launching threats in all directions if indeed

                    It is not materially different from the way in which assessment is already carried out in schools

                    Did I mention National Stds would be even more lame?

  10. Garth 11

    A couple of actual facts:
    The average kid is average. Half of all kids are better learners than average, half are worse.
    Likewise the average teacher is average, with half being better than average, and half worse.
    Nothing whatever we do about raising the standards of teaching or testing the kids will ever change these facts – they are mathematically proven.
    A probable fact: NZ has one of the best performing education systems in the world.
    Question: Why don’t we ask the people who currently deliver one of the best performing education systems in the world how they would continue to improve it?
    Probable answer: Because we don’t want to (or can’t) provide what they’ll recommend – more professional development, less bureaucratic bullshit, more resources.

    • Colonial Viper 11.1

      Half of all kids are better learners than *the median*, half are worse.

      sorry stats Nazi here. But spot on 😀

      • ianmac 11.1.1

        So therefore up to half will always be “below the Standard”. What a waste of time that will be since the median must stay regardless of the level of the bar.

        When my kids were younger the school they went to had a report booklet with a double page for each year.
        Column one Achievement in each subject 1 – 5 with 5 being in the bottom 5%, 1 being top 5%.
        Column two Effort in each subject A – D
        Places for teacher comments.
        Simple. Easy to follow year on year. Just like NS? Catch was that the means of defining each score was very uncertain way back then. And teachers felt compelled to not lower the scores from previous years. And it did not help the kids who were 4s or 5s.

      • billy fish 11.1.2

        “sorry stats Nazi here. But spot on”

        Oooohhh can I invoke Godwins?

    • Swampy 11.2

      How about less grandstanding and politicisation by the teachers unions

      Bring in bulk funding and performance pay.

  11. grumpy 12

    Back to the original post, I don’t think this guy actually qualifies as a “whistle blower” and certainly not “brave” as we don’t know their name.

    Either this is a beat up, or just some employee embarking on a career limiting exercise by not following a direction from his/her employer because of some personal political viewpoint.

  12. Tiger Mountain 13

    Good thinking 99 (aka Grump), the old reduce everything to an abstraction trick. It is truly appalling though the Chamberlain “following orders” schtick.

  13. Swampy 14

    Kelvin Smythe is a hard left extremist who left the education system he was employed in more than 20 years ago so that he could become a critic of it. How credible is that.

    • Colonial Viper 14.1

      Hard left = cares about children’s futures as citizens and members of civil society, as opposed to treating them as low cost value adding labour units for capitalist enterprises.

      Seems ok to me.

      • Swampy 14.1.1

        No it means politics matters more. It means he opposed tomorrow’s schools. Opposed by the hard core in the education unions because they don’t like being accountable to elected boards and especially not parent communities.

  14. Garth 15

    Teachers are not government employees – Boards of Trustees are the employers of record for all teaching and non-teaching staff.
    That said, Boards must work within a set of laws and regulations, and Boards have no real role in negotiating teachers’ salaries and most of the terms of their employment.
    This is a carefully-designed structure to allow government to maintain a great deal of control over schools, but at the same time to be able to stand behind Boards of Trustees when it suits them.
    No different in principle to how District Health Boards are set up.

  15. Swampy 16

    The magazine has become a blog. I guess no one wanted to buy the magazine any more.

    • lprent 16.1

      It is a *lot* cheaper to publish on the net. Gets rid of all of those printing and distribution costs. You charge for the login, or like here don’t bother to charge at all.

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