Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Bullying, a Broader Issue.

The angst that develops from school bullying tends to put the focus heavily on individual schools, school principals and classroom teachers. The Government's answer is to send a stern letter to school boards and to ignore the real causes of bullying behaviour. A strongly worded letter will only support the idea that schools are responsible for solving the ills of society and everyone else can get on with life as usual.What we really need to do is have a close look at our  society and recognize that the general environment that our aggressive children come from is the real cause of the problem.

So what are the contributors to the bulling behaviours, that a significant group of children are displaying, and where is the evidence?

I would suggest that the first area to look at is parenting, not to shift the blame fully onto parents but to look at how our society supports good parenting. It is widely recognized that at least 25% of our children experience poverty, the homes many children come from are struggling on low incomes or having a single parent managing a family alone. New Zealand is also ranked near the bottom of the OECD regarding our record for child health and safety. The stress of supporting a family on low incomes is a growing issue with many parents working long hours on minimum wages and dealing with the stress involved in getting food on the table. Parents who feel powerless, tired and stressed tend not to manage their relationships well and often take out their frustration and anger on their children, a lack of basic parenting skills can exacerbate the problem. The fact that successive governments have not recognized the value of stay at home parents must also contribute to this the breakdown of the parent/child relationship. Despite the evidence that few parents remain on the DPB for longer than a year there is pressure to get parents back to work as soon as possible, stay at home parents are viewed as lazy bludgers by many.

The next area that needs our attention is our provision of early childhood education. If parents are being forced to work then increasing numbers of children will be placed in centres with varying quality levels. Labour increased funding considerably in this area and growing numbers of centres and kindergartens were being staffed with qualified teachers, however we still fund this sector at much lower level than the OECD average (0.6% of GDP compared to the average of 1%). Considering there is general acceptance that the early years have a substantial influence on shaping the future adult this sector is hugely under-resourced. Kohanga reo used to do a wonderful job with our young maori children but this national institution has recently suffered from a lack of properly trained and supported teachers and inconsistent funding management.

The school environment still has an important role to play and many schools could probably improve their management of bullying children, however there are some important factors that schools struggle with. As classroom teacher who has had responsibility for mainstreamed children with high needs I have found a number of barriers to the effective management of extreme behaviours. While many teacher aids do a brilliant job it is hard to attract the best people for these roles when pay and conditions are currently at minimum levels. School support staff lack job security, are paid little over the minimum wage and regularly put up with physical and verbal attacks from the children they support. If I don't have a competent teacher aid to support me in a class they can almost create more work and can  make things worse for the child. Class size is also an issue, there is no recognition that a high needs child demands extra teacher time and this has to be taken from the time available to support the rest of the class. It is not unusual for a teacher to have several high needs children in a class of over 30. I have also found small schools can really struggle with extreme behaviours and have found myself having to keep and manage a child, who is displaying violent behaviour, in the classroom because there is no staff member available to provide support or supervise the child elsewhere. It is a real dilemma for many teachers who have real sympathy for their high needs children (who often come from the most appalling circumstances) yet struggle to meet the needs of the others in the class who also deserve their time.

Children tend to model their behaviour on the adults around them and New Zealand has unacceptable levels of workplace bullying. Interestingly it appears that high levels of bullying can be found within the health and education professions and it could hardly be said that our parliament and government are bully free environments either. The late Andrea Needham wrote the book pictured above this post and, with a background in private sector management, she expressed concern that our bullying culture is costing our country large amounts of money as businesses and public institutions lose competent people and efficient management is compromised.  It is very hard for adults who are bullied to get realistic support and the most common outcome is for the bullied individual to resign their position and the bully to continue their behaviour. If the very institutions that are charged with the care and management of bullying children can't provide good role models themselves it should cause some concern.

So yes,  John Key and Anne Tolley, you can send your strongly worded letter but it won't make one jot of a difference unless you address the broader issues!

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Cut, Slash, Sell up and Borrow?

I readily accept that, in their initial responses to the Christchurch earthquakes, this government has  provided useful financial assistance for those in need, however this flow of funds will shortly dry up. As we all should know Neo-Liberal Economics is advanced through crisis, whether it be real or created, and this National Government has reached the end of its benevolent tether. The opportunity to advance their real agenda is too tempting to miss and now we have been told that the only ways to manage the rebuild of our second largest city and the general slump in our economy is through cutting, slashing, selling up and borrowing.

Russel Norman and the Green Party advanced the idea of a one off levy that would come out of incomes over $48,000, but this was vigorously rejected by Finance Minister, Bill English. His claim that levies incurred at this time would damage any economic upturn just doesn't make sense, yet his own solutions will cost us dearly over time. It is obvious that those who have benefitted most from earlier tax cuts will not be expected to return some of their windfall in our time of need, it is those at the bottom end of our economic spectrum who will again have to pay.

The anger and frustration that I feel through this blatant distortion of economic reality to create a picture of financial prudency is almost unbearable, especially when I think of the ongoing pandering to the already wealthy. As usual it was the generosity and caring of ordinary New Zealanders who rushed in to provide essential support for the people of Christchurch. Many who had little money gave what they could and others who had no money to spare, like tertiary students, turned up in thousands to provide physical support. I am aware of the occasional act of generosity from our financially privileged but research generally supports the fact that those who have less give proportionally the most and this is especially true of women in New Zealand who often fill supporting or charitable roles while on minimal incomes:

Soon after this year's major earthquake the Prime Minister approached his corporate mates for support and what resulted from this meeting appeared underwhelming. Fonterra provided a few water tankers but I didn't see supplies of free dairy products being trucked in, for example (I am happy to be corrected). One US survey found that those on the lowest wages gave 4.9 % of their incomes to charity while the rich gave considerably less. 4.9% of  the Fonterra CEOs salary would be almost $250,000 and I'm pretty sure that this would make less difference to his lifestyle than a smaller sum provided by a less affluent donor (in fact Andrew Ferrier received a whopping 41% increase income this year so a 4.9% cut would barely register). Another who wouldn't notice a great deal of difference from a 4.9 % levy would be Karen Sewell, chief executive of the Ministry of Education, who got a 6.25% increase in her salary (despite the fact that a recent review of government ministries thought that her ministry was one of the worst performers). The levy would reduce her increase to a similar percentage to that which poorly paid school support staff received, at one shocking point it was suggested that to save money in Christchurch schools they could just sack their teacher aids.

A percentage levy on our incomes makes sense on so many levels. Cutting services, slashing benefits, selling state assets and borrowing more will only hurt those who have already given the most, the burden of recovery should be shared equally!

Monday, March 28, 2011

Essential Reads for Green Activists?

My list below has already been widely distributed for comment and debate. It would be good to have an ongoing discussion about which books should be essential reading as Green activists and I would be grateful for your thoughts on this blog. 

I have just received in the mail some copies of James Hansen's "Storms of My Grandchildren" in preparation for his presentation in Gore on May 19. I am anticipating this book will become part of my top ten.


“I can’t read all the books in the world so it’s a good thing that not all books are worth reading” (Ashleigh Brilliant)
I think this is a useful quote because as busy people we want to ensure our precious reading time is used effectively and that we do get around to reading the really useful ones. I want to share the books that have had the most influence on my thinking and world view, and I hope others feel able to share their “must reads” too.

1. “The Shock Doctrine” Naomi Klein (2007)
A well researched and clearly written account of how the neo-liberal financial philosophy has dominated our world. The great thing is that despite the revelations and horror of the content there is hope at the end.

2. “Stuffed and Starved” Raj Patel (2007)
Raj does for food what Naomi did for economics; it is subtitled “Markets, Power and the Hidden Battle for the World’s Food System”. This is highly readable and gets to the heart of the dominance of the US food industry and the shocking exploitation of people, science and resources by Monsanto and others.

3. “The Spirit Level” Wilkinson & Picket (2009)
A later edition rebuts critics but this gives a well-researched account of the far reaching effects of unequal societies. This book was the key resource for the Greens campaign against inequality in New Zealand.

4. “Prosperity without Growth” Tim Jackson (2009)
This is also subtitled “Economics for a Finite Planet” and was an important resource for shaping the Green New Deal.

5. “The Hollow Men” Nicky Hager (2006)
Nicky is our foremost NZ investigative journalist for those who like transparency in our Government and Industry. While this is really an historical account of the 2005 election the main players are now in power, it is important we understand how they tick!

6. “Secrets and lies” Nicky Hager (1999)
This is subtitled “The Anatomy of an Anti-Environmental Campaign” and if you want to understand the main players in the Bluegreens, this is where they come from. Industry tactics have changed little when public protests get in the way of exploiting a natural resource.”

7. “An Illustrated History of the Treaty of Waitangi” Claudia Orange (2004)
Claudia is our foremost authority on the history of our treaty and this illustrated account gives a good overview of the ongoing injustices with the pictures adding detail beyond the words. This is a must to get your head around our treaty obligations and gives an idea of what may be needed for a true partnership in the future.

8. “The Power of Mothers” Celia Lashlie (2010)
As a past prison warden, Celia has worked closely with those men and women who struggle at the bottom of our society. She has a social conscience that is grounded in reality and an insight and pragmatism that we should all take note of. This book exposes the shocking failings of our welfare system and explains in narrative form both how our worst criminals are created and who has the power to make a real difference.

9. “Man for all Seasons, the Life and Times of Ken Douglas” David Grant (2010)
Not only is this a biography about one of the most remarkable men in our recent history, but it is an accessible history of industrial relations in New Zealand. It explains the rise and fall of the union movement and why a different approach is necessary to bring balance back to the employer/employee relationship.

10. “The Green Peace New Zealand Story” Michael Szabo (1991)
This history of the first 20 years of Green Peace activism in NZ provides a useful background to the ongoing environmental concerns of our pacific neighbours and Antarctica. It also describes our remarkable stand against world powers in establishing our nuclear free status.

Choosing my top ten was quite difficult as I am aware that while I have covered a range of fields I haven’t directly covered all areas, women’s rights or LBGT issues for example. Marilyn Waring’s “Counting for Nothing: What Men Value and What Women are Worth”, originally published in 1988, is still very relevant and Chris Brickell’s “Mates & lovers: a history of gay New Zealand” (2008) provides a useful history.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Real Men Have Big Gardens

For the last three years my sister, Robyn Guyton, has roped me into running a workshop on Autumn planting at the Riverton Harvest Festival she organises with her husband, Robert. I wish I had taken photographs of the festival itself as there were numerous colourful displays of nature's bounty and useful workshops on preserving and processing home grown food. I have had to make do with a picture of a recent tomato harvest from my small greenhouse and earlier photo of my own garden.

The quarter acre with the vege garden at the back was once accepted as normal, but greater work pressures, less time and the convenience of supermarkets saw sections being subdivided and patios, barbecues  and landscaped garden "rooms" taking precedence.  The vege garden has all but disappeared from most homes now, however, after three years the festival has become a well supported local event with growing numbers of people embracing the joy of growing their own food.

I liked the poster I saw at the festival stating, "Real Men Have Big Gardens", wouldn't it be great if this replaced sporting prowess, car ownership or beer drinking as an accepted status determiner for New Zealand males. "He's got a big one" will take on a whole new meaning...

Credibility is everything.

I have heard many people voice the opinion that National will win the next election, not because they have been a particularly successful government but because Labour has not defined themselves as a credible alternative. Goff has not managed to counteract the relaxed amiability of John Key and Labour has had to re-establish itself as a party of the left after three terms of supporting the many flawed financial and regulatory systems that led to our current economic crisis.

National has no master plan for taking New Zealand confidently into the future other than letting market forces rule. With the current increases in the cost of fuel and the looming crisis in oil supply, Gareth Hughes asked the Minister of Finance to explain the Government's plan to manage this important issue. Bill English's reply was to the effect that they didn't need a plan, market forces will dictate.

National has clearly stated where their interests really lie, it is not with those struggling on low incomes or without jobs, it is not about protecting our natural resources for future generations it is about protecting the income stream for the already rich. It is the affluent of our society who have benefited from weakened employment law, huge tax cuts and the millions invested in private schools.

Only one party has been thoroughly consistent around its policies and messages over the years and that is the Green Party. The Greens have the only pragmatic and realistic economic policy, it is the Greens who have provided the most consistent advocacy for struggling workers and families and the Greens who have put up the most robust defense for keeping our strategic assets and resources under New Zealand ownership. The Greens credibility needs no defense and the Greens record of legislative change and budget gains, while never actually being in Government, displays an effectiveness that goes well beyond the few MPs that have been operating in parliament. With the Hone's defection and the Maori Party's total assimilation into the National machine, the Greens are now the only real parliamentary voice for Maori as well.

Labour will struggle in this next election, it will take some years to fully change its spots and become trusted again, the Maori Party has lost its mana and so it is the Green Party who will need to fill the void and ensure that the current government ends its tenure in November.  Credibility is everything.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Mono-culture education threatens our future.

It is interesting being both an educator and a parent as you begin to see education from both a delivery and consumer's perspective. My children are now both in their senior high school years, experiencing NCEA and the extra-curricular opportunities open to them.

Earlier this week I watched my son performing as Macbeth in a 15 min adaption of the famous play as part of a local secondary school Shakespearian festival and he is currently in Dunedin representing his school in a two day debating competition. My daughter has been spending time, after school, coaching a junior school aerobics team and she is spending today as part of "Stage Challenge", a secondary school dance and performance competition that she has been involved with for the past three years. Obviously I am exceedingly proud of my son and daughter's achievements (well beyond what I achieved at the same age) but I am also extremely grateful for the time, goodwill and passion shown by the teaching staff from their respective schools who have made this possible.

The current government would have us believe that education is only worth supporting if there is a direct economic benefit from what is being taught and at a primary level this has been determined as Literacy and Numeracy. All advisors for curricula outside these two areas have been sacked and at university level the Arts and Classics have been restricted financially and questioned as legitimate courses of study. From my own experience it is precisely these creative areas that we really need to foster if we are to have people with the skills to face the challenges ahead.

My children have gained equally as much, if not more, from their interests and extra-curricular involvement. It is through these activities that they have developed their skills of critical and creative thinking, performing under pressure, co-operating as a team for a shared goal and gaining useful confidence in their own abilities. Such activities create a purpose and a context for learning new skills and the satisfaction from a successful performance or completed project goes well beyond a pass mark in a Mathematics exam.

Under the current education ministers and political regime I fear that the creative edge that New Zealand has relied on for years could be lost when huge numbers of report writers and number crunchers dominate our working culture. We really need a change of government before (like our threatened wetland areas) we are left with a stagnant economy because of the factory mentality of those who lead our education system. Mono-culture farming lessens our economic resilience and so does mono-culture education.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Power Shift Down South

Our local body elections have been and gone and what a dramatic change we have in our councils. Different people are now sitting in the seats of power and different ways of thinking are being stirred into the stagnant mix we had before.

Environment Southland has, in Ali Timms, a Chair who actually speaks out in favour of the environment instead of as a mouthpiece for Federated Farmers and the Invercargill City Council has members who set personal goals that seem to be borrowed direct from Transition Towns.

We in the South do have some testing challenges ahead with the proposed lignite mining and the impending putrification of the Waituna Lagoon, but now we have some real champions for environmental common sense in places where they can really make a difference. We have hope.