Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Eric Roy Lives on a Different Planet to Mine!

Eric enthusiastically supporting Bill's economic management

Invercargill's National MP, Eric Roy, wrote a glowing opinion piece about his government's zero budget in today's Southland Times, ending with:

"...we are able to continue to deliver improvements in health, education, welfare, and other core public services to ensure we are building a more productive, better skilled society with more opportunities for all Kiwis.

National is delivering on policies clearly set out during the 2011 general Election - the next steps in our programme are for a more productive and competitive economy, more jobs, and higher incomes."

My letter in reply:

Dear Sir

It is concerning that MP, Eric Roy, is singing the praises of his Government’s “Zero Budget” when the overall state of our country is in serious decline.

The World Wildlife Fund’s comprehensive report on the state of New Zealand’s environment and biodiversity paints a depressing picture of environmental degradation. Our rivers and lakes continue to have high levels of pollution, around half of our native species are under threat and our carbon emissions continue to increase. Rather than being clean and green our environmental record is now one of the worst in the OECD.

Numerous reports have shown we have a poverty crisis and a housing shortage. Around 25% of our children live in poverty and most of them live in substandard housing with poor insulation. Our levels of homelessness are increasing, even outside of Christchurch, and yet the numbers involved in the construction industry are in decline.

Education is one of the few sectors which continues to perform amongst the top in the OECD and yet the Government is making a determined effort to dismantle what has made it a success.

The Government has refused to increase funding to the Green’s successful home insulation scheme, despite a report demonstrating a high return on the investment. Instead we have a continuation of the tax cuts to the wealthy (which costs us almost $1 billion a year in lost revenue) and the government sticks with its $12 billion worth of motorway construction that has been proven to be largely unnecessary.

Not  really a lot to crow about, Mr Roy.

And I didn't even mention the asset sales....

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Coal Action Murihiku Visible in Gore!

Thirty years ago there was an awareness and interest in the extensive lignite deposits in the Mataura Valley and the possibility of mining it. Artist Wallace Keown, well known for his atmospheric landscapes and thought provoking abstract paintings, was so incensed at the possibility of losing the wonderful farmland to opencast lignite mines that he created a painting as a visual representation of his concerns. Wallace explained to those who attended the opening of his exhibition that, at the time he painted the picture, movie theatres promoted their movies with colorful posters at their main entrance. He had the idea of showing how the Mataura Valley had changed through human intervention with overlaid poster images as if representing past, present and future movies.  The mining never eventuated, because even in those days it was recognized that lignite was a poor alternative to other energy sources, Wallace put the painting aside and it was forgotten.

Thirty years later Wallace had a retrospective exhibition in Gore's ArtSouth Gallery and the mining painting re-emerged as he sorted through his older works. The renewed interest in the lignite and the extensive plans of Solid Energy made the work very relevant again so he included it in his exhibition. The painting caught the eye of John Purey-Cust, a retired forester and Coal Action Murihiku member, who saw the painting's potential to support the campaign against the lignite mining and he promptly bought it.

Wallace's painting now appears in three large poster that will provide daily reminders of what Solid Energy is planning to do and what we stand to lose to anyone passing through the centre of Gore. While it is wonderful to have the use of Wallace's painting it is also sad that we still need to, thirty years later. It is also depressing that ten years after the painting was completed the New Zealand Government attended the Earth Summit in Rio and committed to reducing our climate emissions, however, in the twenty years since our emissions have actually increased and mining the lignite will considerably add to our worsening position.
 Alan up a ladder

 Alan, John and Zella

 Alan and Chris with local media 

 The final result, read and think!

Solid Energy's lignite briquette factory nearing completion, as seen on our journey back to Invercargill.

Monday, May 28, 2012

Head in Sand over WWF Report!

The World Wild Fund's report on New Zealand's environmental record since the 1992 "Earth Summit" in Rio paints a bleak picture. There has been little to no progress made in all the areas covered and a general deterioration has occurred instead.

I have written a summary of the report and included my own perspectives:


The New Zealand Government committed to "Stabilization of greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system". Since 1992 our emissions have steadily increased across the three key areas of agriculture, industry and transport.

For a country of low population and numerous possibilities for renewable energy, the government has a bizarre fixation with fossil fuels. The worst of all of these is lignite and Solid Energy's plans to utilize the lignite in Southland to produce urea and diesel will potentially increase our emissions by around 20%. Too much of our industry is powered by coal, with many businesses finding it a cheaper energy source than electricity and Fonterra's largest dairy factory in Edendale even uses lignite.

Agriculture produces our highest emissions of greenhouse gases and the rapid increase in intensification, especially in dairying, has not helped. Continually delaying the inclusion of farming in the ETS has not provided a strong incentive for the industry to make useful changes or invest heavily in research.

The Rio commitment to "Implement transport strategies for sustainable as to improve the affordability, efficiency and convenience of transportation..." seems to have been forgotten with the government's $12 billion commitment to building motorways rather than properly supporting the growing demand for public transport and improving our rail systems. Transport emissions have steadily increased since 1992 and encouraging the use of cars and trucks will not reverse this.


The decline in the quality of our water has received more attention as the effects are more obvious. The intensification of farming and increasing levels of irrigation to support it has revealed stresses on what many thought was an abundant resource. Southland has recognized the water crisis more than many provinces, with the Southland Times identifying water quality as the most important issue during the 2011 election. Around 80% of Southland rivers are significantly polluted, an internationally regarded wetland is about to flip, water resources are fully committed in some areas for irrigation and water shortages are now common during Summer months. Environment Southland are struggling to use the Governments new water rules which have no sense of urgency to deal with the enormity of the problem.


New Zealand also agreed to "Reorient education towards sustainable development, increase public awareness and promote training". One of the first initiatives when the National Party became government was to wipe funding for Enviroschools a hugely successful programme that was being widely supported by many schools. Although some funding has been restored in the latest budget, this is obviously not a high priority.

Sustainability is also an important part of our New Zealand Curriculum but the introduction of National Standards, and the heavy focus on literacy and numeracy,  has seen a decline in the teaching of science and technology where sustainability would be naturally taught. With the sacking of all science and education for sustainability advisors, the professional support for the teaching of sustainability has been effectively removed.

The new strategy for Tertiary Education has no environmental priorities and the government has abandoned the existing programme of action for sustainability.


Current rates of species extinction is said to be at a level of 1,000 to 10,000 times greater than they would naturally be because of human interventions and the loss of biodiversity is a global crisis. New Zealand used 10 indicator species to assess our own biodiversity status and seven of these were already threatened. At this point 6 of the seven threatened species are in a worse position than they were, with an average 42%  decline in numbers.

The government has cut funding to our border security which threatens not only our indigenous species from exotic invasion but our agriculture industries as well.

The loss of habitat through agricultural intensification is a major issue for our aquatic species with a lowering of water quality and increased irrigation. Native freshwater fish such as trout and eel are declining in numbers and many are verging on extinction.

The severe cuts to DoCs budget and their staffing has compromised their ability to manage and protect our large conservation estate and rather than focus on protecting our native species the government has introduced commercial imperatives that are beginning to dominate management.


New Zealand controls a marine environment 20 times larger than its land mass and while there have been a number of marine reserves created they are only a small fraction of the total (around 7%) and have limited ability in reversing the decline of marine species. Maui dolphins are bordering on extinction, sea lion populations are declining, Southern Right Whales are struggling to maintain numbers and two thirds of our seabird species are threatened with extinction. The main threats to all of these are because of modern fishing practices that have high levels of bycatch and poorly managed fishing quotas. It has been recognized that our fishing industry needs greater monitoring and that there are abuses of our territorial waters by overseas fishing boats. The fact that only half of our coastal patrol ships are in use because of navy staffing cuts is a major concern.

Of the 119 fish stocks that are monitored 37 are below target levels and the proportion of over-exploitation of stocks more than doubled between 2006 and 2010.

Environment Minister, Amy Adams, claims the report gives a misleading picture but offers little in the way of rebuttal. Most of the information has been widely known and reported and I would have thought  that the odd chat with the Government's knowledgeable Environment Commissioner, Dr Jan Wright, would have ensured the Minister was better informed.

It is obvious that this National Government has no interest in protecting biodiversity, reducing carbon emissions or even advancing our clean green image (I have heard that they are promoting the idea of just removing the first two words of our brand "Clean Green New Zealand" and think just "New Zealand" is enough). Their sole focus is ensuring immediate corporate profits and balancing the budget with no thought to the longer term sustainability of our economy. Our environmental protections are seemingly the first to be sacrificed if there is a financial squeeze and yet as Russel Norman continues to remind us, "No Environment, No Economy". We are close to losing much of our environment and biodiversity and the impacts on our economy will be enormous.

For National to put their collective fingers in their ears and hum loudly as each damning environmental report is released just doesn't cut it any more!.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

National Kneecaps Quality Public Education

New Zealand's education system is ranked amongst the top five in the world and this is remarkable considering our multicultural society, high levels of child poverty and limited funding (we spend less on education as a percentage of GDP than most OECD countries). All the countries ranked around New Zealand also pay their teachers considerably higher salaries.

New Zealand class sizes are also amongst the largest in the world with the OECD average at 21 students per teacher at primary level.

So what enables our education system to overcome some real barriers and perform so well?

1) A creative and holistic approach to teaching and learning.
Since Clarence Beeby New Zealand has developed an approach to teaching that is related to the needs of children and not primarily focussed on standardized assessments. The current New Zealand curriculum supports schools in shaping a school curriculum that meets the needs of their children and the wider school community. The curriculum also recognizes that Values and Key Competencies are as important as the learning areas.

2) A broad curriculum.
New Zealand teachers are taught to integrate the curriculum and recognise the interconnections between the different learning areas..

3) An Inquiry Approach to teaching.
This approach is an essential part of teaching practice in New Zealand and is a teaching and learning cycle that focusses on evidence based strategies that are assessed and modified, through self and peer review, to suit the needs of learners.

4) Great teachers.
Most Teacher training involves a high level of practicum where pedagogy is regarded as highly as curriculum knowledge. New Zealand teachers are very well regarded internationally for their innovative and independent approach to teaching.

5) A culture of collegiality.
"It takes a village to raise a child" is a truism. Schools that operate as a community where parents and teachers support  each other in meeting the needs of children and great ideas are shared is a common culture in New Zealand Schools.

The New Zealand Institute uses internationally recognized data and indicators to produce a report card on New Zealand's social, economic and environmental performance. Education gets one of the higher marks.

All that is great about our quality public education system is being attacked and dismantled by this government and, despite public and professional protests, mainstream media have largely ignored the reality and in many cases have colluded with the government to denigrate our teachers and our schools.

It is the goodwill and professionalism displayed by our teachers that has allowed quality teaching to continue through a barrage of attacks, but the cracks are beginning to show and after the latest budget we will see even more indicators of decline.

I have attempted to list the hits endured so far and I am open to including any I have missed.
  • $25 million cut from Ministry of Education budget.
  • Flawed National Standards introduced without a trial or evidence base.
  • Curriculum narrowed by focus on literacy and numeracy and advisors sacked from other learning areas like science, technology and art.
  • Funding for Technology teachers at intermediate schools cut.
  • Class sizes increased to 1:27, 6 more than OECD average.
  • $35 million given to private schools.
  • Charter Schools introduced despite limited evidence of success elsewhere and based on an agreement with a political party that only achieved 1% of the vote.
  • Operations grants not increased to keep up with inflation restricting the ability for schools to pay school support staff.
  • Schools punished for not embracing National Standards by having professional development denied.
  • Schools and teachers are blamed for underachievement while factors like poverty are ignored.
  • The new Education Ministry head (appointed by the National Government from England) refuses to collaborate with the education union NZEI on professional matters. 
  • Residential schools for children with behavioural needs are being closed.
  • Health Camps are being closed.
  • Schools that question government policies are threatened with having their boards sacked and be replaced by commissioners.
  • Expectation that schools should only provide healthy food wiped.
  • Funding for fruit in low decile schools cut.
  • Performance pay for teachers to be introduced despite models used in other countries have caused a decline in collegiality and have not improved student achievement.
  • PPPs (private, public partnerships) introduced to build schools despite Treasury advising there was little value in this approach. 
  • Teaching qualifications will be a post graduate qualification yet students in a fourth year of study will not receive government support and students will have to cover all costs themselves. 

Friday, May 25, 2012

English's Little Budget of Horrors

When it comes to government spending and "balancing the budget", four overweight elephants (or hungry monster plants) remain in the room while Bill English attempts to fund their huge appetites by cutting the support to children, families, students and even taxing paperboys.

At around $11 billion, the largest elephant by far consists of the RoNS (Roads of National Significance) where even the Government's last commissioned report revealed that the cost/benefit ratio for some motorways is as low as 0.4 (40c return for every $1 invested). When questioned by Julie Anne Genter regarding the dire economic projections and funding shortfalls the Minister of Transport, Gerry Brownlee, came up with some concerning answers. He claimed that he wasn't interested in the facts, was no expert on oil prices, the motorways will be built simply because people wanted them and that "they will cost what they will cost".

The second biggest elephant that the National Government continues to feed is superannuation, at 4% of GDP it costs around $8 billion to fund annually and has been projected to double by 2050, therefore costing hundreds of millions extra every year. The government has ignored calls for a raising of the retirement age by the Retirement Commissioner, Diana Crossan.

The third elephant is the tax cuts to the wealthy and the government refuses to back away from them despite costing the country around $2 billion in lost revenue so far. The cuts were never fiscally neutral as the predicted returns from the raised GST never eventuated. The National Government continues with the cuts despite the fact that our upper income earners are taxed at a much lower rate than in Australia. They won't even consider a capital gains tax when around 40% of incomes in the top bracket come from largely untaxed capital gains.

The fourth elephant is the subsidizing of greenhouse gases that costs the government around half a billion dollars a year because they continue to weaken the Emissions Trading Scheme and refuse to include some of our largest emitters.

To offset the huge leakage of government funds to these fiscal elephants and, in an attempt to offset increased borrowing and "balance the books", millions are being cut from essential government services. In his latest budget Bill English tries to make the untenable appear responsible by increasing class sizes, raising "user pays"charges for basic services, cutting student allowances, raising costs for accessing early childhood education and even taxing children who have after school jobs.

This is a miserly, mean little budget that continues to reward the rich and supports their growing affluence by sucking what little is left out of the poor and vulnerable.

There is another way!

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Merrill Lynch, Leopards, Spots and Mr Key.

New Zealanders elected John Key because he was amiable and successful. If a man is rich and personally successful then it seems logical that if he transferred his skills to governing the country then New Zealand will prosper as well. Sadly New Zealand hasn't thrived under John Key because he has continued to do what he does best.

As Merrill Lynch's global head of foreign exchange he successfully gambled and traded foreign currency, earning himself around $3 million dollars a year. According to Wikipedia he was also given the name "the smiling assassin" for maintaining a cheerful disposition while sacking dozens of staff during a recession.

Key's past employer, Merrill Lynch, did not come out of the financial crisis well, they were heavily involved in the mortgage based collateralised debt obligation (CDO) market and bought First Franklin Financial Corp, one of the largest subprime lenders in the US. When the value of CDOs collapsed, Merrill Lynch resorted to all manner of dodgy dealings to remain afloat; shifting funds, avoiding tax and dishonestly representing their financial position to investors. The company was sued for fraud by Rabobank, was fined $100 million for publishing misleading research and in 2007 had a suit brought against it for disregarding the civil rights of employees. To top it all Merrill Lynch received a $45 billion bailout from the US government and promptly spent $3.4 billion in bonuses to their top 14 executives, even though the company had lost $15 billion in the previous quarter.

While there is no way John Key can be held responsible for the behaviour and management of his past employer, it still represents the business culture that he came from (and was obviously comfortable with) and there are so many parallels with the management style of his old firm and the way he has approached the governance of the country. We have seen a huge growth in the salaries of CEOs, a cutting of the taxes to the wealthy, over 3,000 jobs cut from the public sector (providing some credence to alleged nickname) and a constant stream of misleading information to support government initiatives from National Standards through to the funding of motorways.

Banks, understandably, have also done well under Key and the government's main banker, Westpac New Zealand, is the highest performing section of Westpac and it returns billions of dividends to the Australian mothership and also provides the local CEO with an annual salary of over $5 million. Key's past wheeling and dealing and gambling in foreign currencies has enabled a high comfort level with gambling in general and making cosy back room deals.

There is even a parallel with the sale of State Assets and the Government bailout of Merrill Lynch. Both involve using public funds to rectify poor financial management and the main sacrifice coming from those who deserved a better return from their taxes. In both cases much of the funds will end up supporting the salaries and lifestyles of those who created the crisis in the first place.

I think an adaption of the famous Shortland Street quote is appropriate here, "You're not in Merrill Lynch now, Mr Key!"

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Power Companies and the Holy Grail

Early last year, around the time of the Christchurch earthquake, there was a knock on our door. I discovered on our front step a very friendly man holding a clip board. He was promoting a new energy company and he was very persuasive.

This company, he promised, charged less than any other company and would ensure a meter reading every month. We were with Meridian at the time and we were frustrated by the fact that meter readings had become reduced to only once or twice a year and after a series of estimates we would find some bills of less than $100, then others close to $900. I got into the habit of paying a bit extra on our Winter bills so that a later blowout could be managed.

The salesman explained that the company he represented, Just Energy, was able to keep prices low because advertising and sponsorship expenditure were kept to a minimum. After a little research to confirm they were legit, I signed on the dotted line. We had an initial glitch when our final account from Meridan was an over-estimate ($200 worth) and involved many phone calls to sort out liability and a refund, but eventually we enjoyed our regular readings and consistent billing.

A couple of months ago a letter arrived:

"Just Energy electricity prices will increase from 1 April 2012... Costs are being increased by Transpower...also price hikes by line companies..."

The next bill saw a 25% increase.

Despite having one less person in the house and installing solar water heating our bill was back up to previous levels.

A quick visit to Consumer's "Powerswitch" site saw that returning to Meridian would save us $701 a year and they now had the third highest customer service rating. We have made the switch back but, if the asset sales go ahead, who knows what will happen.

Finding the perfect power company is like searching for the Holy Grail and I am in danger of wearing out my coconut shells as I gallop hopelessly about in ever decreasing circles.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Yellow Pages & Accessibility

Dear Sir

I never expected the arrival of this year's telephone book to be such a 
devastating experience.

I have smuggly watched friends and contemporaries resort to visual aids 
and increasing levels of magnification while I have managed to maintain 
the vision of my youth. You can imagine the shock and consternation I 
experienced on opening the telephone book and attempted to read the 

I had barely recovered from this first blow to my youth when I received 
a second after expressing my concern to someone younger than myself.

 "What's a telephone book?" they replied.

One seemingly innocuous incident has seen me rapidly shunted into the 
world of the aged and technologically dated.

Yellow Pages Group Ltd, I will never forgive you!

Yours sincerely
Dave Kennedy
(membership of Grey Power pending)

I discovered my letter to the Southland Times did not get there due to an email failure. I 
commented on the stress that the arrival of the new telephone book caused me on 
Facebook in a similar light hearted way, but it is actually a huge issue. For the many 
elderly and others who suffer vision impairments, having excessively small print is 
discriminatory and it is not acceptable for Yellow Pages to put financial imperatives
ahead of providing a proper service.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Performance Pay for Teachers Problematic

The National Party have been pushing performance pay for teachers for some time and it has popular support because it suggests a process of rewarding good teachers and providing incentives to improve for those who aren't doing as well. It sounds simple but is essentially flawed.

As Hekia kept reminding people in her pre-budget speech, teachers are "professionals" and this means they join of a number of occupations that share that classification like doctors and lawyers. All professions share certain characteristics, they all involve a high level of education, training and constant professional development. They all require a high degree of social responsibility and ethical behaviour and there is also a considerable expectation of trust and confidentiality needed in the performance of their work. Most professions involve complex interactions with people and the unpredictability and often high stakes nature that influences these interactions can be demanding and stressful.

Most professionals are paid at a rate that recognizes their qualifications and the considerable responsibilities that comes with the work. Job satisfaction is not based on profit margins but achieving positive outcomes for their clients, patients or students. All professions have ethical and professional standards that are used for appraisals and peer reviews and it is these standards that guide decisions around competence or unacceptable behaviour. What drives and influences performance for most professionals comes from the job satisfaction of achieving positive outcomes and having the respect of their peers.

Performance pay is a useful incentive for nonprofessional jobs like fruitpicking or shearing where performance expectations are clear and measurement is easy. Paying a worker for the amount of fruit picked or number of sheep shorn provides an incentive to work harder and the employer is able to pay more because there is a direct relationship between worker output and the money available to pay them.

When performance pay is applied to professionals it is hugely problematic when it is essentially a measure of output. Being a doctor or a teacher is not like shearing sheep, every student or patient requires an assessment of needs and providing treatment or teaching programmes that can meet those needs. Removing wool from a sheep is relatively straight forward as they are all a similar size and shape, an identical process can be used for each and the end result is easily quantified. Meeting the needs of people is far more complex and there are many factors that influence outcomes that are beyond the control of the professional. A student's learning is dependent on the support of their home and their own readiness to learn and if there are emotional stresses from dysfunctional family relationships their focus on learning will be impaired. For a doctor, successful treatment can be dependent on their patient's ability to take their medication as required or change negative elements in their lifestyle like alcohol consumption or smoking.

If a group of people were assembled to assess the performance of a single professional they would probably have different criteria, for some the ability to communicate and empathize would have the highest priority, for others it may be their knowledge and finesse in carrying out a particular procedure or activity. Both are valid but the weighting for each may differ. As a teacher I have taught in a number of schools, both in New Zealand and in the UK, and the way my performance has been assessed has varied hugely.

I have often taught classes full of children with high learning needs and challenging behaviours, some of those classes I have managed extremely well and received high praise from colleagues and parents, but in others I have struggled and my competence was questioned. If someone observed my teaching in the classes where I struggled they would have witnessed my lack of ability to manage negative behaviour and to maintain an atmosphere that supports learning and they would have naturally concluded that I wasn't up to the job. No matter how competent a teacher is they also rely on the support of colleagues, the parents and the culture and systems within the school. The often used phrase "it takes a village to raise a child" is very true, and when applied to teaching it means a high level of collaboration, respectful relationships and shared goals .

If performance pay was applied to teachers I have a number of questions that need to be answered:

How will the criteria be fair and address the fact that class size, children's learning needs and backgrounds and school communities vary greatly?

Who will make the judgments on performance and how will this be moderated to maintain consistency across all schools?

Will all teachers who meet the criteria be rewarded or will pay be capped in each school so that some will miss out?

If teachers have to compete for a limited pool of money will this not result in a breakdown of collegial behaviour?

What will be the impacts on good teachers who find themselves in situations where their performance is compromised by factors beyond their control?

When most systems of performance pay have failed in other countries, what are the successful models that will inform ours?

Will the teaching profession's own trialled models recognizing the skills, knowledge and attributes of teachers be used to determine remuneration and recognition of performance or will the profession have a system imposed on them?

Our experience with the implementation of National Standards where no trial was used, collaboration was discouraged and a flawed system was imposed means that we hold little confidence in any system of performance pay supported by this government.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Parata's Education Plans Worrying!

"Learning is Earning", this economic mantra appeared throughout Education Minister Hekia Parata's speech this morning when she made some pre-budget announcements regarding National's plans for education.

Unlike her predecessor, Anne Tolley, Parata acknowledges that our education system is a largely successful one:

"We have an education system that is among the best in the world. It gives our students a platform to compete here at home and internationally. Four out of five kids are successfully getting the qualifications they need from school and we must celebrate their success and the professionals in our system who make that possible every day."
However Parata still ignores the reality behind those children who struggle and continues to lay the blame for underachievement on the teaching profession. 
"Too many of the kids are falling behind because they are not getting the quality teaching and leadership that all the evidence tells us makes the difference for Maori and Pasifika learners, those who come from low socio-economic homes, or have special needs."
One would think that when her government's own green paper on vulnerable children recognizes a wider issue in terms of child health and welfare and that income inequities and poverty would be major contributing factors to educational achievement. Research actually shows that the influence of a teacher on educational achievement is only 10-20% of all relevant factors.  Even our decile ranking and associated funding of schools is based on the incomes of the school communities and recognizes that household incomes have a large bearing on educational outcomes.
National have continued with their policy of giving with one hand and taking with the other as they shuffle money within their commitment to austerity and a zero budget. They plan to partially fund extra initiatives by increasing class sizes and cutting expenditure on teacher salaries which, Parata claims, will free up $43 million. To justify cuts they cherry pick research and they have long made use of education academic John Hattie's claim that it is teaching, not class size that has the biggest influence on achievement. Increasing class sizes is a useful way of limiting spending when teachers salaries are a major part of the education budget, yet to say increasing class size won't have a negative impact is nonsensical. If you had an excellent teacher in a classroom, then increased the size of the class they taught there would have to be a negative impact on the children's learning and an increase in workload for the teacher concerned. 
Margaret Wu, an internationally regarded education expert, warns against making wild assumptions based on data. Parata makes a wild assumption when she claims that because teacher numbers have increased over the last ten years, yet learning achievement has plateaued, it supports the view that teacher numbers are not important. Over the last ten years we have also seen huge social challenges from growing numbers of children living in disadvantaged backgrounds, the sacking of many advisors, a cutting in funding for the Ministry of Education (which also received a poor performance review) and the introduction of the highly flawed National Standards. There are many factors that may contribute to a plateau of achievement and one could easily say that if teacher numbers hadn't increased the situation could have been so much worse. 
So  how will the Minister's plans impact on the average teacher? There will be an increase in class size, which means an increase in workload. There will be no extra spending on professional development (which has largely been focussed on National Standards) and, with the sacking of all advisors outside of literacy and numeracy, does not support the wider curriculum. Salaries will probably be frozen as this is the area the government intends to make savings in and finally with a renewed focus on teacher appraisals and performance pay, higher levels of accountability and paperwork will probably result. Most models of performance pay also result in the end of collegiality between teachers, which is essential for ensuring the sharing of good ideas and adding to a positive school culture. Of course the added stress of having to shoulder the blame of educational underachievement and the constant media beat ups on underperforming teachers and sex offenders in schools makes the teaching environment an increasingly negative one.
And how will the changes impact on children, which surely should be the driver for any educational change? Many children will find themselves in larger classes where there will be fewer opportunities to to have individual attention from their teacher. Their teacher will be under greater pressure and will be spending more time on assessment and documentation than planning exciting and engaging learning experiences. Their teacher will not have access to as many new ideas as teachers compete against each other to access performance pay. As there is no extra funding to support professional development in curriculum areas outside literacy and numeracy and as National Standards continue to drive teaching, subjects like science and technology will continue to be under taught. With the mantra of "learning is earning" and suggestion that children's learning should have a career focus from year eight, there will probably be outside influence on what curriculum choices will fit with economic development rather than personal growth.
There is much to be worried about!

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

National's War Against the Poor

Rather than a determination to battle poverty this government has decided to fight the poor instead and together with their corporate mates they have devised a battle plan that mirrors the "war against terror". To gain public support for growing an effective arsenal in any war, one needs an enemy and that enemy must be perceived as a real threat. For Bush, the threat of a few radical terrorist cells could not justify a full scale mobilization of the US military so the implication that the Islamic world, as a whole, threatened US security was necessary. Islam became the new Communism and the American public allowed billions to flow into costly actions (and selected corporates) against a largely fictitious enemy.

On a smaller scale the same approach is happening in New Zealand. The National Party had their campaign largely supported by their corporate mates and once elected some form of payback was expected. The tax cuts to the already wealthy was intended to be a fiscally neutral gift but the growth in revenue generated from a rise in GST failed to eventuate.

To justify and fund the continuing costs of the tax cuts (around $2 billion so far), and to explain falling government revenue, blame had to be shifted elsewhere. We are being told that state servants, those on the DPB, nonworking mothers, students, unemployed youth and striking workers are the people we need to target. Of course such groups are generally deserving of support and there are many anecdotal examples of hardship amongst them, therefore a deliberate strategy to demonise and undermine their credibility was necessary.

It is now common practice from both the government and employers to publicly release, or leak to right wing bloggers, damning information on individuals to discredit the group as a whole. Paula Bennet started the practice and it has continued with the POAL and Talley's. Rather than debate the issues and the facts it is far easier to make it appear that a few cherry picked examples reflect the situation as a whole or make sweeping statements not supported by fact.

Like the War against Terror, the war against our poor has become more ideological in nature, any backdown is unacceptable, even when the costs of defending a stand become irrational. The POAL lost far more (around $20 million) from locking out workers than they would have done had they settled earlier. AFFCO's lockout has cost the taxpayer thousands in emergency benefits, while AFFCO saved money by staging one lockout over a statutory holiday. When a struggling caregiver took legal action to have his status recognized and be paid for his work, the government spent $1.1 million fighting him through several lost decisions. Although the latest Court of Appeal decision again found in favour of the caregiver, Tony Ryall is considering a continuation of the battle.

Despite the uneven odds, and the fact that the enemy is actually groups of ordinary citizens and workers who are fighting for basic human rights, the Government and big business are demanding even more firepower to deal with dissent. The proposed changes to employment law will allow employers to remove themselves from bargaining as soon it is apparent that they will not get their way. The Government claims it is necessary to stop lengthy disputes (presumably in reference to POAL and AFFCO) but the underlying assumption is that it is the employer that needs the support, not the workers, which is clearly not true.

While we have not quite reached the extremes of the US, in terms of inequities and the plight of the poor, it is obvious that this government is oblivious to all suffering in a frantic attempt to maintain the advantages and privileges they have given to the wealthy. The war on the poor continues...

The following images of tent communities of homeless people in the US, represent what happens when inequities reach extreme levels in a supposedly affluent nation. While 1 in 50 children are now homeless in the US, does the fact we have almost 1 in 4 children living in relative poverty make us much better? Interestingly when a republican politician was questioned about the growing number of tent cities he made the bizarre comment "I don't think anyone is going hungry" which is very similar to an opinion John Key expressed recently (but I can't find a link to).

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Paul Holmes Needs to Go.

When there are so few televised interviews where the movers and shakers of this country are questioned at length, in exchanges longer than a 30sec, why have do we have to suffer Paul Holmes as the interviewer?

The job of a good interviewer is draw information from the interviewee and provide the viewer with new insights into their opinions, knowledge and character. Shane Taurima understands this but Holmes continues to treat Q&A as a vehicle to push his own opinions and shape interviews around his personal thinking.

This morning he interviewed Russel Norman and Winston Peters regarding their views on the economic management of the country.  For anyone who genuinely wanted to hear how the Greens and New Zealand First would manage the country's purse strings, they wouldn't have been enlightened. Russel Norman has continually impressed with grasp of economics and presenting alternative strategies and Winston has had past experience as the Government Treasurer, yet neither had the opportunity to demonstrate the depth of their understanding or respective visions.

We had a series of quick fire questions where Holmes cut answers short to state his own opinion or, in Russel's case, stopped an interesting response with the promise he would allow time to elaborate on this later, but not doing so. Even though National's whole economic strategy is based on guestimates Holmes dismisses the Greens' revenue source as "fairyland" money and blocked Russel's attempt to show how Green policies would be funded. Rather than allowing the viewers to decide for themselves what they thought of Russel's policies, Holmes took it on himself to continually provide his own judgements both verbally or with his body language.

Russel and Winston were put in the situation that they had to continually battle to put forward their respective economic visions as Holmes continually yapped around them, interjecting and harrying them for no discernible reason other than maintaining his own presence.

We need a programme like BBC's Hard Talk where John Key's ignorance of science was revealed and his discomfort from truly probing questions. If only we could have the likes of Shane Taurima to prod, encourage and challenge an interviewee for at least half an hour. The viewer may then be able to appreciate what the Greens mean by green technologies and how we could use our SOE's to kick start businesses in the private sector. The viewers could then find out how Winston would reward "winners" and what sort of things could add value to our timber exports.

Friday, May 11, 2012

Austerity Measures Create Anorexic, Weak Economies

The NZ economy personified

Chris Trotter rightly questions the validity of austerity measures as a way of lifting an economy out of recession and he expresses concern at the social costs of this approach. When social services and support are cut the social consequences often last longer than the actual recession. The ongoing costs to the taxpayer to support those whose health, education or employment needs were compromised, will be potentially substantial. Austerity policies also tend to limit the discretionary spending of households, which has a direct and negative impact on the domestic economy and small businesses. 

It is obvious that those leading Government policy at the moment are no students of history, while uncontrolled spending and growing debt are not answers to an economic recession, there are few examples in history to support the sort of austerity measures being implemented either. As Trotter describes in his post, one of the most effective strategies was Roosevelt's "New Deal" which invested in infrastructure, reformed financial systems and lifted the wages and employment conditions of working people. Despite protests from business leaders that the programmes were anti business and growth, the reality proved the opposite.

New Zealand's most popular Prime Minister, Michael Savage, led similar changes in New Zealand. In a time of recession Savage increased benefits, supported a unionized workforce, initiated state control of banking, invested in state housing and nationalized broadcasting. He refused to indulge in recrimination or  divisive politics and did much to reverse discrimination against Maori. The result of this investment and spending wasn't an increase in debt, but economic stimulus. It lifted many New Zealanders out of poverty and increased their spending power which resulted in an immediate growth of the domestic economy.

Our current situation mirrors the problems faced by Savage, we have huge inequities of wealth, a large percentage of families experiencing poverty and living in substandard housing and most banks and financial institutions are owned off shore. It is concerning that National is taking the opposite approach to Savage to deal with these issues. The Government is cutting many benefits and social services, supporting the  de-unionisation and casualisation of our workforce, causing a crisis in housing by shifting responsibility to the private sector, cutting support to public broadcasters and even the Government's banker is Australian owned. The best National can come up with to increase revenue is to sell State Assets.

Austerity measures will only reduce our capacity to respond to any upturn in the world economy. Now that National has allowed the wasting of our construction sector, let over 25% of our young people remain unemployed (and many suicidal), reduced the capacity of our state and regulatory services, under invested in R & D - our ability to respond to any future opportunities will be limited. Our anorexic economy will be too weak to compete and will be left collecting the crumbs dropped from healthier economies that have been better nourished and supported.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Invercargill March

It is the official launch of the Keep Our Assets petition today. The Greens, Labour, Grey Power, the CTU and NZUSA have all supported a single campaign to collect 350,000 signatures to enable a citizens initiated referendum on the issue.

National are claiming that they have a mandate to sell almost half of our power companies and Solid Energy because they promoted this during their election campaign. They are continuing to say this despite the fact that every poll that has been conducted since has shown an overwhelming majority of people are against the selling of these strategic assets. As every day passes there are more revelations about how poorly thought through and researched these sales are.

There have been thousands marching in Auckland...

thousands marching in Wellington...

And in Invercargill this Saturday we are expecting a comparatively large turnout. This is one single issue that has support across all sectors of our society, with farmers walking beside Greens and students marching beside our retired citizens. It is an issue that transcends generations and political ideologies and this Government needs to hear this. If you live in or around Invercargill, make sure that you make your position clear by both marching and signing the petition!

starting cnr of Nith & Forth Streets

The Invercargill march was a huge success as can be seen on this video

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Pregnancy, Punishment and Poverty.

Simplistic thinking, demonisation and sledgehammers appear to dominate this government's approach to dealing with poverty and National is doing everything it can to address the symptoms of poverty while desperately avoiding the cause.

25% of our children live in relative poverty, unemployment is growing, fewer of those who are employed are in full-time work and the minimum wage is so low that we now have large numbers of working poor who cannot survive on their incomes without support. As Metiria Turei pointed out today, rather than focus on job creation, lifting the minimum wage and and addressing the growing disparity between the rich and poor, the opposite is occurring.

Over 3,000 jobs have been cut from our state services and a sinking lid approach to government spending has also limited job growth in the private sector (building more state houses, for example, would reverse the decline of jobs in the construction sector and increase capacity for when it is needed in Christchurch). The minimum wage has been maintained at a level that is unlivable and our median income is only $28,000. Most sole parents are female and yet there is obvious pay discrimination against jobs that are dominated by women. Few employers and successful businesses pass on the benefits of improved productivity to their workers and the flow of money has increasingly gone to those who already have the most. While our wealthiest have seen a 20% increase in income, the majority of working New Zealanders have experienced a drop in the real value of their wages.    

The increasing casualisation of the workforce has removed job security and certainty of income for many families. It only takes an illness or an unexpected car bill and a family can quickly shift from basic survival to financial collapse and a dependence on charity and welfare. There is a lack of financial resilience in at least a third of New Zealand families that is beyond good budgeting. For these families all of their wages are committed to basic needs and the constant prioritizing of things like buying shoes for their children, putting petrol in the car or paying an increase in the rent.

Despite the fact we continue to see support for unnecessary privileges and entitlements for the already wealthy it is the poor who suffer and are blamed for their situation. While the Government is careful to explain their initiatives in seemingly reasonable terms the intentions are clear to their supporters and letters to the editor and comments on talkback radio are full of condemnation of those who dare to be poor.

By providing free contraception to beneficiaries appears benevolent and sensible and the Stuff opinion poll question "What do you think of the plan to subsidise contraception for beneficiaries and their daughters?" demonstrated overwhelming support for the idea but it also revealed some worrying attitudes. Even emails to National Radio expressed the view that we had to stop the poor from "breeding" and that for many young girls having babies is a career choice and a lifetime of dependency is the result. The implication is that if you are poor you shouldn't have the same choices available as the rich and that we have a crisis in the number of young women living on the DPB. The Government doesn't discourage the ill-informed bile that comes from many of their supporters. The Child Poverty Action Group has made a good attempt at providing the information that many commentators lack.

Few women use the DPB for anything other than how it was intended and around 90% shift of the benefit within 5 years, we also have one of the highest level of working mothers in the OECD (61% of mothers with children under 12 months are in employment). There is no crisis, in fact we should be celebrating and supporting those who put motherhood as a priority. As a teacher I can say from experience that many of children who have behavioral and emotional difficulties come from homes where the need to earn a living compromises the ability to provide basic care for children. There is also the potential that a "one size fits all" approach to providing support to single parents will cause unintended consequences and those deserving of support will have it denied.

We should be trying to eradicate poverty not punish and condemn those who find themselves poor!


Monday, May 7, 2012

Pigs, Troughs and PM Entitlements

Images of pigs and troughs came to mind when it was revealed that the Prime Minister was was introducing a bill to lock in perks for former Prime Ministers. He will obviously benefit hugely from the passing of this bill and, given his personal wealth and the state of the economy, even thinking of doing this is a little obscene.

Perhaps twenty years ago the situation was different, retired Prime Ministers had fewer work opportunities  and spouses would have had minimal incomes. Geoffry Palmer, Mike Moore, Jim Bolger , Helen Clark and Jenny Shipley all continue to work and earn substantial pays. Jenny Shipley has received $108,000 over the last three years in annuities and travel, even though she has not been PM for 13 years, she is also creaming $1000 a day for being a member of panel set up to monitor the management of the Christchurch earthquake.

While most New Zealanders are having a zero budget to look forward to and experiencing ongoing cuts to government services, this sense of entitlement and selfish arrogance is appalling. The Green Party has asked for the payments to be scrapped and Metiria Turei rightly claimed that there is no justification for paying people for no reason. The Prime Minister provided no proof of the value of the spending, just that they were "modest by overseas standards".  It is bad enough that ethical concerns have taken no part in the management of the Banks affair but when you consider the intent behind this bill it is obvious that shame is not an emotion that John Key is capable of experiencing.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Don't Sell Our Assets Mr Key!

I'm no Woody Guthrie or Bob Dylan, but there is a long tradition of adapting well known songs as a form of protest. Additions or improvements welcome as I want to use this for our Invercargill march this Saturday. I managed to get Clint Green to sing it for me, he's New Zealand's very own folk protest singer who is already famous for his National Standards song. Check out the video for my song, and thanks to my son for organizing the visuals.

Don't Sell Our Assets, Mr Key

This land is our land, this land is my land
From Cape Reinga to Stewart Island
From the Kauri forests to our sparkling rivers
This land was made for you and me.

We paid our taxes and put our money
Into damming rivers and building windfarms
We created assets that provided power
For our people and economy

Our government borrowed and cut the taxes
to the rich and prosperous and corporate leaders
Now we are marching and loudly chanting
Don't sell our assets, Mr Key!

This land is our land, this land is my land
From Cape Reinga to Stewart Island
From the Kauri Forests to our sparkling rivers
This land was made for you and me.

This land is our land, this land is my land
From Cape Reinga to Stewart Island
From the Kauri forests to our sparkling rivers
This land was made for you and me.

Don't sell our assets, Mr Key!

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Unemployment Rise Result of Failing Government

We now have 160, 000 people unemployed in New Zealand at 6.7% of the working population, it is up 0.3% over the last 1/4. Most of the unemployment is among women (7.1%) and the level of part-time employment has increased while full-time employment is at the lowest level since September 2010. Unemployed youth aged between 15 to 24 have now reached a new high of 13.9%, double the overall percentage. When the recession has well and truly ended for New Zealand's top income earners and most corporates, these statistics are appalling and a clear sign of economic mismanagement from the government.

At a time when the wealthiest New Zealanders are seeing a 20% increase in income, the government insists on maintaining tax cuts to this group and stifling the domestic economy by keeping minimum wages low and drastically cutting government spending. A good number of the unemployed will include some of the 3,000 positions that have been cut from the state service.

It is madness that when we have a huge housing shortage and, when Christchurch will soon be desperate for tradespeople, that there has been a loss of 4,200 jobs in the construction industry. The Green Party has suggested that it would be timely to build capacity in the construction industry through building much needed state housing and then when Christchurch needs this workforce, it will be available. If we don't train and support the local industry now then we will have to rely on overseas workers when the demand will predictably increase. To only rely on market forces to prepare for a future demand is naive in the extreme.

Most of our exporters and large corporates are seeing solid profits, it is our domestic economy that is struggling. With wages kept low (our median income is only $27,000) there is little discretionary spending  to support local businesses, this internal recession is the direct result of the government's determination to to maintain a population of working poor who need their incomes topped up by the state to survive. This  a deliberate effort to support National's corporate mates through subsidizing wages.

With the latest concerns regarding the teaching of science in schools, the cut in education spending at tertiary level and the minimal spending on R & D the government is ensuring that our ability to develop competitive and innovative business potential is stymied. Rather than build the capacity to earn more income in sustainable ways the government is relying on selling off our strategic assets in a glorified garage sale, reducing state services and attracting overseas interests to exploit our fossil fuels with few safeguards and ridiculously low royalty rates.

New Zealand is not in the same dire situation as Spain or Ireland and yet this National led government is following the sort of austerity programmes that should only be applied if we were. We do have opportunities and choices but the opportunities are not being grabbed and the good choices are not being made!

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Science Education Underdone in New Zealand

ERO's Dr Graham Stoop's revelation that science is underdone in primary schools is no surprise to the profession. The huge focus on reading, writing and mathematics over the last few years and the introduction of National Standards effectively shifted the emphasis away from science. The wiping of all advisory services not directly supporting National Standards also removed the valuable professional support for science that I found hugely useful earlier in my career.

The decline in science knowledge and achievement has been known for a number of years. The National Education Monitoring Project (NEMP) identified a drop in achievement in the younger age groups and noted in a 2007 report:

"The significant declines for year 4 students in the physical and material world strands, which on average included tasks that were very popular with students, may be related to the evidence from the 2007 science survey that year 4 students were sensing a lack of science activities at school, and particularly a lack of “really good things” such as experiments and research/projects. This may reflect, in particular, diminished time spent on science related to the physical and material worlds."

The new National Curriculum implementation was going to address the gaps identified in the teaching of science and technology, however the introduction of National Standards put an immediate stop to that. Any amount of professional concerns regarding the damage that would be done to wider learning by focussing so heavily on a narrowed curriculum was ignored . A 2011 report on science education, led by the Prime Minister's science advisor, Sir Peter Gluckman, revealed that the majority of year five students experienced only an hour each week of science education. He called for greater professional support for teachers in this area and encouraged raising the subject's importance.

By ignoring the advice of the profession and academics and pursuing their ideological agenda, the National Government is doing huge damage to our potential as a country at the cutting edge of scientific and technological development. I have stated before that, if writing and mathematics are going to dominate education, we are just going to end up with huge numbers of accountants and report writers. On the positive side, we will be able to track and describe our economic decline with some accuracy.