Let Parents Choose

Published: Fri 10 Oct 2003 08:25 AM
Let Parents Choose
Launch of 'Let Parents Choose', Portrait Gallery, Bowen House, 6.00pm
Imagine the scene in New Zealand if nearly 20 percent of children leaving school each year were so physically maimed by their schooling that they were unable to walk, and couldn't cope with everyday life.
So, in two months time, one out of every five school leavers would be so crippled they'd go straight onto a benefit of some sort.
And this because of a government bureaucracy that dictated what schools should teach in terms of sport and physical education; how they should teach; and how they should be trained to teach it.
And that government bureaucracy told parents on low incomes, which school they had to send their children to.
And parents knew that what the bureaucracy was dictating was outrageously politically correct, but no one would listen to them because politicians and bureaucrats believed they knew better than parents when it came to their children.
There'd be an outcry.
Parents would be distraught. Answers would be demanded of cabinet ministers.
Weeping families would be paraded on The Holmes show.
Lawyers would talk of class actions - as they did when women were affected by misread smear tests; or bungles by gynaecologists.
As soon as this became public and the worst schools were identified, the ones with the highest number of failed students, parents would withdraw their children from those schools en masse.
So why do we accept the same situation when it comes to our children's intellectual achievements?
Today, nearly 20 percent of school leavers, according to the last international survey on educational achievement, leave school unable to read a bus timetable.
Fifty per cent of children leave school unable to read properly.
This, to quote myself in `North & South' magazine, is child abuse of the mind.
In the last 50 years, public per-pupil spending on education has quadrupled. After adjusting for inflation, it has doubled in the last 30 years - so throwing more money at this problem is not going to fix it.
The biggest problem is that while parents from middle and high-income families can pay to move their children to schools that are performing well, poor families have little or no choice.
When I wrote the aforementioned story for `North & South' in February 2001 - "Why Your Child Can't Read, Write or Add Up", I looked at literacy and numeracy standards around the world.
Dutch and Swedish children were consistently at the top - where New Zealand children used to be.
That story was one of four in a portfolio that won for me the Qantas Fellowship to Wolfson College, Cambridge University, for 10 weeks this year.
I decided to use the scholarship to find out why the Netherlands and Sweden did so well.
They have school choice. The funding follows the child and they don't care who owns the buildings.
Parents - rich or poor - have the right to withdraw their children from schools and send them to any other school they like. In the Netherlands, 70 percent of schools are privately owned.
In Sweden, schools are accountable for children who leave, unable to find a job. Funding is based on outcomes.
The objective of the Qantas Press Fellowship is to take a mid-career journalist - which I was when I won it - put them in an academic, multicultural environment for 10 weeks, turn them into a better person so they return to their own country and try and make it a better place.
I think this is a very noble objective, and I do believe we could make New Zealand education exciting and excellent.
So I wrote up what I found in this book. It is a vision of how parents' choice could transform education.
Our schools used to be the best in the world. They could be again.
We could re-engage parents and communities with education.
The current Education Minister, Trevor Mallard, is obsessed with closing down schools. On average, there are usually one or two closures a year. This Minister has closed a record 96 schools - 33 in 2001 alone.
Many of these schools had excellent Education Review Office reports, strong community support, and outstanding parental commitment.
We should be celebrating this spirit - not crushing it.
I want an education system that allows every child to do well.
I see a destination with no child left behind.
The way to start on this journey is to Let Parents Choose.

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