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Speech

Association of Private Education Providers

Issue date: 
Wednesday, 18 November 1998
Speaker: 
The Rt Hon Sir Michael Hardie Boys, GNZM, GCMG, QSO

Nga hau e wha, nga iwi e tau nei, tena koutou. E nga mana, e nga reo, rau rangatira ma, tena koutou, tena koutou, tena koutou katoa.

Mr Borthwick, Ms Powley (President and Vice President of the NZAPEP), distinguished guests and visitors to New Zealand, members of the Association, ladies and gentlemen.

Thank you for the invitation to be with you this morning, to address your Conference and then to open it. But while I appreciated your invitation, I realised very soon after accepting it that, by doing so, I had also accepted a formidable challenge.

Your Conference theme, Future 2000, emphasises the importance of thinking about the future of education in this country. There is of course nothing particularly magical about the year 2000, except what it might do to the world's computers. What is important to be done and thought about for the year 2000 is equally as important for the year 1999, and the years beyond. But the coming of the new millennium, albeit a year early, is serving to focus peoples' minds on the future, what it may hold, what opportunities and challenges it will present. And so your programme includes some very distinguished presenters, later today and tomorrow, speaking on a wide range of educational issues, all vital for our nation's future. I can do no more than offer some thoughts as an education sector outsider, not someone involved with the day-to-day, semester-by-semester issues with which they, and you, are sure to be more familiar.

The Conference programme indicates that I should speak about 'the value of education in New Zealand society', perhaps to try to set the scene for those who are to speak later, and perhaps as well, simply by my being here, to signal how high a value New Zealand and New Zealanders should place on education. If so, then the second part of my mission, sending the signal, is the easy part. It's the first part that is much the more daunting, because 'the value of education in New Zealand society' is a huge topic; an iceberg topic so to speak, in that there is so much more to it underneath the surface than above it.

However, the initial invitation to speak to you asked me to talk about the ethical, spiritual and cultural value in education, another daunting, iceberg topic. But in thinking about the programme topic, I realised that the invitation topic is really the best introduction to it, because how can one sensibly discuss the value of education without having a fairly clear idea of what education really is. I don't believe it is of much help to go back to the Latin root of the English word, to draw out, or lead out, because that gives only a partial picture. Although I firmly believe that every one of us has some innate skills or talents that it is the responsibility of the educational system to discern, to bring out, and to develop as fully as possible, I believe too that there is a measure of truth - but again not entire truth - in what Pliny said all those years ago: "Of all animals, man is the only one that knows nothing, that can learn nothing, without being taught." And in what John Ruskin wrote, that "education does not mean teaching people to know what they do not know; it means teaching them to behave as they do not behave."

Education to me is preparation for life in community. That means ensuring that knowledge is acquired, and that it is accompanied by understanding; that skills are developed, and developed for the betterment of all, that individuality is encouraged but that it is well balanced. I do not understand how these objectives can be realised without an understanding of the cultural heritage that both puts knowledge in context, and that forms the society in which we live. Or without an appreciation of the fuller dimensions of human life above and beyond the physical and the material. Or without a commitment to those basic moral and ethical principles that are essential to a well ordered, integrated and compassionate society, and that underpin our society in particular.

That is why some time ago now I read with total incredulity a proposal that the Turnbull Library should sell its collection of Milton, the finest in the world, because it no longer has any relevance in modern day New Zealand. And that is why I give all the support I can to the renaissance of Maori language and culture and to every endeavour to have all New Zealanders share in it. And that is why I reject absolutely the notion that values education has no place in a state system, on the grounds that moral and ethical principles are a matter of individual perception and choice. And it is why I believe that curricula must aim at much more than vocational skills, but must also ensure that minds and imaginations are captured and expanded by the treasures of art and music and language and literature that come to us from the huge diversity of our cultural inheritance.

These are the ethical, spiritual, and cultural values that I believe must underlie education at all levels. But, of course, the immediate focus of an individual institution or an individual student may very properly be on the teaching and learning, or the imparting and acquisition, of particular skills. And while not everyone may agree with what I have just been saying, most New Zealanders I am sure realise the immense importance of that immediate focus.

I say most, because I fear that there are still some who do not, and whose failure has led and will lead to disastrous consequences for their successor generations. The remedying of this is a major challenge, that happily is being tackled in many quarters, not least by Maori and Pacific Island agencies, whose work is enormously encouraging.

For the overwhelming majority, knowledge, understanding, mastery, those hallmarks and goals of education, are surely most precious. Arguably however, what we are less clear about in New Zealand, is how best we may encourage those qualities.

There's quite a range of statistical evidence that we have not been doing as well as we might - approximately one in five New Zealand young people still leaves secondary school with no formal qualifications [1996 figures, 1998 NZ Official Yearbook]. Another indication that aspects of our educational performance might be sub-par comes from a recent report of the National Education Monitoring Project. It was found that a quarter of New Zealand Form Two students did not know where Cook Strait is, or where Cape Reinga is to be found. Some of course argue that this sort of knowledge does not matter; that knowing how to find facts is more important than knowing facts; that what is really important is that students know how to learn, and how to absorb data, when it is immediately relevant; for education is a journey, never a destination. I don't find this argument terribly convincing. Most people do not carry an encyclopaedia or an atlas around with them. And even the shortest journey requires the traveller to take many intermediate steps, each one of them its own destination. I agree that no-one can know all the answers any more. But I believe you must still have some fund of general knowledge so that you know what the relevant questions might be.

And surely to play our part as members of our community, there is a need, if not an obligation, for all of us to know some things in common with everyone else. So there should, still, be a canon of knowledge and information that all can and do share, some stock of "old" knowledge to place our rapidly accumulating stock of new knowledge in context. And the faster we accumulate knowledge, the more a sense of generally shared understanding seems necessary, even vital.

If the National Education Monitoring Project's report about student attainment levels was unsettling, how much more so are this country's educational shortcomings in much more fundamental areas. The OECD published a report just last April that held that nearly half the workforce in New Zealand cannot read well enough to work effectively in a modern economy. And a Ministry of Education report also out this year, Adult Literacy in New Zealand, states that 70 percent of Maori New Zealanders and about 75 percent of Pacific Island New Zealanders can only read "below the level of competence in literacy required effectively to meet the demands of everyday life." [Via RBNZ Gov. Donald Brash's speech in London, 3.6.98.] Such a state of affairs is not just unfortunate. It is deeply distressing and greatly worrying.

What new things, then, must we do to seek and to find all the value of education, for ourselves, for our young people? And what changes might be needed within our educational establishments and the country at large, to raise our average educational attainment levels?

As a starting point for that sort of discussion, there is a book soon to be published by David Hood, whose name must be known to everyone here after his time as founding head of the Qualifications Authority. Its title is to be "Our Secondary Schools Don't Work Anymore." In it, he says that "Fifty years ago, society needed relatively few people educated to a high level," and that "Research studies from around the world show that secondary schools as they are currently organised are ineffective as places of learning. Research into the nature of intelligence and in cognitive science — how people learn — shows that there is no reason to accept a high rate of failure in our education system. People might learn in different ways and at different speeds, but almost everyone can be educated to a higher level than we have come to accept in the past." So to paraphrase him, David Hood is saying that is no longer satisfactory for our secondary schools, and for our education system in general, to equip, say, thirty to forty percent of its graduates for further study. Rather, we should be aiming to encourage sixty, seventy, eighty percent and more, into higher and further and lifelong education. I would imagine that everyone here this morning would wholeheartedly agree.

We used to be able to console ourselves with the thought that, if many young people didn't seem particularly interested in performing well at school, they would still, very probably, have productive working lives. They would take up an unskilled or semi-skilled job in the city or become members of the rural labour force. But how incredibly rapidly the number of those jobs has declined in the last two to three decades. People of my generation, and those of at least one and perhaps two generations following, will all remember how easy it was to find a job in New Zealand, when first we left home. And if we didn't like the particular job we'd found, well, there was always another. In the 1950s and '60s, you did not have to search for long.

But the abundant economic times New Zealand enjoyed in the two to two-and-a-half decades after the Second World War were an historical anomaly. We should not, now, be waiting in hope for their return. They will not. The world has changed too much and in revolutionary ways: think about farming, for instance, this country's traditional mainstay. When I was growing up, farming was a land- and labour-based industry. Now though, farming is as much a management- and knowledge-based occupation as any you will find in our urban centres. But is the realisation that the world and all workplaces have greatly changed always present in New Zealanders' consciousness, and in New Zealand students' consciousness in particular? Or do some of our old assumptions and expectations still live on, almost sub-consciously? But whether they still exist or not, I believe that all our schools - primary, secondary and tertiary, public and private - must continue to stress that these days there is little work, only a few jobs, and definitely no conventional careers, for anyone with no technical or academic qualifications.

To truly get that message across, there will also have to be a more general acceptance that some of the distinctions we used to make between 'education' in its narrower sense and 'training' should no longer apply; there will have to be a broader agreement than we than we have had historically, that learning is simply learning.

There are still those who assume that education, and tertiary-level learning in particular, should be concentrated on the classical professions and sciences, those subjects traditionally held to be prestigious.

Those who hold that view fail to appreciate that education is a preparation for, and an enrichment of, life. They fail to appreciate that many callings, many subjects, many professions, have their own special contributions to make to society. To be sure, we need doctors and lawyers and musicians. We also need engineers, dentists, plumbers and accountants. We certainly need physicists and bio-geneticists. We also need electricians and hotel managers and people with computer skills. And we need all these people to be highly skilled and educated in a well-rounded way. "Training," as Mark Twain observed, "is everything. The peach was once a bitter almond. Cauliflower is nothing but cabbage with a college education."

Another factor that helps to determine and perhaps to limit the value of education in New Zealand is the different amount of attention we pay to this country's various achievers. One of the blessings of my current role is the continual reminder that New Zealand is a quite remarkable country, given that we are so small. With only the population of a middling European or North American city - Manchester or Miami for example - New Zealand has demonstrated again and again what talented, positive, creative people we can develop. We produce writers, film directors, sportsmen and women, explorers, scientists, photographers, inventors - outstanding people in all fields of endeavour - whose names are often known far beyond our shores. Yet here at home, we can be remarkably heedless of some of our own star performers.

We seem readier to praise a person for his or her prowess on the sports field, for instance, even while we often ignore similar levels of achievement in the arts, business, or in science. To illustrate, a few years ago [1990], a Gisborne-born New Zealander, Vaughan Jones, won the Fields Medal, the mathematics equivalent of a Nobel Prize. While this victory was reported at the time, it received nowhere near the coverage of, say, then-recent or imminent rugby games. This, I know, is a conventional sort of a point to make, although no less true for being so often repeated. And by re-making it, I am not arguing that we should stop paying any attention to the fortunes - or misfortunes - of our many sports teams. Rather, it is to hope that we could widen the range of professional achievements that we most loudly applaud to include those like Vaughan Jones's, as well those of our outstanding sportsmen and women.

Harking back to something I've already said, New Zealanders also tend to value education the more highly or the more lowly, depending on their family and socio-economic background and their age. Differences in their parents' expectations of them, must surely be one of the main reasons why the children of educated parents tend to do better throughout their academic careers than children whose parents are less well-educated. But there is also that destructive phenomenon that you hear about from time to time, of children - or rather, groups of children - deciding that too much educational accomplishment is socially unacceptable to them. I remember a newspaper report some months ago, about just that sort of thing: a secondary school girl was beaten up by her classmates for studying too hard. When there is that sort of group pressure being applied of course, the country is likely to find that, a few years later, the demand for second-chance education climbs, perhaps fairly steeply.

So how might we be meeting a demand for second chance education? And how might we lift our educational performance overall, so that many, many fewer of us "complete" our formal education without basic skills or qualifications.

Surely, this is where our National Qualifications Framework represents genuine educational progress. One measure of that progress is that the Framework is encouraging educational innovation; in teaching methods, in course content and in the new relationships that are arising between and amongst educational providers. And perhaps most important of all, it is encouraging so many students to resume or to continue their education, even when their previous learning experiences have been fruitless or unhappy. I like the comment that in a world as empirical as ours, a youngster who does not know what he is good at will not be sure what he is good for.

Another feature of the Qualifications Framework that seems to be beginning to work as envisaged, is the increasing networking between Private Training Establishments and between PTEs and polytechnics and universities. I've heard mention of a worry that PTEs and publicly-owned education providers were natural and irreconcilable competitors, that the different types of institution would inevitably fall out and try to "steal" one another's students. I liked the rebuttal that in today's world, no one "owns" students; that what was very much more important was to make sure that every student possible gained the further or higher education that would suit him or her best. The underlying truth is that our education system, to be of maximum value, has to focus on the students within it, not on any of its own institutions.

That requirement met, New Zealand will be in a much better position to add value to education, and to encourage an increasing number of those who might otherwise be excluded, to learn how to participate fully in the productive life of the country. As the Governor of the Reserve Bank, Dr Brash, said recently, "It is abundantly clear that the process of economic development and growth goes hand in hand with enhanced educational standards. it may well be that the most important policy area relevant to improving our sustainable [economic] growth rate is education policy."

But anyone's full participation in life will always extend beyond the economic sphere.

Early last year, the Listener published an article by Carl Sagan, the author and astrophysicist, which he began by saying that the 20th century will be "remembered for three broad areas of innovation; our unprecedented means to save, prolong and enhance life; our unprecedented means to destroy life, such as to put the whole of global civilisation at risk; and our unprecedented insights into the nature of humanity and the universe." Then, he echoed something that HG Wells wrote around the turn of this century, that "Human history becomes more and more a race between education and catastrophe." Carl Sagan's conclusion was: "Whether we will acquire the understanding and wisdom necessary to come to grips with the scientific revelations of the 20th century will be the most profound challenge of the 21st."

Understanding and wisdom: qualities of both the mind and the spirit. Now I'm back to where I began. Our ability to manage our knowledge so as to ensure the very survival, let alone the advancement, of humanity, depends not just on our professional and technical skills, but on our perception of who we are and why we are; not just as individuals, but as members of a family, a community, a nation, a world. That kind of perception then, represents the supreme value of anyone's education. Unless we are all lifelong learners, not just the thirty percent or so who do well in our traditionally-organised schools, how can enough of us hope to understand the world around us; even to begin, with luck and persistence, to make sense of it. How to live in it and shape it so as to bring peace and prosperity and life satisfaction to its inhabitants.

So the overall challenge facing any school or educational institution, whether publicly or privately owned, is twofold: first, it is to aid their students in such a way that wherever they go in life, they can be good citizens; properly prepared to be contributors to society's well-being. Secondly, it is to equip students with the skills they will need to hold their own in this sophisticated, highly competitive world.

And, confident that New Zealand PTEs are indeed facing up to this challenge with resolve, I should allow this Conference to proceed. So, ladies and gentlemen of the New Zealand Association of Private Education Providers, I would now like to declare your 1998 Future 2000 Conference, officially open.

Last updated: 
Wednesday, 18 November 1998

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