Friday, October 29, 2010

On matters of free speech... and letters to Editors

Its funny (peculiar) sometimes how things pan out in life. The letter I sent to SST was published (with some fairly injudicious editing. At least I can thank my lucky stars that they published it without (as TFS is always complaining) leaving out all of the sense of it. They did remove the “potty jockey” crack I had at Michael Laws. All in all it was about a half of what I had originally writ.

And therein lies the funny. Printed in small red letters above my contribution (as printed in SST) were the words “Winning Words”. Now if you look down to the end of the letters space you find a little note to the effect that you may win a ball-pen… It is now Friday and I haven’t yet seen it.

Not, you understand, because it is coveted; far from it as at work I use a very simple slim ball-pen refill (no cover or cap), a practice which stops me from walking out the door with it in my pocket and stops anyone else from knicking it off of my desk. I also have a very nice “special” at home which includes a wood barrel and cap turned by a very good friend and given me for my 60th. The wood is swamp kauri, reputedly (from the certificate Len gave me) aged at 6,500 BPE. Was there a hint there, old Len? It is a thing of beauty indeed and thus far unused. That might change when I renew my Will in a few weeks’ time. I also have (somewhere in the laboratory) a very expensive Scheaffer (like this one) fountain pen. Last time I used it (to sign my Marriage Certificate and the Register) I needed an ink cartridge for it and I ended up refilling the old empty with ordinary cheap ink.

I am wondering if the Subbie who re-wrote my contribution has claimed the pen as his own in return for the work he put in to get my letter published.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Henry the ninth... again... for the last time...

Another of those missives that the ol' probligo shoots off to get lost in the ether. This time to Sunday Star Times in response to idiot (without the savant) columnist and correspondents...

Your correspondents John Foote and Peter Foreman as well as potty-jockey Laws are all quite correct. Paul Henry does have freedom of speech; as do they; and I hope so too do I.

There is a point to which Foreman got oh so close, and which the other two missed completely.

Other people have rights as well and those rights may impinge quite directly upon the application of the right to freedom of speech.

The first and most obvious is that freedom to speak does not of itself guarantee that the voice will be held. To guarantee that their voice is heard, anyone can buy the resources - by way of advertisement for example - to achieve the objective.

Foote, Foreman, and I, all have the right to being heard at the whim of the Editor of SST. Whether my voice will be heard at the same level as the other two will depend upon the mood of those who make the selection for publication.

The point made by Foreman in his seemingly curious parallel with a Maori golf tournament is in fact the crux of the matter, except that he chooses to misinterpret it to prove racial discrimination instead of the right of organisers to set the terms and conditions of the tournament.

This is truly the point that applies to both Laws and Henry. Both have a voice greater than the normal joe. They are paid - quite handsomely it seems - to present "their news". The relationship between "their voice" and the media carrying it - TVNZ or SST - is governed by the application of the employers' editorial policies, the terms of their individual contracts, and their own consciences. There is no doubt that if either were to act – to broadcast opinion – in a way which affected their employers' ability to pay the bills then there would be serious discussions between policy setters, editorial staff and their employee.

In exactly the way that the organisers of a Maori Golf Tournament can determine the rules and eligibility for competition, TVNZ or SST can determine whose voice is heard; TVNZ and SST can determine, at the very least limit, what is said through their publication.

Henry stepped outside of TVNZ's limits. He lost his job as a result.


Sunday, October 10, 2010

Education 102...

"The modern world has removed all barriers to education; there are no longer the class and craft divisions; there is an almost infinite increase in the complexity and depth of the knowledge required to “survive”.The removal of those barriers has created challenges which are still not resolved; they are not unique to NZ; they are the foundation of this debate; they are the “who gets what, why, and how much” of education in this modern world."

As a first illustration of the complexity of the debate, those challenges can not be simply resolved. What ever approach is taken, the words "Bill of Rights Act" spring immediately to mind.

Very simplistically, as soon as "Bill of Rights" gets injected the answer to the "who" becomes obvious. It has to be "ALL" people have the right to education.

And now I have to confess to one of the probligo's worst kept secrets - I have an issue with that "Right", as it applies to education. The personal issue is largely irrational, and is largely based on ignorance.

When we start considering the "who" of education the balance (in my mind at least) has to pick up the Right on one side and Benefit on the other. I have mentioned several times the family we had living next door whose third son was very severely disabled both physically and mentally. As was his Right, he was mainstreamed at school until his death at the age of 14. There is no question in my mind that the benefit gained would have been minimal., To be honest with myself I must lie alongside of that, the fact that I (at the very least) have no objective measure for the judgement. That personal issue aside, the "who" gets benefit of education has to be universal.

The same approach can be taken to the "...what, why, and how much...". The effect of the Bill of Rights (indirectly) is that all should have - at the very least - access to the same level and standard of education. That right applies (my issue above) to all, irrespective of ability, and prospective and expected benefit. I want to stress that "benefit" in this context is in two parts. There is the personal benefit with the prospect of higher future earnings as reward for the skills attained and applied. There is the benefit to society from having continuing qualified people where required and with skills appropriate to the time.

At that point too we start running into the same qualifications that I applied above; there has to be objective and supportable measures to support judgement of ability and benefit. That is a topic of its own to which I shall return. It will be important at that time to remember these contexts as well as others that arise.

For the moment, the universality of access to education leads to another decision point. There is a second balance that must be met. It is the balance between benefit and cost. The benefit side of that we will meet again as I said in the previous paragraphs. The decision that needs to be made is where the cost of education shifts from society to individual.

As a matter of tradition, that change occurred at the end of secondary education and the start of tertiary education. To state that as a matter of "fact" is somewhat misleading as it has become a bit of a moveable feast. Time was when the social funding of universities was comparatively minimal, with correspondingly high fees. Access to university qualification was by means of personal wealth or scholarship. A second level, "poor mans" tertiary qualification was provided through the technical colleges. They provided a bridge for professional qualifications and advanced technical qualifications. The third level, the trade qualification was provided by employers through bonded apprenticeships, combining on the job training with block courses from the technical colleges.

Summarising those -

  • Degree and professional qualifications - Personally funded, at facilities provided from societal funding.

  • Professional qualifications and advanced trade qualifications - Personally funded and/or employer sponsored, at facilities provided from societal funding.

  • Basic trade qualifications - Training provided by certificated employers at no cost to employee. Bonded employees (hence low wage offset to employer).

In more recent times, the bridge between secondary and tertiary education has been changing particularly in terms of the sharing of the cost between society and individual.

For a time in the 1960's the share was shifted very much in favour of the student, the cost being borne in large part by society. The consequence was the appearance of what became known as "the professional student"; people who attended university for a good number of years emerging eventually with qualifications of little use, or in some notable cases after effective expulsion, none at all.

Societal reaction to that "over funding" resulted in the balance being moved in the opposite direction; increasing the personal liability for funding through increased tuition fees. As this shift progressed, other means of encouraging higher education were sought resulting in the introduction of student loans; the subsequent societal monkeying with the basic premise of "user pays"; further shifts in the balance between personal and social cost; pressure for "living allowances" to counter the loss of traditional seasonal employment for students...

The picture that the reader should be getting by now is of a complex rather than simple model of education provision. That was exactly my intention as many of the perceived problems with education these days are in fact consequences rather than causes.

Illustrating that point is relatively simple.

Society's measure of "potential benefit" has been imposed through testing of scholastic achievement at various stages along the path from fundamentals to eventual qualification. The potential of each individual has been (in theory at least) assessed at three critical points -

  • At the end of primary education. This to ensure that pupils (in theory at least) entering the secondary level had the fundamentals of reading, writing and arithmetic, a reasonable level of general knowledge, and the ability to learn.

  • At the end of compulsory education. This is set at age 15, which corresponds (roughly) with the 5th form year. School Certificate was seen to have the fundamental flaw of having half those sitting the examination fail. Actual examination results were scaled in order to achieve this consequence. There was a second failing in the process in that the examination was not compulsory. As a result, a significant number of students were leaving school without any assessment of their ability.

    Those successful in that School Certificate examination "earned the right" to a subsequent year of free secondary education at the end of which came another, similar, examination of attainment; again with the 50% fail cut-off. This time the examination was for University Entrance; success giving a student the right to undertake a university education. At the same level, and after a further year of study there were public scholarships awarded to the highest achievers.

  • The third critical qualification comes at the completion of tertiary education; at whichever level that might have been undertaken.

The other side of "potential benefit", the trade-off, is the expectations of the student. Whether "free" education or expensive, there is the need for the system to provide the quality that should, that must, be expected by the student (or his parents).

The qualification must be valid evidence of knowledge and ability. There must be acceptance of the quality of the qualification when presented to an employer. The validity and applicability of the qualification to employment should - in theory at least - have an impact on the value of that person as an employee. That is the relatively simple mechanism by which the student gains benefit from the endeavour of attaining the qualification.

That, as I see it, is the general cycle of economic benefit that comes from an effective education system.

  • Society provides a basic education to all free and as of right.

  • Society gains the benefit of having people with skills that are appropriate and of value.

  • People with skills and qualifications command a higher price than those without.

That economic cycle is relatively simplistic as it ignores external (to society) pressures and pricing. So if one wishes to add complexity at this level, one can examine the pricing pressures resulting from the usual supply and demand mechanisms for skills and/or qualification. This is evidenced in a wide range of different problems faced within NZ at the moment; the general shortage of junior doctors with incomes in Australia and elsewhere considerably higher than in NZ; the difficulty of persuading those doctors who do remain in NZ to shift out of the major centres (where incomes are higher) into provincial and rural centres; the difficulty of obtaining qualified senior medical staff to provide public health services at a cost acceptable to society. It is not just a case of restricted supply. The barriers are necessarily high. The cost of obtaining suitable qualifications is likewise necessarily high. The return offered from outside is higher than can be sustained internally.

At this point I should not have to specifically point out the underlying over-simplification of Karl du Fresne's rant about the current negotiation of teachers salaries.

There is something fundamentally wrong with the system when a central Auckland college has to advertise a position for six months before getting an applicant. What is even worse is when the only applicant turns out to not have adequate knowledge to provide the level of teaching required. This is not to argue that society should yield totally to the wage demands of teaching unions. What is essential is that society is aware of the connection between the economic returns to graduates and the value of the education that they provide to society.

At the same level, there is something fundamentally wrong with society when a measurable portion of the population can regard education as a waste of time and effort. For this group, holding qualification at any level provides no benefit; employment levels are low to begin with, in some instances unemployment can be as high as 30%; incomes are never far from minimum wage irrespective of qualification; there are proven instances where higher income can be obtained from unemployment benefits than from paid employment. What that indicates more than anything else is that the demand for that occupation or class of employee is swamped by the available supply.

But to return to the topic of teachers after that little wander into the wilderness -

The current qualification requirements for teachers are that they be degree qualified; in the case of secondary teachers two university degrees are of benefit, one in Education and the other in the specialty that person wishes to teach.

The present societal attitudes to graduate qualification - this returns to the balance between public and private funding of university qualifications - has resulted in the situation where all graduates start their working life with a government mortgage on their income. The size of that mortgage varies; the highest are in medicine and dentistry, the lower in commerce and some science disciplines.

If we consider at the same time the difference in return paid in NZ compared with Australia for example - a difference sometimes stated as being in excess of 100% - the obvious and inevitable consequence of the current policies is a goodly number of NZ graduates exporting themselves, leaving behind shortages of well qualified people in critical professional occulations and the accumulated mortgage held by society on their prospective income.

"Lose - lose" as they say.

And remember, as you mull that point over, some of those graduates being exported are well qualified potential teachers that NZ needs in its secondary schools. Their first year's income under NZ teaching scales (for two degrees) would be no more than some $45,000.

I work with senior clerks, no qualifications other than experiance, doing fairly routine office work, with no responsibility for controlling 30 or so unruly teenagers, who are paid as much as that.

All of which takes us full cycle on du Fresnes' rant against teachers and the negotiation of their payscales.

Friday, October 08, 2010

Education 101...

Karl Du Fresne raised the topic of “education vouchers” in the course of presenting his views on the current state of wage negotiations between teachers and the state. That started an interesting (for me at least) debate with another of his readers and it is in the spirit of that debate that I wish to present my thinking on these matters educational.

The first point that I need to make is (and I am as guilty of this as the next) is that by taking any of the elements of education in isolation the debate immediately becomes very simplistic and ignores the inter-relationship between the various factors – and factions.

Second, I also need to clarify my “position” on the subject. Both my parents were teachers, in rural service, in the 1950’s through 70’s. My secondary education was at Taipa DHS and Kaitaia College. I am a “retired” accountant with (obviously) tertiary qualifications. So given that background I do tend to focus on the difficulties of education in rural and low socio-economic communities. I have two (now adult) children, one of whom is university qualified and the other not. (As a matter of interest, the latter earns more than the former). I am also fortunate to have two very good friends, now retired, who taught and were Department Heads at one of Auckland’s larger “low –decile” colleges. A good part of the more recent “experience” is based upon their experience as well as my own as a parent guiding my two children through their secondary and tertiary education.

Third, I am going to try very hard to not appear to advocate for any particular group. So, if I point to salary as one of the major hurdles in obtaining suitably qualified teachers I am stating that as a “fact” rather than to support teachers in their current negotiations. As it happens this is a consequence rather than problem – it is the result of the comparative riches available to NZers in other countries; be they teachers, doctors or accountants. No amount of control or payment is going to resolve exodus resulting from the far greater buying power of Australia, US, Canada, Japan, China and the European countries where NZ teachers and graduates generally are held in very high regard.

Karl du Fresne, after a seven paragraph opening rant on the history of government versus labour unions finally got to the nitty with this opening –

All of which brings us to the two teachers’ unions, the NZEI and the PPTA, both of which just happen to be locked in disputes with the government right now: the NZEI over national standards and the PPTA over salary and conditions claims.

There is something depressingly familiar about all this. As the power of the old blue-collar unions has faded, so the militancy of the teacher unions has increased. It has become almost a cliché to describe them as the boilermakers and freezing workers of the new millennium. In fact I see from my files that as long ago as 1995, I wrote an editorial about the PPTA headlined Militants of the nineties.

In that Evening Post editorial I wrote: “As employees of the system, teachers have every right to be consulted on changes. They are entitled within reason to oppose moves which they believe are not in the best interests of pupils, and when all else fails they have the same legal right as any other group of employees to take industrial action. But they misuse their strength – and test the country’s patience – when they consistently use their organisational muscle to frustrate, defy and stonewall the legitimate policies of an elected government.”

I also wrote that teachers had misled themselves into believing that they were the sole guardians and arbiters of all that was correct in education. “They have deluded themselves into thinking, in effect, that they have proprietorial rights over the education system when in fact they are merely its servants.”

After further, and comparatively unproductive, ranting along those lines he gets to this -

And if previous government-union showdowns are any guide, a resounding defeat for the PPTA would leave the union weakened and demoralised, clearing the decks for a slew of potentially beneficial education reforms that have previously been put in the too-hard basket for fear of teacher resistance.

A few that come to mind are education vouchers, which would enable parents to “buy” their children’s education at the school of their choice; performance-based pay, which would reward and incentivise good teachers and strip away the protection enjoyed by non-performers; bulk funding, which would shift power from the central bureaucracy to school boards; and an end to the perverse Labour-imposed system of zoning, which locks the poor into mediocre schools and creates exclusive zones of privilege (as reflected in stratospheric real estate prices) around sought-after ones.

None of these proposals are radical. They seem that way only because the teacher unions have opposed them so vehemently, knowing that the national union structure – the source of their power and control – would probably start to unravel if they were adopted.

For some quite puzzling reason he then spends the last two paras negating the whole of his prior argument -

Good, hard-working teachers deserve far more honour and recognition than they get under the present structure, which supports and protects poor performers under the guise of “collegiality”.

Is it an anti-union rant, then? No. I believe strongly in unions and have held office in one myself. What I object to is the abuse of union power. The teacher unions exert far more control over the education system than is healthy or democratic. They do it only because they have been able to bully successive governments into letting them. But the time has come for the education of our children (and grandchildren, in my case) to be liberated from their grasp.

The first sentence under that last c&p is in many respects the crux. The first sentiment I agree with 100%. That is the truth.

What follows, once again, is the consequence of over-simplification –
…which supports and protects poor performers under the guise of “collegiality”.

The pity is that it is also one of the first fundamentals in the debate.

I want to close this first part by taking a wider view of education. It is not, as Karl states, that teacher unions have taken control of the education system, or that they might even want to do this. It is not, as I have seen recently opined in the press, that teachers are engaged in a covert action to instil socialism into the sub-conscious of their students.

There is another factor which has to be explored and overcome. It centres on the relationship between the education system and the community. It is the fundamental behind the what, by whom, and why of education. It has nothing whatsoever to do with labour union power, who runs the education system, the involvement of government, or whether education vouchers will solve the perceived difficulties of “education”.

For education to succeed, we (our society) all need to be very clear on all of the following.

  • The definition of “education”.

  • The objectives education is required to attain.

  • The distribution of education as a public good.

Back in the good old days – Neolithic or thereabouts – education was very simple. You either learned how to get and provide food and shelter or you perished. Simple and elegant.

More recently, education as we think of it was limited to the privileged few; nobility and religieuse. Outside of these groups education would have perhaps come from craft apprenticeship or direct learning; most often provided by parents and wider family.

The modern world has removed all barriers to education; there are no longer the class and craft divisions; there is an almost infinite increase in the complexity and depth of the knowledge required to “survive”.

The removal of those barriers has created challenges which are still not resolved; they are not unique to NZ; they are the foundation of this debate; they are the “who gets what, why, and how much” of education in this modern world.

Tuesday, October 05, 2010

Rampaging idiocy posing as television presentation...

The following is the text of a letter I have sent to the Editor of old Granny Herald.

No, I do not expect that it will be published.


He has apologised? Any apology from that man has the dignity and worth of the seven year old who knows that in better times he would have been facing a goodly walloping from the old man, but that now he might get a couple of hours peace and quiet in his bedroom.

There is no apology that he can offer, to Sir Anand, to New Zealand, or to anyone else, that would satisfactorily make up for his current sins.

If he wishes to do penance perhaps he could consider crawling naked across the Northern Motorway in the 5 p.m. rush hour tonight.

Alternatively, to just leave the country permanently might be sufficient apology.


This is why it was writ...

On TVNZ's Breakfast yesterday Henry suggested Sir Anand's successor should look and sound more like a New Zealander.

Henry made the comments while questioning Prime Minister John Key.

"Are you going to choose a New Zealander who looks and sounds like a New Zealander this time ... Are we going to go for someone who is more like a New Zealander this time?"

Mr Key seemed taken aback and said that Sir Anand was a New Zealander.
I am sincerely sorry if I seemed disrespectful to him (Sir Anand), that was not what I intended and I certainly didn't intend to sound racist.

It was wrong for me to ask the questions that I did."

Henry said Sir Anand's background was far more "dignified" than his own.

"Most people think that I am British but the truth is much, much worse than that, like the Governor-General I was born in New Zealand but, however, I am at least half what they colloquially call in Europe a gippo (gypsy).

"So let me make it quite clear I will never apologise for causing outrage, however, I will, and do apologise for causing real hurt and upset to anyone, no matter what their background, who works to make this country a better country.

"So in that spirit I apologise unreservedly to Sir Anand and his family, he is a very distinguished man I am a gippo television presenter."

You want a sword to fall on? I got one. And it is blunt.


Latest addition to this sorry story is that the offender (offensive offender) has been suspended until 18 October without pay.

That only leaves the question -

"Suspended by which portion of his anatomy?"

Sunday, October 03, 2010

Spring is sprung...

Al the bourgeouis philistine had a couple of quite colourful Fall shots from round his place.
About a couple months back yt had to act as chaffeur to SWMBO when she had a cataract op. Went for a walk around some of the local streets during the couple of hours she was in theatre and found a tree absolutely overflowing with silvereyes.

I have no idea what the tree is; it is large, deciduous and smothered with these pink flowers.