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Making A Real Difference

Posted on 27 Jul 2009

Hon Heather Roy speech to the Southland Region Board of Trustees Annual General Meeting; Kelvin Hotel, Kelvin Street, Invercargill; Tuesday, July 21 2009.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Good evening, and thank you for the invitation to speak at your AGM.

Unlike many Wellingtonians, I'm not afraid to visit Invercargill in the winter. I spent a year at Kew Hospital as a third-year physiotherapy student, met my husband here and have family living locally.

These things may mean that my Southland credentials aren't perfect, but I do have a little history with the region!

I'd like to begin by thanking you for the contribution you make. We - the Government and parents - expect a lot from you and, when I consider how it is those of you who are Board Trustees got to be where you are, I have a great deal of admiration for your efforts and achievements.

Like me - and all politicians - you are elected to your positions by your peers. Your job is to govern, not to get involved in management - no matter how tempting that may be at times - to be accountable for the decisions you make and to take criticism from all directions. There is no long-term job security and in your case the pay is - to put it politely - not that flash.

Your often thankless position carries with it expectations. Boards have a very important role in making a difference for children and young people. You are entrusted with effective governance and expected to be scrupulously honest, to speak for your school community and to competently drive through the changes schools need and parents mandated at the last election.

As Boardmembers you are ultimately responsible for the performance of your school. You are expected to be confident that you are serving the best interests of student learning and achievement. You are expected to be accountable - to show your community what you are doing, and why.

And while you turn your minds and actions to these tasks in what is essentially a voluntary capacity I suspect you frequently find that everyone is an expert - yet few put up their hands to be counted as you do.

One could ask why it is you bother. Yet I rarely talk to a trustee who doesn't report that the experience is extraordinarily challenging but rewarding and valuable. That speaks volumes for your commitment to your children, and my children and all other Kiwi kids. For fighting the good fight I congratulate you.

After last year's election I became the Minister of Consumer Affairs, Associate Minister of Education and Associate Minister of Defence. There may not be too much obviously in common with Defence and the job you do as trustees of our children's school's, but my other responsibilities are directly related. As Minister of Consumer Affairs I expect quality and choice in the education sector. Parents and students are, after all, consumers of education services.

Associate Ministers are responsible for specific areas of portfolios. After the positions are allocated, primary portfolio Ministers and Associates negotiate over the areas of delegated authority - at least this is my recent experience of how such things go!

After some to-ing and fro-ing I was given responsibility for Special Education, Gifted and Talented Students and Independent Schools. Although at face value these seem like diverse area there is a common thread - to get quality educational outcomes for students, and that choice is the key to achieving success.

Tonight I'd like to focus on the areas of Special Education and Gifted and Talented Students. We tend to think of the children and young people that broadly fit in to these two groups as being at opposite ends of a spectrum - but in many respects this is the wrong way of considering what their needs are and how they can be met.

In reality, those who we consider to be 'normal learners' do relatively well in our school system. That's not to say they couldn't perhaps do better but they don't cause too much grief in the classroom, don't require extra resources and will - by and large - become responsible citizens who will contribute well to society.

Those with learning challenges outside the 'normal' range, however, struggle and require extra assistance.

If I had to sum up the thing I think is most vital to success in our education, it is choice. When it comes to the education of their children, parents - often with advice - are best placed to determine what the right school is. What is right for one is not necessarily right for another. The idea that there is a 'one size fits all' education model to suit all children is a myth.

In Invercargill today I've seen plenty of that and had several excellent visits to a variety of schools and programmes:

* James Hargest High School, Student Support Centre
* Waihopi Primary School, Park Syndicate
* Ruru Special School
* Enrich@ilt, which is part of the Gifted Kids Programme network - a One Day School which was launched during the recent Gifted Awareness Week and
* No. 10 - Invercargill Secondary Schools Network

Special Needs
There was much flurry around an IHC report released recently that purported that mainstreaming was the only style of schooling suitable for children with special needs.

The mainstreaming philosophy is favoured by many parents. In fact, most children with special needs receive their education at their local school. All children have the legal right to attend the school closest to where they live. But this is just one option that should exist when it comes to the delivery of Special Education.

Parents - of all children - deserve to have the freedom to decide the kind of schooling that best suits their children's needs. Inclusive schools favoured at the expense of other options for special needs students - special schools and satellite units - takes away that freedom and locks special needs students into the very 'one size fits all' education model that denies parents viable options for their children.

I absolutely support the right of parents of children with special needs to choose and send their children to an inclusive or mainstream school. However, they do not have the right to impose their beliefs on the parents of other special needs students in a way that would limit their choices and options - as is implied in the report.

Many parents, after seeking advice and investigating all possibilities, choose special schools or satellite units where they are available as the schooling option that is best for their child.

Both ACT and National campaigned for greater choice in education during the 2008 election and have pledged to continue this work in Government. As part of this, the National-ACT Confidence & Supply Agreement states that both Parties will work together to:

"increase the education choices available to parents and pupils so families have more freedom to select schooling options that best meet the individual needs of their children."

As Associate Minister of Education I am responsible for conducting a review of Special Education that will identify current difficulties and possible solutions, and I welcome comments from everyone who has a vested interest in this very important area.

The review will also consider funding issues and ways of allocating the extra resources promised before the election. Despite having had to make some difficult decisions in Budget 2009, an additional $51 million over four years has been allocated to enable more children with high needs to receive support through Ongoing and Reviewable Resourcing Schemes (ORRS).

Further, a flow-on effect should see children with moderate special education needs also receive more support.

Gifted and Talented
Although we parents all consider our children to be talented, one of the biggest obstacles that a gifted child faces is simply being recognised as such. This is partly due to the stereotypical image of a gifted child being one that is far in advance of their years and, for example, having the ability to undertake university level studies while still attending school.

Many parents worry that their gifted child can become isolated from others, while other gifted children are over-looked at school because they may have learning problems - such as dyslexia - or problems with co-ordination.

These children often become confused, lonely and frustrated. They can become bored at school and feel they don't belong - which can lead to low self-esteem, or behavioural problems and under-achievement. Some are teased and bullied at school, and others will purposely under-achieve to fit in with their peers.

Gifted children often feel isolated or strange because they don't fit in. Frequently they haven't met other gifted children and are reassured when they do find others with similar life and learning experiences. Because they can find it difficult to connect with their peers, they can miss out on the socialising experiences that other children have.

I firmly believe we must celebrate success in whatever form it may take. As a country, it is vital that we recognise achievement and provide positive encouragement to our gifted and talented children and young people - whether that be in academic, artistic, or sporting fields.

It is, therefore, encouraging to see the work of the many organisations that focus on gifted children and the schools that provide programmes for these students. Gifted Awareness Week and One Day Schools are just two initiatives that encourage young people to develop their special talents and enable them to grow and gain confidence - not just in that particular area, but in other learning areas.

There is, and always has been under successive Governments, little public funding of Gifted and Talented children. The Ministry of Education has had an advisory group in place for several years. This group is due to be re-organised, and I am working with the Ministry on a number of options to improve the way in which expertise and assistance is provided to schools in this area.

Joint ventures between schools and a number of organisations that provide quality programmes for students now is one way of maximising the passion and skill of those working in the area.

A rising tide really does raise all ships, and the downstream effects of developing and strengthening gifts and talents is beneficial to the educational outcomes of all students.

One area where there are significant gaps for teachers - both in Special Education and Gifted and Talented - is in undergraduate training and professional development. Until our teachers are equipped to provide quality teaching, we cannot expect the best to be provided to students. There is work to be done in this area.

Under the Education ACT of 1877 education was to be free, secular and compulsory for children aged seven-13. Today the Government funds education for students aged five-19. But nowhere is it written that the Government must provide the education outcomes, own education property or even employ the teachers and staff.

Take roading, for example. While Governments are committed to building roads that are free to drive on, they often contract private companies to plan, build and maintain them. So why not in education?

I see no impediment to the Government contracting private organisations to provide education - so long as that provision is cost-effective, performs well and is of a high quality. Providing choice means providing options for parents and students - a 'one size fits all' State-run model provides only one option which, by its very nature, offers no choice at all.

It is very important that all schools are able to focus on the needs of students and parents, rather than on the demands of central agencies.

I want principals and teachers to lead learning; I want schools to get on with teaching and boards to provide proactive governance. Valuable time and energy shouldn't be wasted on satisfying an over-powering and needless bureaucracy. Our sole aim needs to be delivering the best education outcomes for all children and young people so they have all the tools and opportunities with which to reach their full potential.

We need to place high trust in leaders at the front line, and encourage and promote self-managing schools. This means strong educational leadership in every school is critical to achieving education goals be that State, integrated, independent, Rudolph Steiner - whatever the philosophy.

Thank you again for the work that you do. It is valuable and valued.


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