Big Shoes to Fill

As you will have read, Phil is reducing his involvement with Treehorn, although he will still appear in print from time to time.  His decision is understandable, as he does have a life to live, outside of banking his head against the NAPLAN wall. His frustration at not being successful in provoking principals and teachers into taking action is also understandable, as the situation is similar in New Zealand. Phil has asked me to fill his shoes, to take over the prime role of looking after Treehorn. I’ve got two problems with that; his shoes are too big for me and his steps far too long! Phil’s knowledge and experience puts him in another league for any mere mortal to follow; however all I can do is my best to follow in his footsteps.

While I’ve been lurking in the background on the Treehorn blogsite for 18 months or so, I’ve not really been to the forefront, apart from my weekly educational readings. It’s time to break cover and risk boring you with a biography.

I worked as a primary teacher for 20 years in a number of primary schools in New Zealand, all bar one of these being in lower socio-economic areas. In 1992 I decided it was time to move to principalship, and worked, as principal, in four schools over that time, spending the period 2002 to 2011 as principal of a high socio-economic school. I’m restrained from identifying this school, however capable ‘googlers’ will no doubt be able to find the answer.

In November 2008, GERM arrived in New Zealand, following the election of the centre-right National Party and its coalition party, a rag tag supposedly libertarian outfit called ACT. This version of GERM came bundled with the usual rhetoric: schools and teachers were not good enough, children were not achieving, parents were not being provided with accurate data on how their children were achieving, and so on. Get the picture? Classic fear mongering politics aimed at frightening parents into worrying about their children’s education. I’ll unpack these claims in future posts.

National’s ‘solution’ to the ‘failures’ of New Zealand education was the establishment of National Standards of ‘achievement’ in literacy and numeracy, or, to be more precise, reading, ‘riting and ‘rithmetic. Yes, folks, the old 3Rs. These standards were to be set for each year level, starting from 5 years olds with the ‘achieved’ mark set at about the 66% level i.e., considerably above average for the age. As I was to discover in coming months, this notion of ‘raising the bar’ was imported from eastern states of the USA, with the magical belief that a higher bar would bring higher ‘achievement.’

Over the following couple of years I watched developments with increasing concern, exacerbated by my frustrations at the lack of concern shown by my principal colleagues, who failed to smell the same rats as I did. Health issues put a stop to all things education in the second half of  2010; however once I was back in harness in February 2011 I started doing some digging, to learn more about the National Standards regime.

The more I dug, the more unsavoury information I found, and I began seeing evidence that there was a very tight link between New Zealand and overseas variants of GERM. Once I learned about the McKinsey & Company reportHow the world’s most improved school systems keep getting better‘ everything started to fall into place. Here was the source of the ‘data’ being quoted by the government to ‘prove’ New Zealand primary school education was failing, derived, of course, from PISA test results. Coincidentally it seems that many other countries mined the same data to draw similar conclusions, to justify ‘reform’ in their countries. This was the start of my discoveries and much more was to turn up in my browser over the next few months.

The more I discovered, the more concerned and angry I became at the con job being foisted on New Zealand schools, especially as there was much less angst from the great majority of principals and teachers than I would have expected (Hence my sympathies with Phil’s frustrations.) There was, in fact, a degree of acceptance and ‘we can cope,’ which was in stark contrast to the results of my research.

I reached the proverbial crossroads in April 2o11.

“I went down to the crossroad
fell down on my knees
I went down to the crossroad
fell down on my knees
Asked the lord above “Have mercy now
save poor Bob if you please”

One was to sell my soul to the devil and to meekly fall into line to implement everything as required. The other alternative was to take up the pen and start to fight. There comes a time when people have to stand up for their beliefs and this was mine.

‘All the money you make will never buy back your soul.‘ Bob Dylan

So that’s what I did, fully mindful that I was potentially loading a gun that would later be pointed at me.

Six months later, this was indeed the case.  Even the local newspaper was keen to assist with the gun, having somehow managed to dredge up a throw away comment that I’d posted on someone else’s blog 18 months earlier. This comment, in fact, was so buried that I resorted to asking the newspaper where it was. Some people sure must have trawled very hard to dig up dirt on me!

Needless to say, the resultant publicity over this comment, which even featured on a Radio New Zealand national radio programme, didn’t go down too well with my employing Board of Trustees, not one of whom shared my  forebodings about the grim future facing New Zealand education. The possibility that at least one member had dirt on his/her fingers over the newspaper article, and other discontent,  sure didn’t help.

Things took another turn however, when my health deteriorated again and I realised that my time as a school principal was over.big shoes

This didn’t, of course, have to mean that my days as an educational activist needed to cease as well; in fact it meant that I was now freed of employment pressures, and free from further attacks. My health kept me fairly quiet in 2012; however my brain is slowly coming back (myalgic encephalomyelitis/chronic fatigue syndrome is very debilitating) and so I’m able to start writing once again, just in time to step into Phil’s shoes.

Allan Alach


2 thoughts on “Big Shoes to Fill

  1. Tanks for the background Alan. My experiences on the east coast of the USA were e a fly as you described and drove me out. I think I have seen the best (Victorian schools before the push for standards, testing and so called accountability) and the worst ( my school district in Virginia USA). I only hope that Phil’s retreat to the background doesn’t result in Treehorn becoming a NZ. child only. Your friends across the ditch need you too.



  2. Welcome to a growing group of educators, parents and concerned citizens who have also informed themselves about the true agenda for the privatization of our public schools. It has become painfully obvious that this is a global witch hunt and that makes it truly Scarey on another level. Many of us are coming to believe that in fact one person can change the world. Dr. Diane Ravitch is one of those “ones” providing connectivity and encouragement for many of us “other ones” who show up at every legislative hearing, every Board of Education meeting and every public gathering where our voices may be heard. The lies, political shenanigans, financial investments and profiteering are being slowly exposed. Justice will be had. Follow what is happening in Louisiana and you will see the future for everywhere else tht hasn’t quite made it there yet. Learn from our failures and our victories. One today when the judge ruled our Act 1 legislation unconstitutional.

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