Hi Cathy. So can you tell me a little about how and why you joined NZCER?
I had been a lecturer in anthropology and then I moved to the Department of Social Welfare in their evaluation unit. I then moved to the PSA, which is our public sector union, at a time when we were making major changes in our public service. An opportunity came up at NZCER, my brother-in-law who was working there told me about it, and I thought it was a good opportunity to learn about the world of education. I hadn't been a teacher, only at tertiary level. I wanted to understand how we support our students, how we do policies - in the ways that schools are organised - and actually have a bearing on what happens in classrooms or on teachers.
How would you assess the state of New Zealand’s education system over the last few decades?
I wrote a book called Vital Connections: Why We Need More Than Self-managing Schools in 2012, and my overall judgement was that we had lost ground, because we tried to make self-managing schools work without giving schools the support that they need. I look back and I just think on the one hand, there's some great practice around this country, but on the other, it's too varied. The international studies, PISA and TIMMS for example, have shown maths and science have been areas where we haven't been as strong as we should be for quite a long time.
We haven't given our primary teachers the support and perhaps we're asking them to do too much. We're asking every school to reinvent the wheel. Some of what's coming through is that we've really got to make sure that we give teachers the time and resources and to provide a bit more structure to what they're trying to do, because otherwise, it's very difficult for them to cover the full range of students.
That’s because we're in a much more diverse society, with greater social needs, we've had inclusion of all students in our schools, so that means that the range of students, is far wider than it used to be. So overall I look at it and I think, ‘Well, we've done really well for what we've asked people to do, but we've asked people to do too much and we haven't got the balance right’. I think there is a sense now that people are saying, ‘Yes, there are issues here in New Zealand and we need to be tackling them more systematically than we have’. It's not a matter of blame or shame; it's a matter of the system as a whole needing to be more coherent and collaborative.
Is it a matter of simplifying the curriculum?
Well, I don't know about reducing a content rich curriculum. What I think happened is that New Zealand undertook a curriculum refresh in the 1990s, and it was done very, very fast with insufficient support, and there were heaps and heaps of achievement objectives. And so people had a sense that it became shallower. And with insufficient support, we lost our advisory service, so things have become quite fragmented in that sense. But you want a rich curriculum; you want one that's going to be relevant to kids. It's more a matter of what are the things that really matter? What are the key aspects that would really prepare students for a more complex future, and also relate to their interests and encourage them and enthuse them? So you have to have both a content rich curriculum and teach that content in ways that students develop agency in their learning, that they're engaged in their learning and that it's not a matter of pouring out content from the teacher to the child. I think our understanding of how learning occurs and the importance of relationships between teacher and student, and building on those, has really deepened, so it's actually a very exciting time. But we also understand, I think now, the complexity of it and that there is no way you can think of teaching and learning as a simple process any longer.
What are some of the big issues you’ve researched during your time at NZCER?
The first piece of work I did was looking at the impact of a new policy to provide more staffing in primary schools. We then had a big royal commission on social policy in New Zealand, and NZCER was asked to provide a broad overview, to bring together all the information that was available about equity in our system and how different groups fared, for example students with additional learning needs. So that meant I had a crash course in understanding what the big issues were in education and why. I began to understand how practices, such as streaming, impacted some of our learners, especially our Māori and Pacific learners. So I began, I suppose, with quite a system level approach, having to think about the big issues in education, like accountability. What's the role of assessment? What are the best practices to improve teaching and learning?
And then in ‘89 we had a big shift in our education administration with a move to self-managing schools. As NZCER, there we were as the national educational research organisation, we have our own Act of Parliament. And it seemed clear to me that NZCER should be monitoring and evaluating the impact of these momentous reforms. And so that started our NZCER National Survey of Schools, an enduring series to show what was actually going on in our schools. And they were the first of their kind. I mean, we've been very lucky being a small country that you can have a national survey. I think what was also innovative is that we wanted to get the views of principals, teachers, the new school trustees who were not responsible for each school, and parents; we wanted to get all four groups who were impacted by the reforms.
I had largely been a qualitative researcher up until then and so I learned a great deal about how to ask meaningful survey questions and interpret the results. I learned the power of a good question or a well-phrased item that made sense to the people who were answering the survey, and would produce meaningful information for the Government, sector groups, and interested members of the public. It seems to me that the role of research is to be asking questions that may not occur to other people because they have a particular point of view, or they know what they know, but they don't have a wider perspective. So a lot of my work has come out from that policy lens, aiming to provide people with an independent picture of what was actually going on, including items that built on other research about effective schools, and what people were experiencing and wanting.
In one of your recent research studies, you examined the barriers women face in becoming school leaders. Why don’t we have more women in leadership positions?
One of the big barriers has been the perception that leadership is a male thing. Women haven't always had the opportunities that men have had. What we found was that women talked about how important it was that they'd had mentors, that they'd had particular leaders or principals who'd recognised their talent, and had really mentored and pushed them sometimes. And these mentors were men, as well as women, but they did say that it was really helpful to have women supporting each other. One of the big barriers too is being able to combine the demands of school leadership with being a mother. Because women still carry more of the home responsibilities than men.
Did the study identify any policies or practices to better support women in leadership roles?
Well, it's partly about taking off the gender lens on leadership. We've done a lot of work here at NZCER on leadership capabilities. New Zealand has an educational leadership strategy that the Teaching Council developed in 2018. We were asked to develop a set of leadership capabilities, and the literature on leadership now is a much broader lens than the old fashioned kind of hierarchical framework... it's not a gendered kind of picture of leadership as it was.
We have a difficulty here with our schools’ Boards of Trustees being the employees of principals, and there is evidence that they have thought about men more favourably in terms of leadership... So if you've got a lens of what leadership should look like, and if it's actually no longer fitting what leadership needs to be in contemporary education, then you're going to be a bit more biased towards men. So you have to be really clear about the criteria that boards should be using in your employment processes.
In my other role as a member of the Tomorrow’s Schools Independent Taskforce, we recommended that there are leadership advisors working with principals and boards to make sure that something like the leadership capabilities are actually used in principal appointments, rather than being left with boards that may not be right up to speed with what we know about good leadership in schools.
Can you tell me more about the Competent Learners longtidunal study?
Sure. It began in the early ‘90s, with Anne Meade, who was then the director of NZCER. Our Competent Learners study followed a cohort of children in the Wellington region from near age five in their final months of early childhood education, through to age 26. We didn’t quite realise we were going to be able to follow this cohort for so long when we started! (laughs)
There's been a lot of richness in the Competent Learners’ study that has attracted the attention of teachers, parents and policy people, because being able to follow kids over time allows you to see how different provisions and experiences relate to each other, across education, home, friends, how you spend your time. One of the important things we were able to show was that the quality of early childhood education was really important, and then show that it still made a difference to performance in adolescence, even after you allow for the ‘usual suspects’ of maternal education and family income. I think Competent Learners played a useful part in motivating the Government to provide more support for early childhood education.
You’re at present on the panel of an independent review looking into under-resourcing in primary schools? Can you tell me a little about that?
NZEI have asked four of us to review the adequacy of primary staffing in New Zealand and to provide recommendations. Our report’s due by the end of May. We’ve held five days of hearings so far. We've also opened an online submission where we’ve had over 32,500 submissions. So this is a topic that is dear to people's hearts. I can't talk about the themes, but I can say that they're very consistent across all the online submissions, illustrating some of the issues primary school educators are facing in their ability to ensuring kids can reach their full potential.
Were you always interested in the research side of things?
I've always wanted to understand the meaning that people made of the world and how things relate to each other. At school I was very interested in history and geography and then discovered social anthropology at university, which asked some deep questions about these things... how the impact of your culture, upbringing and the institutions that you move between affects people.
What would you say have been your proudest career achievements so far?
I suppose I'm just humbled when teachers, principals and policymakers tell me that something that I have done has been useful to them. When they say that ‘we gained an understanding we didn't have before and we've been able to make improvements’, that's when I feel I have done something worthwhile.