Collaboration key to success in education
Kindergarten will celebrate its 125th year in New Zealand in 2014. The first kindergarten opened its doors in Dunedin in 1889, and it’s been going strong for over a century. Kindergarten in New Zealand began as a community-driven movement; it was a collaboration between prominent members of the Dunedin community who identified a need to provide quality education to the youngest children in the city. Today, kindergartens are still built around the needs, aspirations and involvement of parents, whānau and communities. Collaboration and cooperation across communities, with parents and whanau, with government, within the sector and among professional leaders, is critical to kindergartens ability to be responsive, sustainable and successful - over many decades, and through changing policy landscapes and governments. At a time when the government is intensely focused on raising achievement, it is worth considering the importance of collaboration and cooperation to success in education.
Research is clear that the involvement of parents, whanau and communities is critical to educational outcomes. The government has indicated a greater commitment to engaging with families – the Education and Science Select Committee has just completed public consultation on its inquiry into engaging parents and whānau in their children’s education. Numerous studies, including the comprehensive Effective Provision of Pre-School Education Project (EPPE) research in the UK, show that when parents and communities have high expectation for their children, are engaged in their children’s learning, and where education is considered a priority, learners excel and achieve. In New Zealand, our own research reached similar conclusions. Ministry of Education commissioned research, Picking up the Pace, found that in low-income communities in South Auckland, literacy achievement was significantly improved when there was collaboration between ECE services and schools, where teachers got to know children and their cultures very well, and where teachers and the community had high expectations for children’s learning.
Like the first kindergarten, many kindergartens over the years have been established because a group of parents or community leaders have come together and decided they want to make education a priority for their youngest children. For example, in Levin, Pasifika leaders came together with the Wellington Regional Kindergarten Association to establish Fanau Pasifika Kindergarten. On the West coast of the South Island, Karamea Kindergarten was established after conversations with the community and in partnership with another local ECE service. These services reflect and are part of their communities. Shine - the Porirua Education initiative - is a positive example of a whole sector, community driven approach to improving education.
There has been a noticeable and welcome shift away from a transactional relationship with government agencies toward greater collaboration. In its effort to reach the Better Public Services target of 98% of all children participating in ECE prior to starting school, the Ministry of Education has established a range of ways of promoting community action and involvement in early childhood education. There is an acknowledgement that particularly for communities facing complex challenges, community-driven solutions are essential. The government needs to act more broadly as a catalyst and a promoter of partnerships to support community-driven education initiatives. This may require additional or refocused resources and infrastructure.
Success of the approach also requires re-examining policies which hinder collaboration in education. A market-driven approach to early childhood education has led to inequalities. For example, while significant funding increases have been made over the years, we still have an issue in many parts of the country with low participation rates in ECE. Anyone who has obtained resource consent can open an ECE service; if they meet the regulatory requirements, they get government funding. This has led to significant competition among ECE providers which inhibits the partnerships needed to effectively meet community need. The lack of planning and coordination from the Ministry regarding ECE provision is problematic. If we are serious about ensuring all of our earliest learners have access to high quality education, it should not be left up to the market to achieve. Access to early childhood education, like the schooling sector, should be ensured and planned for effectively based on demographics and comprehensive strategic planning.
Government has recognised it needs to intervene and while welcomed, there is more to do. Expanding collaboration within and across the ECE and schools sectors is key. A greater focus on bringing together professional leaders from across the sector around particular issues such as special education needs and culture, language and identity to ensure best practice and reciprocal relationships with families and whānau is essential in order to achieve a truly integrated education system. Collaboration across the teaching profession is critical for improving the quality of ECE and schools, and supporting positive transitions for children and families. The education system cannot be most effective if pieces of the sector are working in isolation. The new professional body for teachers, EDUCANZ, could be instrumental supporting strong connections, but its future role providing leadership and guidance to the sector is not yet clear.
We all want the best for our children’s education. In order to realise this goal, there needs to be a genuine focus on cooperation and collaboration, particularly to ensure our education system is capable of being responsive, inclusive and can meet the dynamic and changing needs of a modern society. Collaboration takes time. There is no “quick fix” to raising educational achievement. We need to identify and build on the strengths of every community in New Zealand and find a way forward in education so all children thrive. “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go with others.” - Nelson Mandela