A question for the Minister of Education

I usually don’t pay much attention to the output of the Ministry of Education or its ministers.  I often fear that if I did it would turn out to be about as disconcerting as MBIE’s output.   I focus on getting my own kids through the school system with as little enduring damage as possible  (one of the real joys of being a stay-at-home parent is the time to counter the “indoctrination” that comes from, say, fourth form social studies teachers).

Every time I walk past the Ministry of Education’s head office in Wellington, their slogan or motto emblazoned across the front of the building gets my goat.  It reads

“Lifting aspiration and raising educational achievement for every New Zealander”

It must have sounded good to the bureaucrats and their PR people, but frankly it is the sort of slogan that shouldn’t be seen outside an authoritarian state –  Singapore, Turkey or the like.   Ideally it wouldn’t be seen even there.

I don’t particularly want to have my “educational achievement” raised, and certainly not by the government and its ministry.  As it happens, I’m always keen to learn and am a voracious reader.  Many people aren’t.   But, either way, what business is that of the government?    My “aspirations”, such as they are, are my own, and also no business of the ministry or the government.   The Ministry would, only can only assume, have strongly disapproved of St Paul, who wrote that “for I have learned, in whatsoever state I am, therewith to be content”.

If one took it seriously, it is the stuff of a mindset that sees citizens as a resource of the state, owing it to the state to get with the programme (whatever it is).    Many ministers must be able to see the slogan from their Beehive office windows: does it never occur to them that they are from the National Party?  Among National’s values are, supposedly

  • Individual freedom and choice
  • Personal Responsibility
  • Competitive enterprise and reward for achievement
  • Limited government
  • Strong families and caring communities

I’m pretty sure that list doesn’t really fit that well with the Ministry of Education trying to lift your aspirations or achievements.  Come to think of it, the ACT leader is a Parliamentary Under-Secretary to the Minister of Education, and as a party they claim to be even more strongly in favour of limited government.

Do government departments need slogans at all?  Perhaps “administer our legislation and advise the Minister of Education” doesn’t have quite the same ring to it, but it is what officialdom is really supposed to be doing.

That quote has been annoying me for a while, but this post was prompted by news that the Minister of Education has announced that “computational thinking” and “designing and developing digital outcomes” will become compulsory parts of the national school curriculum from next year.     Perhaps there is a good case for adding those items to the curriculum (I’m frankly a bit sceptical –  apart from anything else, in ye olden days when I went through school we didn’t teach typing to everyone).  But I looked through the Minister’s speech announcing this change, and have read newspaper articles on it, and listened to other media stories.  And in all of that material, I’ve seen not a hint of what the Minister wants schools to stop teaching, or teach less of.

I’m sure there aren’t many economists in the Ministry of Education, but the idea of constrained optimisation shouldn’t be too difficult to grasp, even for Cabinet ministers.   It is easy to add new items that sound or feel good, but there are only so many hours in the day, so many weeks in the school year (and I’m not one of those who thinks that year should be lengthened).    Perhaps there is room for increased productivity in schools, but there isn’t any suggestion that that is the answer either.  It feels a lot like an initiative that will squeeze other stuff out, and we’ll never quite know what, but the Minister concerned and her officials will long since have moved on by then.  But surely the Minister should be able to tell us what she wants schools teaching less of?   Because it is a real choice, and something will be lost, either consciously and deliberately or by default.

I think I’ll always remember the evening, shortly after our oldest child started school, when the then Principal of the local school –  a vocal union advocate for teachers, staunch opponent of National Standards, and prone to somewhat convoluted prose (I often thought he must have been angling for a job at the Ministry) – declaimed that he had no interest in teaching specific knowledge because pretty much everything he had learnt at school had been superseded.   I’m a history buff, and I kept asking myself whether somehow Dick Seddon, Michael Joseph Savage, Sid Holland or Keith Holyoake were no longer significant figures in our history?  Or did World War Two, or the Russian Revolution no longer take place?  Is gravity no longer a force?  Does Shakespeare no longer influence our language and cultural reference points?

It is old ground, but worth repeating. It is all very well to teach general problem-solving and analysis skills, but without context, without specific structured knowledge, those skills aren’t really that much use at all.    And so when the Minister says that schools must teach “designing and developing digital outcomes”, which

“is about understanding that digital systems and applications are created for humans by humans, and developing knowledge and skills in using different digital technologies to create digital content across a range of digital media”

I can’t help thinking that rather better use might be made of the time the Minister wants to devote to matters digital. For example, in teaching New Zealand history, in the context of the history of western civilisation (or even global history), than preparing to use Facebook or whatever newly trendy medium is around a few years hence.    And if there are more resources to train teachers,  I’d suggest some be devoted to improving teachers’ own communications skills.  The local principal (a new one) recently began her newsletter this way

Last week I began a conversation about dispositional ways of being.

I still have no idea what it meant.

C S Lewis, professor of English at Cambridge, once wrote a letter, replying to a young American fan, offering five guidelines for good writing.    Thanks to the wonders of the internet, it is freely available to all our teachers, and to Ministry of Education bureaucrats as well.    George Orwell offered similarly sound advice.

UPDATE: I put the text of the Minister’s speech into Readable.io, which provides statistical measures of readability.  It came back with this summary


Your average sentence length is too high. Try to shorten or split up some of your long sentences.
You are using too many long words. Try replacing some of them with shorter alternatives.

On the Flesch-Kincaid grade, the speech came out with a score of 13.1, apparently as hard to read as a typical US law.    Ernest Hemingway, apparently, managed a score of 4, and the website observes that a document needs to have a score of 8 to be readable by most people.   It would seem a reasonable benchmark for a Minister of Education to aim for.




Who has been getting residence visas?

Someone called Keith Ng (who is apparently quite pro-immigration), has gone to the effort of downloading some of MBIE’s (not at all user-friendly) visa approvals data and formatting it in a reasonably readily usable way.  The resulting spreadsheet is here.   I was particularly interested in the analysis by occupation, and particularly that for those granted residence here.  (He has provided the data for work visas as well, but it conflates all sort of work visa types, short and long term, and isn’t that informative as it stands –  I suspect that 30000+ tour guide visas in the last seven years or so mostly captures a lot of people who are here for very short periods of time.)

In their annual Migration Trends and Outlook publication MBIE do provide a table of the occupations of the principal applicants for skilled migrant category residence visas.  But, unlike most of their tables, there is no time series provided.  In 2015/16 –  the latest publication –  these were the top 10 occupations.

Chef 860
Retail Manager (General) 675
Cafe or Restaurant Manager 598
Registered Nurse (Aged Care) 520
ICT Customer Support Officer 372
Software Engineer 323
Carpenter 281
Developer Programmer 267
Baker 213
ICT Support Technicians nec 206

I was a bit curious how many chefs there were in New Zealand in total.  At the last census, there were only 16218.

But Ng’s table enables one to easily look at the main occupations of people being granted residence over the last decade or so.  He presents the data for  each of the years 2006/7 to the present, with only partial data for the incomplete (June) year 2016/17.  Here are the occupations with more than 1000 approvals over the decade.

Occupations of approved residence visas applicants: 2006/07 to present
Chef 6729
Retail Manager (General) 3765
Registered Nurse (Aged Care) 3609
Cafe or Restaurant Manager 3585
ICT Customer Support Officer 1993
Software Engineer 1943
University Lecturer 1789
Secondary School Teacher 1656
ICT Support Technicians nec 1439
Registered Nurse (Medical) 1393
Developer Programmer 1338
Baker 1294
Carpenter 1214
Early Childhood (Pre-primary School) Teacher 1192
Accountant (General) 1191
Office Manager 1145
Motor Mechanic (General) 1080

And this is the most skilled half of the people who are granted residence (others get in on non-skilled bases –  family, refugees, Pacific Access etc).

The list is quite dominated by the first few entries, and those occupations don’t stand out as occupations of exceptional skill, even though MBIE used to like to tell us that our immigration policy was a “critical economic enabler”.    And remember that this is about people getting residence, not about work visas which, notionally at least, are supposed to partly reflect specific temporary areas of skills shortages (and, hence, where one might expect bunching in particular occupations, but where the particular occupation would change over time).

The large numbers of aged care nurses (and there are many more, and aged care workers, in the work visa numbers) stands in striking contrast to the recent pay equity settlement. In that settlement, the government concluded that employees in the sector were so badly paid that a direct government intervention was needed to drive up the wages.  I don’t usually focus much on the arguments about whether immigration lowers wages –  my focus is more on overall economic performance –  and I’m not (at all) a fan of “pay equity” interventions, but it is hard to look at these two things and not conclude that there is a certain incoherence about policy.   Had fewer aged care workers from abroad been granted visas, it seems likely that market wages in that sector would have been rather higher.

Of course, among the occupations on that list are some that seem genuinely quite highly-skilled.  My eye was caught by the number of university lecturers and “developer programmers”.

The number of developer programmers getting residence visas has increased from almost nothing, and at an even faster rate than the (presumably) rather less skilled ICT Customer Support Officers.

res approvals IT

On the other hand, rather fewer university lecturers (and secondary school teachers) have been getting residence.

res approvals teachers

How early childhood teachers qualify at all is a bit beyond me.

And just in case you, charitably, supposed that some of the less skilled occupations were becoming less important over time, here are the food-preparation ones on my list.

res approvals food

And here are the trends in the remaining top five roles

res approvals other

If there is a serious economic strategy behind all this, it is pretty hard to spot.  No wonder the government was casting around for other ideas when they ran into the Monahan brothers and came up with the global impact visas.  But just because something different needed to be done, didn’t make  “just anything” –  especially something with a rather hip or with-it feel to it –  a sensible thing to do.

The only really compelling story that makes much sense of the residence approvals numbers is official (political and bureaucratic) determination to drive up the population.  If that is the goal, I guess one can’t be very picky and we get a bunch of modestly-skilled people coming.  But there isn’t much sign that driving up the population has been a successful economic strategy anywhere –  unless, of course, one counts survival as a precondition, which partly motivates the Israeli policy of open doors to any Jews –  particularly not in places that remain heavily dependent on what they can do with fixed natural resources.    Sometimes rapid population growth can be a complement to economic success –  people will be keen to come and there might be plenty of prosperity to go round.  But New Zealand’s policy –  and Australia’s actually –  continues to put the cart before the horse, as if drawing more people here will somehow conjure up great new higher-productivity opportunities for them and for us.     But there is simply no basis –  and certainly not in New Zealand’s experience –  for such a belief.