Dr Alex Gunn, University of Otago
A key remit of the New Zealand Association for Research in Education (NZARE) is to respond to public debate on matters of relevance to research in education. This is what members did in November 2016 when, at our NZARE Conference and AGM, the membership called upon the New Zealand Government to refrain from participation in a planned OECD study on Early Learning and Child Wellbeing (IELS). The so-called “Baby PISA” project had proceeded to development with virtually no public debate; thus, early childhood and childhood studies scholars’ protest was mobilised around the world (see here, here, here, and here), including through the actions of members of NZARE.
Following our organisation’s 2016 conference and AGM, sector representatives in Aotearoa raised questions regarding the IELS project and NZ’s potential involvement in it with the Ministry of Education (MoE). This questioning was met by MoE officials with much reported “puzzlement”. NZ officials had been involved in discussions over the project since 2015 and at the highest level. The stand taken by NZARE was recognised internationally when Alan Pence, a professor at the University of Victoria (BC, Canada), commented on and called for action and debate about the study, noting the potentially damaging effects of such large scale, culturally naïve and blunt comparative assessments. The PISA study of 15-year-olds is a most relevant example with international protest at that assessment’s impact raised in a 2014 open letter to the OECD’s Andreas Schleicher (director of the PISA programme) from academics around the world. Martin Carnoy’s 2015 piece on the misuse of international test score comparisons is also illustrative.
NZARE members objected to NZ’s involvement in the IELS for several reasons:
- The ‘one-world’ view of early education effectiveness that the study was promoting
- The risk of a narrowing of the curriculum
- The potential for the development of a so-called “pedagogy of compliance”
- The continued marginalisation of those constituted as NZ’s ‘priority learner’ groups, by a study that looks like it is neither formative nor about improving learning (for teachers, families, early childhood settings and schools) and more about government’s investment in policy and arguably naïve belief in so-called policy learning.
Members of the MoE stakeholder group, the Early Childhood Advisory Committee (ECAC), last month reported informally on this issue to individuals and groups: it seems NZ will not now be engaging with the project – although official minutes of that hui are yet to be released. From my point of view this is very welcome news – as I, along with many others, was never convinced about the IELS’s supposed imperative of quality improvement of early education for young children and families. Thanks to NZARE members for their contribution to this protest and debate.
Alex Gunn is a senior lecturer at the University of Otago College of Education who has a long history in early childhood and teacher education research and scholarship. In 2016, Alex was one of the two inaugural recipients of the NZARE Judith Duncan Award for her contribution to research in early childhood education (citation).