In the recent issue of NZ Principal, Emeritus Professor Warwick Elley says that the Minister exaggerates the potential of schools to reduce the gap between high and low achievers. He notes that the opposition from Primary Teachers is now having an influence on the way the Investing in Educational Success is iterating from its first proposal.

Professor Elley has a huge reputation for leadership and commentary in New Zealand schooling. His critique and scholarship has been important for us in developing policy. However, his concerns about the influence of Michael Fullan in Canada, America, Australia and New Zealand might have more to do with the complexity of the problem rather than Michael having a negative influence on those systems.

Professor Elley also questions the relevance of the various pieces of research used by the Ministry of Education to support the idea of Communities of Learning. It is true that these pieces of research are based on systems that are not the same as ours, nor are they replicated in the same cultural context. Any time we rely solely on the evidence of other systems we need to know that they apply within their own education setting and that we can develop what works for us.

One could note that over the past decade we have relied heavily on the research and expertise of Professor John Hattie to define some of the successful measures of schooling. Like other international researchers Hattie’s original work resulted from a review of thousands of theses which looked at engaging learners. We value his contribution because he looked at what happens overseas, reflected on it and made valuable connection to our education system.

New Zealand is rightfully concerned about the disparity of wealth and the influence of poverty within our society. It is a challenge for schools to address inequality and poverty through education but it mustn’t stop us from trying. I am reminded that some of the finest interventions to address poverty through education came from within the Catholic Church. The poverty of Ireland and the disenfranchisement of many families led to extreme hardship for Catholic families. The Irish Catholic Church, through people like Nano Nagle and the Presentation Sisters, Edmund Rice and the Christian Brothers and Catherine McAuley and the Mercy Sisters responded by finding ways to empower people through education. They gave people the skills to feed themselves and find employment. We cannot underestimate the hardship and challenge they faced, but in doing so they made a positive difference to the lives of many. They couldn’t have imagined how they could shift poverty and reduce disparity but they made a start.

For those of us who have food and shelter the debate is esoteric. For those waiting the delays are costly. We mightn’t get it right immediately but we have to begin.

Paul Ferris