Hard News by Russell Brown

Trivial typing errors and more

One of the perils of the line of work into which I have fallen, the media criticism part anyway, is that you won't always meet the standards you recommend to those around you.

Thus, my new Wide Area News column in The Listener contains an error and an ambiguity. The former is straightforward: a genuine Trivial Typing Error. I referred to Shenagh Gleeson's story "pointing out that Herald stories are often lifted, verbatim and uncredited, from radio news bulletins". That "from", of course, should be "for". You tend to see what you think you've written when you look over these things.

The ambiguity is in the part that says Herald photographer Glenn Jeffrey was "spoken to" in the course of the plagiarism investigation; which he was, along with others, but it could easily be taken to mean that he was in some way censured, which he certainly wasn't. I cut quite a few words from that part of the column, but you're always tempted to leave in a fact just because it's a fact, even when it isn't relevant. So allow me to emphasise that Jeffrey did nothing wrong. I'm annoyed because I was otherwise pleased with the column; I imagine Jeffrey is more annoyed and I'm sorry for that.

Anyway, is Cambridge High a school or a personality cult? With the former principal Alison Annan addressing a march of students and staff through a loudhailer, and then claiming that she has not after all resigned, and might like her job back, it's getting hard to tell.

The Herald ran an editorial yesterday urging that Annan not be "completely vilified", even as it listed the various issues at her school. This is fair in the sense that in the years after she arrived as principal in 1992, she seems to have raised up a failing school. But the idea - popular in some circles, it would seem - that she was a plucky victim of the system doesn't hold up. The Herald editorial even sought to blame school zoning for her actions:

In part Mrs Annan may be a casualty of a school zoning. She ran a school that would not be everyone's cup of tea but which would appeal to many. With open enrolment in Hamilton and nearby districts, Cambridge High might have attracted enough well-motivated, high performing pupils to fill its roll.

But while Cambridge had an open enrolment policy, Hamilton schools draw pupils only from defined zones. And that effectively confines the catchment of surrounding schools, too. It is another example of how even partial zoning renders the whole system more rigid.

Pardon? That's not actually how zoning works. My understanding is that Cambridge could, and did, take pupils from anywhere it wanted - or at least that's what this story in the same newspaper said in January:

Cambridge High School is being inundated with students from around the Waikato keen to attend the school with the perfect NCEA record.

This week an extra 200 students will start at the college, boosting the roll from 1000 pupils last year to about 1200 …

The influx in students does bring its own problems.

Mrs Annan said there was no zoning, so students were free to attend no matter where they lived.

Students were encouraged to go to their local schools, but often parents were determined their child should attend Cambridge High.

But as Pamela Stirling pointed out in an excellent Listener editorial recently, questions were already being raised about the school's apparently flawless academic record:

And while all this was happening, those of us who had supported the NCEA as an answer to the problems of the old system were becoming increasingly uneasy. Last year, Cambridge High School's perfect NCEA record was questioned after a former student claimed that the school targeted students who were not going to pass and got them to do menial tasks like picking up litter so they could get extra credits. The school, which has the country's highest pass rate, responded that picking up rubbish and doing written exercises on it was a legitimate way to help students pass.

Now, TV3's 60 Minutes programme has revealed that students who had been "mucking around" in their media studies class were allegedly taken out of class and given instant unit standards to fill out to gain credits. One student testifies that he got an astounding 35 credits in a day in one subject. By contrast, there are normally 24 credits for a total year's work in English. It's alleged that teachers have written answers to exam questions on the board. And there have been criticisms of the way students have been pressured to withdraw from exams they might fail; something that would upset the school's 100 percent pass rate. Massaging pass rates often happened in schools under the old system, but the very rationale behind the new approach was that it would overcome that "league table" mentality. Cambridge principal Alison Annan denies that results are being manipulated, but confirms that students are discouraged from sitting external exams if the school believes they will fail.

I'm not sure that NCEA should cop the blame, however. Should an attainment system be principally designed to prevent cheating by schools? And a former teacher emerged to claim that there was manipulation of School Certificate results in 2000, which he brought to the attention of the NZQA after getting no satisfactory response from the principal or school board.

Currently, Annan's unusual simultaneous role as principal of a second, private college for foreign students is being investigated by the auditor-general.

Annan resigned - well, it appeared that she had - after being advised on Friday by the retired district court judge conducting a separate independent inquiry that she would be the subject of "adverse comment". In October, the Education Review Office will report on the multiple allegations of a bullying culture aired by former staff in the 60 Minutes programme.

It's not the first time the school has run afoul of ERO. In 2000, Cambridge was accused of risking pupils' education by running a deficit of nearly half a million dollars. The ERO report said: "The financial position in which the board finds itself is predominantly the result of poor strategic planning, the acceptance of low-quality advice to inform decision-making and lack of rigour in monitoring the budget."

Then, of course, there was the infamous "boner" essay incident, in which a student was indefinitely suspended for using his imagination, and the school's controversial zero-tolerance "exclusion" policy in cannabis cases, which depending on your view is either a tough response to a problem or simply a handy way of sending the problem somewhere else.

Now, the chair of the school's board of trustees has resigned, after, according to this morning's paper, coming "under increasing pressure to step down after claims that she had misled the public and school."

In light of all this, it's impossible to avoid the conclusion that a number of things were seriously wrong at Cambridge High School. Having turned around a failing school in the early nineties, Annan appears to have become, as much as anything else, concerned with the maintenance of her own reputation. What she, and many parents, seem to fail to grasp is that the upshot is that hundreds of students will go out into the world with a cloud over their educational attainment, whether they deserve it or not.