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Insights 26: 14 July 2017
Amplifying Excellence: Promoting transparency, professionalism and support in schools
Dr Randall Bess: Growth in charter boat fishing requires management rethink
Dr Oliver Hartwich: Europe's trillion euro problem

The government vs Mainfreight
Dr Oliver Hartwich | Executive Director |
To get the disclaimer out of the way, Mainfreight’s founder and chair Bruce Plested is not only a member of the Initiative. Bruce is also someone I admire. He built a billion-dollar logistics business, starting with a single Bedford truck in the 1970s.

Just as inspirational, Bruce remains a humble Kiwi, making contributions to the country in numerous ways. Just think of Duffy Books in Homes, providing free books to over 100,000 New Zealand children three times a year. It was an initiative made possible not least through Mainfreight’s generous support.

For those of us who know Bruce, none of this would be a surprise. His company is an exemplary business. And to me, Bruce is a national treasure.

And so Mainfreight’s bad publicity over the past weeks hurts and disturbs in equal measure.

What happened was “basically an administrative error”, as Bruce put it in a media release.

In a compliance audit by the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE), the company could not provide written contracts for three of its employees. All of them were and are employed by Mainfreight. All of them are New Zealanders by birth.

And so, apart from this administrative oversight, Mainfreight did nothing wrong in employing them.

That, however, did not stop MBIE from punishing the company by publicly naming and shaming it. Mainfreight was stood down from recruiting migrant workers. The company can no longer sponsor any of their employees’ applications for work or residence visas.

For anyone familiar with Mainfreight, this feels like a gross injustice. There is hardly a more caring employer. But even caring employers make filing mistakes.

When I once visited Mainfreight’s headquarters in Otahuhu, I noticed a rock with a plaque at the entrance. It read: “This Facility is dedicated to the family and friends of Mainfreight, who have been at the centre of the Company’s success, and whose loyalty and support is our greatest strength.”

And then, in smaller font, right at the bottom of that plaque, it continued: “To the best of our knowledge, there were no politicians within 10 km of this site on the day of the opening.”

Mainfreight has usually kept a distance from politics (apart from Bruce’s recent scolding of the government’s inaction on housing and education reform).

In MBIE’s disgraceful treatment of this iconic Kiwi company, we can see why Bruce was right to be suspicious of government.

Why learning to speak is easy, but learning to read is hard
Briar Lipson | Research Fellow |
Have you ever wondered why children learn to speak with relative ease, and yet find reading so much harder?

This question was answered in the last 30 years by evolutionary psychology. The roots of this discipline are in biology, but it draws also on artificial intelligence, anthropology and archaeology.
Within evolutionary psychology, a distinction is made between information patterns which are biologically primary, and those which are biologically secondary. Biologically primary information has facilitated human survival throughout evolution. It includes social patterns such as speaking and reading facial expressions, and physical patterns such as the ability to pour water between receptacles, or balance while standing up.
Evolution has pre-loaded us to learn primary skills. On the other hand, information patterns such as those involved in reading, writing and arithmetic were invented far more recently, and humans have not evolved to do these without explicit instruction.
So what are the implications of this for education?
One is to be sceptical about our capacity to teach so-called 21st century skills. Problem solving and critical thinking are biologically primary skills. Beyond our evolutionary programming, thinking critically depends on our subject knowledge. And subject knowledge is something that school are well able to teach.
According to evolutionary psychologists, the function of schools should be to ensure children acquire the biologically secondary competencies that ‘close the gap between primary skills and the occupational and social demands of society’.
Of course, some children starting school need initiating into social norms around communication, controlling their bodily functions and not snatching other children’s toys. But after that, school exists to ensure everyone acquires secondary competencies, that help them to thrive in society.
This starts with learning to recognise that the squiggles we call letters are associated with certain sounds. After that comes the knowledge that sounds can also be represented using two, three and four-letter graphemes such as ch, ee, igh, and ough. And gradually, as children are taught this knowledge, they learn how to read and write. The same goes for maths.
And having achieved this, they then have the foundational skills to be able to learn about particle physics, Polynesian history and Pythagoras’ theorem.
And one day perhaps, if schools equip them with enough of that powerful knowledge, they too might be pioneer psychologists; able to think creatively across disciplines, to communicate their science, and to collaboratively solve the problems that currently stifle our schools.

Mutton dressed as lamb
Dr Rachel Hodder | Research Fellow |
Politicians are often accused of trying to pull the wool over the public’s eyes. It isn’t often they try to pull the wool under the public’s feet.

Never a party to follow the flock, this week New Zealand First announced an innovative policy that will truly put New Zealand first in the world – banning the use of synthetic carpets in government funded buildings in favour of New Zealand wool.

Winston Peters announced during the regional campaign tour "New Zealand First will swing government procurement in behind natural, renewable and sustainable wool and natural fibres."

Peters was a tad sheepish about the cost of this policy, which the Taxpayers’ Union estimate could amount to around $120 million. There is nothing wrong with supporting the hardworking rural backbone of the New Zealand economy but it is a bit unfair that the burden should fall entirely on the taxpayer. At this price the public might feel they are getting fleeced.

Charity starts at home and so does support for the wool industry. Perhaps the politicians who think this is a good idea should start by seeing how they can support the industry themselves. Instead of carpets, support for the wool industry could help address another issue that some people have been bleating about: the dress code in Parliament.

The UK House of Commons recently dropped the dress code requirement to wear a neck-tie. Some politicians like Grant Robertson, Trevor Mallard, and Chris Bishop argued that the New Zealand Parliament should follow suit, so to speak.

I propose the dress code be changed to allow any attire as long as it is made from New Zealand wool. The Parliamentary dress-code should not just reflect modern professional standards but also strive to support hard-working Kiwi producers of natural, renewable and sustainable wool and natural fibres.

It is a “wonder product” after all, why would members of parliament want to wear anything else? Why should politicians be allowed to wear imported Chinese silk ties when a fashionable woollen tie would do just fine?

Some might argue that woollen jumpers are too scratchy and uncomfortable to wear instead of a shirt. But if Swanndri bush shirts are good enough for our hard-working farmers then they are good enough for those who want their votes.

The new dress code would give a whole new meaning to the phrase ‘wolves in sheep clothing’.
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