Richard Prebble: Brother Tom’s wise words still ring true


I did not watch Joe Biden’s inauguration. Instead I was attending the funeral for my brother Tom, professor emeritus of education. Tom had that rare quality, wisdom.

I was struggling in physics. I asked my older brother for advice.

“How is your lab table doing” Tom asked. In the science lab we sat four to a table.

“No good” I replied.

“Swap with a boy from the best lab table” was his advice.

I changed places to sit with the top performers. I do not recall making any other change. Physics became one of my best subjects.

It is folk wisdom. “Birds of a feather flock together”. “If you lie down with dogs, you get up with fleas”. When I have followed the advice I have done well. When my weakness for colourful characters has influenced my company it has cost me.

Do not attribute my politics to Tom. He would quip “we are only related by blood”.

As an MP I was lobbied to support different education policies but I could find no objective evidence for any of them.

I thought; “Tom is a professor of education, I will ask him”.

“There is almost no scientific evidence” said Tom. “The only way to objectively know would be to have a control group of pupils and then another socio economically equivalent group where you try the various theories. You cannot experiment with children so we do not know what difference, for example class sizes, makes.

“There is one statistically significant example. Please do not mention to anyone I recommended this book. Many in education pretend this research does not exist. These findings say we cannot blame student failure just on society. Schools have a big responsibility”.

Tom no longer has to worry about education politics so I can tell you what he recommended.

Fifteen Thousand Hours: Secondary Schools and Their Effects on Children, by Michael Rutter. The Parliamentary library did not even have a copy.

Fifteen thousand hours is the length of time of compulsory education in England. Rutter realised that London is so large that he could find a dozen schools where the parents were from statistically identical socio-economic backgrounds. He reasoned that if pupils from different schools achieved different levels of success it would have to be because schooling does make a difference.

Rutter found that schools make a dramatic difference. The lowest achieving pupils from the best schools did better educationally than the best pupils from the worst performing schools.

None of the things that the teachers unions say are important such as class sizes or spending made any difference.

Small things were important. Were the schools clean and tidy? Was homework set and marked? Did they have few rules and were they consistently upheld?

More important was what Rutter called the school’s ethos, what we would call the school’s culture. The good schools had a positive culture that the teachers, pupils and parents all bought into.

Most important was the leadership of the principal.

I have never been to a good school with a bad principal or a bad school with a good principal. As an MP I could measure a school from the journey from my car to the principal’s office. In the bad schools there is paper blowing around the grounds, pupils aimlessly wandering around and no welcome for visitors. Good schools in contrast are welcoming. You can feel the vibe.

Tom’s research convinced him school principals are crucial to a school’s success. He ran courses on educational leadership. The essence of Tom’s message to principals faced with many competing calls was schools are there to teach. To teach principals must lead and motivate the teachers.

I have met school principals who have told me Tom’s course changed their lives and how they lead their schools.

The importance of the principal has gone out of favour. Idiot ideas such as managing schools in clusters are being promoted. I understand Tom’s leadership courses are no longer taught. As our education standards keep falling some future reformer will realise the importance of leadership. Tom’s books will be reprinted.

He was a junior lecturer when I was at university. I sneaked in the back of the lecture theatre to hear him say:

“The New Zealand teaching profession has much to be proud of but the level of educational achievement by Maori is a disgrace. Our profession’s challenge is to lift Maori educational achievement”.

While there are today many more Maori at university, if Maori were a separate nation then in education Maori would be a third world country.

Tom saw the irony of life. He was too wise to get angry over what he could not change. In contrast his younger brother blames the government. If we cannot blame the government what is the point of having one?

• Richard Prebble is a former member of Parliament. He was leader of the Act Party from 1996 to 2004.

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