FACE TO FACE : Howard Fancy – Measures of success

It somehow comes as no surprise to discover that Howard Fancy enjoys playing recreational bridge. He is evidently at home in complexity – balancing diverse bunches of probabilities, unravelling and re-ravelling long skeins of cause and effect.
It’s both impressive and somewhat distracting. The answers to questions tend to travel long way – and there’s slight concern they may not find their way home before the interview tape expires. But unlike those interviews where sharp phrasing disguises absence of substance, Fancy’s somewhat circuitous responses tend to veil wealth of content.
Asked if he sees himself as lateral thinker because his conversation tends to the tangential, Fancy agrees – adding disarmingly that he can “go all over the paddock”. But, in sector where there are no black and white answers and no simple soundbites that could capture the nuanced relationships between politicians and Ministry, Ministry and schools, schools and teachers, teachers and students, students and community – in all their various combinations, bit of lateral thinking doesn’t go amiss.
“I do think it’s very easy for people to get trapped in particular way of thinking and sometimes, to move both sides, you can re-frame an issue differently and take quite lot of heat out of the situation,” says Fancy.
A simple example: in his early days at the Ministry, there was concern about the steady increase in phone calls from the sector seeking information and what investment was needed to make it more efficient in answering the phone.
“I turned that on its head and asked what would have to happen to stop the phone ringing. Sometimes it’s case of challenging people to think differently about what their issue is. Basically they found that if schools had information available in the right form in just-in-time way, they wouldn’t waste their time ringing.”
That might seem bit obvious but people do get hooked on learned behaviours, notes Fancy – or stuck in rather entrenched positions. Which pretty much describes how the Ministry was functioning when he took on the role of Secretary for Education back in 1996.
“It was bit like coming into the Middle East. The sector was divided over pay parity, over bulk funding, over qualification issues. It was like everyone was arguing about something but the energy was not going into addressing how best to lift achievement levels.
“So I spent the first couple of years asking everyone – how does that link to achievement? Just to shift the mindset.”
The challenge he faced was taking in the big picture with all its many intersecting threads and knitting them into common purpose. This involved turning combative relationships into positive ones; highlighting the interconnectedness of the various parts of the sector and getting all focused on making difference for students; being more open to feedback from the educational frontline; seeing failure as systemic issue rather than the problem of individual schools or students; and being more adaptive to individual student needs.
“To get effective and sustainable change,” says Fancy, “we needed to get the system owning issues and solutions while also being better supported to build capabilities and implement change.”
All of this, he adds, needed to be built into Ministry values and behaviours.
“Here the mission of raising achievement and reducing disparity became major driver across all parts of the Ministry.”
In delivering what was his last annual report in mid-October, Howard Fancy also seems to have delivered pass mark to his era of education leadership. These days, he noted, “there is much clearer and stronger focus on raising achievement at all levels of the education system. This is seen in the focus on literacy and numeracy, school leaver qualifications and higher levels of tertiary qualifications.”
When talking to Management, Fancy rates the biggest achievement of the past decade as having shifted the dynamics of the system to “be more explicitly driven by raising achievement and by being far better informed as to what comprises achievement.
“I think we shifted the focus onto the two influencers that make the biggest difference – effectiveness of teaching and strengthening the role of families and communities.”
He likes to highlight the success of work being done in areas not known for academic achievement – like Mangere, Otara, the East Coast. Places where it became critical that educational failure should not be associated with being poor or being Mori.
“Rather it was question of viewing students differently in terms of their potential and making teaching more relevant to them.”
The system, he says, has basically been turned on its head. Whereas in the past, it was based on principles of homogeneity where every kid was treated the same way and students had to adapt to the school, the system now takes more responsibility for adjusting to the child.
“The question has moved from ‘Is your child ready for school?’ to ‘Is the school ready for your child?’”

The rigorous pragmatist
For the young Howard Fancy, university education was always on the cards. He schooled in Christchurch where his father was teacher (and later principal of Papanui High) then went on to gain an honours degree in chemistry and maths at Canterbury University.
Although his immediate family includes bunch of teachers, education was not on his work radar. He might have become chemist – but for disappointing lack of employer interest in this particular qualification. So he followed his interests and switched to economics.
“At that stage, Canterbury University had introduced what was called knight’s move into economics – where you could get direct entry into stage three if you had an undergraduate degree with stage two maths. number of people who did science and engineering were attracted to this, including my wife.”
He describes this switch as the first deliberate career decision he made. The next, role in Treasury, was influenced by the air of excitement and passion with which people like Bernie Galvin (later to become Secretary for Treasury) approached what they were doing.
“Economics was just coming into its heyday. Muldoon was Finance Minister. It was an exciting place to work.”
He was to spend some 22 years there – initially working on economic policy before four-year stint in London took him into supply-side issues. When he returned to New Zealand, his focus was on macroeconomics, analysing impacts and implications of ‘think big’ projects in light of the oil crisis. Then it was back to economic policy and within couple of years he was appointed deputy secretary with oversight for economic and budget policy. It was all stimulating stuff that crossed the boundaries of social and economic policies.
“I developed an interest in issues emerging around human capital development in New Zealand – the education/
labour market interface. I guess it had been bit on one side of lot of policy debates and what economic reforms brought out was the importance of investing in skills in lifelong sense – the investment in training in whole lot of different dimensions – seeing the New Zealand economy in an international context.”
He had stint in the Prime Minister’s department advising on education and employment policy in the mid 1990s when Jim Bolger was at the country’s helm before taking on the role of Education Secretary in 1996. There he found sector that, for numbers man, was sadly short of base data on which to judge performance.
“Every day in economics you have lot of information about exchange rates, interest rates, what people are spending. The contrast of going into education was very stark – the main information available was School Certificate pass rates and [student] participation.”
He remembers the early days where debates and pressures seemed based on anecdote and prejudice. Everyone had clear view on what needed fixing – but they varied enormously. It was not an environment that made for q

Visited 20 times, 1 visit(s) today

Business benefits of privacy

Privacy Week (13-17 May) is a great time to consider the importance of privacy and to help ensure you and your company have good privacy practices in place, writes Privacy

Read More »
Close Search Window