The following opinion piece was originally published on Education Central in preparation for the Chalktalks Event about the Tomorrow’s Schools report on 27 February 2019.
I have found the ‘Our Schooling Futures: Stronger Together’ report reviewing the ‘Tomorrow’s Schools’ policy to be a fascinating and bold read. I bring a unique lens to the proposal, having worked in several parts of the ‘system’ in which change is proposed — as a teacher, a Deputy Principal, a Kāhui Ako leader, as a provider enacting Ministry policy with schools on the ground, and a consultant.
1. What’s good about New Zealand’s education system as it currently stands?
Compared to many overseas jurisdictions, we are lucky to have the ability to have open conversations about education here in Aotearoa. There is a bias towards autonomy and local community which lays the foundation for innovation to occur. Our curriculum documents support this approach and, nearly a decade on, still provide powerful direction and challenge for us to design future-focused programmes. We have flexibility in our assessment framework. Many students feel happy to attend their local school, and it is positive that we are increasingly correcting the imbalance in the way the Treaty of Waitangi has been centred in our schools. Schools have worked to overcome the competitive model to form networks, even before the Kāhui Ako policy was introduced.
2. And what needs fixing?
I think the report has it right with its focus on disparity and inequity. There is no point talking about innovation and adaptability in our public education system if it does not make a difference for those who need it most. Our remoteness means that smaller schools in rural areas can get short shrift, and the market model of ‘Tomorrow’s Schools’ has certainly created a competitive environment, even quietly between schools that are also trying to work together.
When I look at Principal roles, they do not look attractive — I see huge complexity, bureaucratic burdens, and a weight of legal and business expectation on people who have not necessarily been well prepared to take this burden on. I have seen great school leaders leave their roles in search of a different kind of life. It is untenable for many who also want to have a family life, and this burden falls disproportionately on women.
The funding is frustrating inequitable too. Working in a school which is arguably a ‘magnet’ for students looking for a more inclusive environment, or who feel their current school is not working for them, there is a challenge in providing the same level of service as similar schools down the road.
Finally, the reforming zeal in New Zealand is frustrating and swings the education sector from policy to policy with remarkable speed. It is hard to sustain initiatives that might be successful when funding is not sustained. The system is highly fragmented and so the spread of effective practice across schools is a challenge.
3. Taking a broad-brush view, what’s your take on the Tomorrow’s Schools Review taskforce report?
Without doubt, there is a clear underpinning ideology – that of a collaborative model that will respond to the disparities in the system and better respond to the complex needs of our increasingly diverse student body. From that point of view, I applaud the taskforce for their fresh and brave approach. The challenge, of course, is that the ideology is not going to be shared by all and this means that the evidence that sits behind the report needs to be thorough, rich and non-partisan in its selection. Some of the evidence presented is stark and speaks for itself, particularly in the way resources are spread across primary and secondary. It is not clear at this stage, of course, whether the proposals will lead to the outcomes we want for our young people. The system is complex in the extreme. But I think we have a sense of what is not working at the moment for those that need us most, and therefore we must at least consider seriously the report. If not these proposals, then we must at least consider what else would be more effective.
The report assumes that many of the challenges we experience, such as those related to wellbeing and social inequity, are something that can be tackled within the ‘bell jar’ of the schooling system but, of course, we do not operate in a vacuum and the interrelationship with other Ministries will be vital.
I like the comment that ‘the system has not always made effective use of the levers it has to influence change’ (p. 31) — there is a huge amount of knowledge about what could happen already and there are models that we can work from to effect powerful; change, if there is an appetite to do so.
The taskforce has presented a challenge which I hope the sector will explore seriously and with an open mind.
4. What do you think is the most compelling recommendation in the report?
All eight recommendations unequivocally line up behind a clear, uncompromising direction to put equity first. The Education Hub crown agency model is interesting and we would do well to look at similar models like the DHBs for a lead on how they might develop.
The report sees clearly where schools have struggled and leaders are the linch pins here — and so, for me, the recommendations that help school leaders focus on teaching and learning are most compelling. For example, the Hubs lifting pressure on leaders (1), the efforts to reduce competition (3), the fresh look at resourcing, and the support for principals and aspiring leaders are all needed. The rolling, localised model for inspection that would replace ERO is also interesting.
5. Any proposals that particularly concern you?
The Education Hub proposal is the one with which all the other seven align. The model hinges on a networked approach and relies on the clarity of roles with the Ministry with whom they will still have a hierarchical relationship. Can you create trust after so many years of the Ministry being more about compliance? Can all the Crown Agencies consistently deliver the kinds of expert services proposed? I value the effort to look for a regionalised approach to resourcing and support school networks, but I wonder about the additional layer of complexity the Hubs might create and the lack of transparency that might result in such a model once management is devolved to 20+ agencies. We will still struggle to ensure we have the expertise needed at a regional level, especially in those areas in which we usually have shortage. It is not clear that this is the intervention to lift outcomes – is our population healthier according to vital measured since the introduction of DHBs?
The nascent Kāhui Ako policy work needs to be considered more clearly within this proposed system as well. The different socio-economic needs in regions will mean that the Hubs would need to be carefully funded.
We cannot, of course, ignore the fact that schools do not operate in a vacuum but are reflections of the wider social environment and of the people who create it — no change in the education system will address that wider inequity, and it is likely that, despite such sweeping changes, the people who create the new system will still be the same people who are in the current system. Perhaps the hardest thing to change will not be the system but the way people perceive public education and their roles within that.
Above all, the greatest challenge here is the need to help parents, schools, and communities appreciate the vision and motivation in this set of proposals – not everyone shares the same ideological view, it could easily be dismissed as another example of reforming zeal and parents – the ‘opportunity’ will need to be carefully communicated against the ‘loss’ of, perhaps, your local school or your resourcing. As the report astutely states, “People have different views of what is fair and what is just, and people are not equally capable of making the system work in their, and their children’s, interests” (p. 37)