A new tomorrow for schools rich and poor

Giving school children the same chances in poor and wealthy areas is a key goal for those appointed to a government review into Tomorrow’s Schools.

The taskforce members looking at reforms are Bali Haque, Barbara Ala’alatoa, Dr Mere Berryman, Professor John O’Neill and Dr Cathy Wylie. All have a background in encouraging equity within education. Haque and Wylie have both published books calling for major reforms of the current schooling system.

The review comes 30 years after Tomorrow’s Schools was introduced to allow schools to self-govern. Boards of trustees, consisting mainly of local parents and caregivers, were put in charge of their school’s strategic direction and curriculum, employing staff and managing school property and finances.

These boards now represent the largest single group of crown entities in the country. Approximately 18,000 people serve on around 2,425 boards.

Three decades after the introduction of self-governance some see Tomorrow’s Schools as successful in promoting community input into schools, but guilty of exacerbating disparity between rich and poor communities.

“If we go back to 1989, no one knew anything back then. It was kind of a building a plane in the air. I don’t believe there was any forward thinking even in terms of whether the system would last 30 years. But it has.”

The review’s terms of reference say it will focus on the governance, management and administration of the schooling system with an outcome of achieving equity and excellence.

It will evaluate whether the roles of the Ministry of Education, the Education Review Office, the New Zealand Qualifications Authority and the School Trustees Association (NZSTA) are still fit for purpose and could suggest changes which affect the system of local boards of trustees.

NZSTA's president, Lorraine Kerr, said the five taskforce members are highly respected professionals who will each bring a different perspective to the review. Currently NZSTA represents over 90 percent of school boards.

Kerr said the Tomorrow’s Schools reform was radical at the time.

“If we go back to 1989, no one knew anything back then. It was kind-of building a plane in the air. I don’t believe there was any forward thinking even in terms of whether the system would last 30 years. But it has.”

While Kerr’s organisation may be affected by the outcome of the review she welcomes it as long as it is “robust and transparent”.

She is currently writing a discussion document looking at some of the issues surrounding Tomorrow’s Schools, including a previous lack of support from governments in upskilling boards. This was documented by the Auditor-General in 2008 who found no evidence the Ministry of Education was supporting struggling boards.

“If it [the review] identifies the notion of boards needs to change and we’ve got really compelling reasons why, who am I to say no, no, no? It’s actually not about the adults in the system. What I am aiming for is a system where the adults work together in the best interests of every child in our school. That includes Māori, Pasifika and our other diverse nationalities.”

“Whether we had the old system which was a top down state-controlled system or Tomorrow’s Schools, whichever system we’ve had it’s the same kids that are losing and the same kids that are winning."

The review’s focus on equity appeals to the Children Poverty Action Group’s Dr Vicki Carpenter.

Carpenter has a background in primary school teaching and is a lecturer in teacher education. Her research focuses on education in areas with low socioeconomic status.

She said the current system has created winner and loser schools. Winner schools are located in wealthy areas, loser schools are in deprived areas.

“The winner schools are those which have been able to lock into what’s available in their communities and use it really well for the advantage of their particular children. You can’t knock them for that.”

This is apparent in boards of trustees. In decile four and above schools Carpenter said there’s competition among parents to become a board member.

“If you are looking at a decile one to three school, quite often it’s difficult to get people to stand. Their lives are just so busy, and they are trying to make a living and they don’t feel like they have the expertise.”

When there was an expertise gap on the board Carpenter said the workload often fell into the principal’s lap. A 2009 study showed principals often spent more than 60 hours a week at work, with the time spent on administration far higher than international counterparts. An overloaded principal puts stress on low-decile schools which are already dealing with issues such as health problems or transience.

Fundraising too, is harder for low-decile schools where communities aren’t able to contribute as much as schools in high-decile areas.

“I think if you go into schools now, not always, but generally you will see a huge difference between a decile 10 and a decile one school. You’ll be able to tell when you walk in the gate, quite often by the maintenance, by the painting, by the playground equipment.”

Carpenter would like to see an equitable school system where every child receives a well-resourced education. She said Tomorrow’s Schools is failing the same children the previous model failed.

“Whether we had the old system which was a top down state-controlled system or Tomorrow’s Schools, whichever system we’ve had it’s the same kids that are losing and the same kids that are winning.

“I really would like something that evens things out a little bit, so we have a state schooling system where you can walk in the door and not really know the wealth of the community by the standard of the school.”

Carpenter thinks there are ways to retain the community involvement Tomorrow’s Schools has encouraged while making the system more equitable.

“I think this is the most positive thing about Tomorrow’s Schools. The fact that on the board most of the people are the parents or caregivers of the children in the school. That’s pretty impressive.”

Carpenter has faith in the people appointed to lead the review.

Taskforce members:

Bali Haque (Chair)

Bali Haque has been a principal at four secondary schools, the president of the Secondary Principals Association, an executive member of the PPTA and deputy chief executive of the NZQA.

His 2014 book Changing our Secondary Schools suggested education bureaucracy be reformed and schools need to change to address economic disparities. It also suggested restructuring and reducing the amount of schools, performance pay for teachers and bulk funding.

In opinion columns on Haque has suggested teachers’ salaries should return to match MPs as they did in the 1970s. Currently a top-scale teacher earns around $78,000 per year while a MP’s salary before allowances is $164,000. He suggested in return for the salary increase teachers work through some school holidays to complete administrative work.

Disparity is also an issue he has written on saying the increased government funding which lower decile schools receive does not level the playing field. He suggested parents living in wealthy communities could choose to pay the voluntary donation their local school requests to a lower decile school instead.

Barbara Ala’alatoa
Education Council board chair and principal of Auckland's Sylvia Park Primary School

Barbara Ala’alatoa is the only taskforce member currently working in a school.

Her work in increasing parents’ involvement with their children’s learning has dramatically improved achievement in year one to three students at her predominately Pacific Island and Māori school.

The programme, Mutukaroa, tests each child when they start school. Co-ordinators then take the results to the parents and create a home-learning plan which complements what they are learning at school. A point of difference in the programme is coordinators will meet parents where it is convenient for them, going to workplaces if required, or going to the home.

Based on the success in her school the programme has been adopted in around 160 schools nationally.

Dr Mere Berryman
Professor at the University of Waikato

Dr Mere Berryman taught for 20 years before becoming a researcher. She is an advocate for incorporating Māori culture and values into schools and aims to challenge issues which result in educational disparities for Māori.

As part of her work she helped develop Te Kotahitanga, a programme aimed at helping secondary school teachers work effectively with Māori students and whanau.

The programme launched in response to underachievement among Māori looked at examining teachers’ expectations of Māori students’ ability. Berryman and her colleagues felt low expectations of teachers resulted in low achievement in students.

An evaluation of the programme showed improved achievement for Māori, Pacific, Asian and new migrant students.

Professor John O’Neill
Head of the Institute of Education at Massey University

With over 35 years in teaching and teaching education, Professor John O’Neill, has a focus on bringing equity to schooling as a way to bridge the socio-economic divide. In a press release made after his appointment to the taskforce he says one in four children live in material hardship and income poverty.

“That knowledge occasionally makes me weep and daily reminds me of the magnitude of the task if we want to create a more level playing field for our youngest members of society.”

He says schooling can play a role in fixing issues of inequity.

“Tomorrow's Schools certainly hasn't caused educational inequalities, but I think it's fair to say it has contributed to a greater divide between the haves and the have nots.”

O'Neill is an education spokesperson for the Child Poverty Action Group. In the past he has pointed out New Zealand has the highest proportion of private household expenditure in the OECD on public education, with hidden costs such as uniforms, digital devices and NCEA fees impacting low income households

Dr Cathy Wylie
Chief researcher at the Council for Educational Research.

Dr Cathy Wylie has been a critic of Tomorrow’s Schools in the past. In her 2012 book Vital Connections she says the Tomorrow’s School system “is simply not strong enough to bear the weight of our expectations for schools and learning”.

If we continue with the system as is, she says we are unnecessarily handicapping ourselves.

“We have made school self-management into a barrier, not the channel of responsiveness envisaged in 1988.”

The suggestion she makes in her book is to build connections between schools by creating 20 regional authorities and a single agency to replace the current Ministry of Education, Education Review Office and the New Zealand Qualifications Authority.

The taskforce is due to report back in November and recommendations will form the basis for further public consultation next year.

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