Comment

Careful what you wish for on school reforms

Major changes to how the country's schools are run should ring alarm bells for those around 30 years ago when similar systems to those now proposed were discarded, writes Sir Patrick Lynch.

Proposed changes to the 'Tomorrow's Schools' model for running our schools risk throwing out the baby and the bath water.

It is worth remembering the adage “if we do not remember our history, we will be condemned to repeat it”.

A well understood appreciation of New Zealand education history means we face up to hard choices. This time it means giving our lower socio-economic schools a greater hand-up than they have ever experienced, not a complete demolition of the 1989 reforms which empowered schools and their communities.

A discussion document released in December on the future shape of compulsory education in New Zealand purports to reinvent the governance structures of the nation’s schooling system in favour of setting up of a system of hubs, whose role would be to oversee the new structure with approximately one hub per 125 schools.

In 1989, New Zealand boldly led the world when it set up the self-managing model of administration for its schools. There certainly has been a need for a review of what is now referred to as the “Tomorrow’s Schools” model. Not too many people would agree that no changes should be made, yet the Task Force seems to have forgotten or overlooked some fundamental aspects of today’s New Zealand society.

These are:

- Parent and caregivers are largely well-educated and know what they want for their child’s education experience. They will not be content to let a new bureaucracy effectively run the school with which they identify.

- It is now well accepted by educators that for a child’s education to be effective, parental involvement at the local level is paramount, with decision making occurring within a school community, not by some faceless bureaucracy.

- We need to remind ourselves that District Education Boards were thrown out in 1989 and were described at the time by the reviewing Task Force, as “good people, bad system”. These bodies, which were largely focused on running primary schools, were paralysing bureaucracies. Those of us who worked in the pre-1989 system remember only too well the disempowerment experienced by principals, teachers and their school governing bodies. Why would we want to re-establish structures which were not well regarded by many people before 1989? It also needs to be remembered that all New Zealand secondary schools have been largely self-governing since the first of them were established in the 1880s. This structure is part of who we are. What is proposed looks like change for changes sake – a real danger of going back to the pre-1989 system where bureaucracy crippled the system, led to gross inefficiencies and significant inequities for students.  Hubs will simply be another version of the old education boards which kept business, parents and the community at arm’s length. This ought to be avoided at all costs, since it is a regression.

- The reforms of 1989 established the New Zealand Qualification Authority and the Education Review Office. Both these bodies have brought a breath of fresh air into our education system, given their independence and responsibility to Parliament and not to another bureaucracy. They should remain independent entities.

We certainly need to better resource our lower socio-economic schools and help them to achieve better with greater assistance in a number of areas. A range of measures could be adopted that would support such schools. We now know what does work for educational success in such schools, if they have the right support and leadership.

It is no accident that often, over the life of the annual Prime Minister’s Excellence in Education Awards, the Supreme Award each year has gone to a low decile school. These awards have demonstrated that with the right leadership, competent teachers, a supportive education philosophy and an empowering school culture, youngsters, whoever or wherever they are, are capable of achieving just like anywhere else.

Some suggestions that would make a positive difference to the present system:

- Create a pool of experienced principals with appropriate powers, whose job would be to get alongside a school which is struggling and set it on the right track to success.

- The Ministry of Education could be given the role of guiding boards and overseeing the process of the appointment of principals, to ensure only the right people are appointed to this pivotal role.

- A pool of expertise could be established, involving professional planners and tradespeople, who could assist a Board of Trustees with its property responsibilities, if required.

- The Crown could be given the right to strengthen the skill base of a Board of Trustees with the appointment of experienced individuals to enable sound governance to occur, where this is lacking - effectively the power to parachute competent trustees onto the board, in much the same way that proprietors of Integrated Schools are able to do with their Proprietor Appointees. This could occur by appointing suitably experienced individuals from the education, business and NGO communities.

- Communities of Learning, recently established, could be given more flexible powers in order to deliver sound outcomes for all students in their network. This system is worth keeping and stream-lining. Since it is already demonstrating good education experiences that can be shared around a local network of schools. This structure of collaboration is beginning to work and needs to be given time to prove itself. The former education boards and the former Department of Education did not effectively deliver what was deemed necessary in a fast-moving world. Who is going to be brave enough to say that education hubs would be the saviour of New Zealand education? Local boards and local people with the right sort of support structures would do a much better job.

Much progress has occurred in refining the 1989 structures of education, for example through the ability to appoint Limited Statutory Managers.  However, bureaucracies are often very slow to act when school administrative difficulties occur, despite the tools available to the Ministry of Education. These tools have not been used often for the appointment of commissioners or for various other interventions, for example Limited Statutory Managers or Ministry of Education guides on boards. All too often, tentativeness has been the main focus in sorting out issues when boldness would have been a better option.

Despite references being made in the draft document to some state education systems in Australia, having worked with principals and parents in that country who are associated with these systems, they are no model for New Zealand to follow. Parents feel totally alienated and unimportant in influencing these systems and would love to have the influence and power which New Zealand parents have over the education of their children. 

Young New Zealanders deserve much better than what is proposed, which is a leap backwards, and so do their parents, the businesses community and New Zealand society as a whole.

*Brother (Sir) Pat Lynch is a former principal of De La Salle College in Mangere East, president of the Secondary Principals Association 1992-94 and chief executive for 21 years of the Catholic Education Office. He was knighted in 2015 for services to education.

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