Tomorrow’s Schools and fear of a one-size-fits-all system

ANALYSIS: The Tomorrow's Schools review has put forward bold recommendations, making those who fear a 'one-size-fits-all' system anxious. Now the taskforce is on a mission to clarify its vision.

New Zealand’s education system is broken – that much they can agree on.

We have one of the least equal education systems in the world – most students do well and our best shine on the world stage - but about 30 percent of the country’s students are left behind.

The lack of equity across the education system disproportionately impacts Māori and Pasifika schoolchildren. Those setbacks at the start of life play a massive role in determining social and financial outcomes.

In December, Statistics NZ released its household net worth statistics for the year ended June 2018. Among those statistics is the dollar figure attributed to an individual adult. For Pākeha the median was $138,000 and for Māori $29,000. When Melissa Young quotes this statistic to about 50 educators at Wellington College, her voice breaks with emotion.

“If we don’t address this soon, these equity issues are going to explode on us: economically, socially and politically as well,” Bali Haque says to the same group of educators, parents, researchers and board members in Wellington.

The room nods as the Tomorrow's Schools review taskforce chair refers to New Zealand’s “stubborn” equity issues as a “timebomb waiting to go off”. But that’s where the collective agreement ends.

There is confusion and anxiety over the perceived loss of autonomy that could come with the reforms. Photo: Lynn Grieveson

The gap between the haves and the have nots is at the core of what the taskforce has been asked to fix.

Education Minister Chris Hipkins is embarking on widespread education reforms, and at the heart of that is an overhaul of the Tomorrow’s Schools system put in place 30 years ago. This system has been described by the Government and the taskforce as a failed neo-liberal experiment.

In December, following six months of consultation, and meetings with 200 groups around the country, the taskforce released a wide-ranging report calling for an overhaul of the education system. Among other things, it’s suggested significant changes to how boards of trustees are run, the establishment of local education hubs, doing away with the decile system, a workforce strategy, leadership strategies, and a new approach to learning support.

The recommendations are seen by many as radical.

But as Haque puts it: tinkering with the existing system will not do.

“Especially if future generations are to be well prepared to cope with the large and complex economic, social, and environmental challenges we face,” he says.

Despite the current unease over the taskforce’s proposed solutions, Hipkins thinks consensus is possible. Though it may not feel like that in some parts of the country.

Anxiety and confusion

Haque says most people agree we need to do something differently. “But there is some anxiety; it’s completely new.”

A considerable, and vocal, portion of teachers, principals, boards and parents seem worried about losing their autonomy; they’re worried about added bureaucracy; they’re worried about the potential for political and ministerial interference at the hub level.

After more than a dozen taskforce-run meetings so far, Haque says it’s clear people want details.

They want to know what the reforms will look like, and they don’t want structural change for the sake of it – they want to know it will make a difference.

The biggest backlash has been towards the hub model.

Those attending meetings, including principals and board members say they worry about the wholesale centralisation of the education system.

High-performing schools will be disadvantaged, they say.

Former associate education minister Richard Prebble says it would disadvantage schools like Auckland Grammar – the high school he attended.

And in his Newsroom column former head of the Secondary Principals Association and the Catholic Education Office Pat Lynch says parents and caregivers will not be content to let a “new bureaucracy effectively run the school with which they identify”.

But that’s not what the taskforce intended at all.

Haque describes his vision of the affect on education bureaucracy as “devolution, not centralisation”.

At the public meeting at Wellington College, Haque speaks time and again about how the hubs are not meant to be a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach; they’re supposed to be hyper-local.

The plan is not to remove autonomy, but to have a more responsive, flexible, local system, where the hubs support schools and boards in achieving their vision for their school.

By removing some of the administration and governance burden from boards, the hope is boards will be able to work with principals to create a specific annual strategic plan for their school, and act as the voice of the community.

The hubs will monitor achievement, give principals and leaders support, and help improve skill-sharing among schools. The taskforce says they will also remove HR and property burdens from boards, with the ability for boards to take back responsibility of property matters, if desired.

Haque describes his vision of the affect on education bureaucracy as “devolution, not centralisation”.

The problem is, this intention isn’t clear to most people who have read the report summary, or listened to pushback against the recommendations. The failure of messaging has led to confusion and concern.

Public meetings abound

It seems the taskforce is aware its intentions haven’t filtered through. This is where dozens of meetings across the country come in.

Upon arrival, there are copies of the taskforce’s report, FAQs and an information sheet dedicated to the roles of the hubs.

The meetings also gives taskforce members the chance to listen to specific concerns or ideas from the community, which will be considered before they report back to the Minister with final recommendations at the end of next month.

As well as more than 20 public meetings run by the taskforce, National’s Nikki Kaye is hosting 40 public meetings to discuss the recommendations, and ACT’s David Seymour has been hosting Auckland meetings, including one townhall in his Epsom electorate that brought in more than 400 people.

During the ACT-organised meeting in Parnell, Prebble – who was also involved in the development of Tomorrow’s Schools in 1989 - slammed the recommendations.

Following the meeting, he wrote a column in the NZ Herald where he said the hubs could “destroy your local high school”, and championed the partnership school model, which was removed by the current Government.

National Party education spokesperson Nikki Kaye says she supports some of the recommendations, but others will need to be changed, or greater detail added to get her party's approval. Photo: Lynn Grieveson

National has taken a less-extreme position, with Kaye saying she agrees with some of the recommendations, particularly those relating to an equity index and equity funding – something she was working on during her short spell as Education Minister.

Like others, Kaye expresses concern about the hubs, and the ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach. As well as worries around principals’ appointments and term limits.

It seems each meeting has at least one moment of drama. At the Epsom meeting, it is Prebble’s casually racist comments regarding the low achievement of Māori and Pasifika students; in National’s Wellington meeting it is a woman upset about the current sex education curriculum “corrupting young minds”; and in the taskforce’s Wellington College afternoon slot it is a teacher from Britain who scolds Haque and his counterpart Cathy Wylie for their “naïve” report and the “missed opportunity ” over the omission of big data as a solution.

But by and large people constructively discuss their concerns and listen to the responses.

In the case of the meetings run by ACT and National, a taskforce member has also made themselves available to answer questions, or clarify intentions.

Haque says it’s good to talk to people about the report – there’s a lot more to communicate than what can be said with words on a page.

It's clear the taskforce, and the Government, will have its work cut out for it in selling the final version of system reform – whatever that looks like.

What’s next?

As with other big issues, the Government is talking about gaining cross-party consensus.

Using education as a political football, and changing the system based on the government of the time is unhelpful, and Kiwis are sick of it, Haque says.

Like her tertiary education counterpart Shane Reti, Kaye is a pragmatic and constructive opposition education spokesperson, and both Hipkins and Haque say they’re working with Kaye to find a way forward everyone can agree on.

Those involved hope genuine consultation (which includes the meetings, an online survey, and the option of making an oral or written submission) will help inform the final recommendations.

Hipkins says people people have a “deep suspicion” the Government has already made up its mind about the reforms, but that’s not the case.

“We’ve got to believe over a period of time, it will be possible, otherwise, what are we here for?”

Haque tells those at public meetings there will likely be some change in the details of the recommendations, including how those in the hubs are appointed, and maybe the number of schools the hubs are responsible for.

Regardless of the final details, changes this widespread will take three to five years to implement.

“We’re all pretty experienced in education reform. One of the big traps has been to rush it, and not consult properly,” Haque says.

“We will resist any temptation to have a big bang reform. We know it doesn’t work.”

The proposals are certainly aspirational but  it’s unclear whether there will be enough resources to support changes, or whether they will have the major impact the taskforce envisions.

“It’s not going to solve every problem, but we can make progress,” Haque says.

“We’ve got to believe over a period of time, it will be possible, otherwise, what are we here for?”

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