Government

Tomorrow’s Schools: Beware equity over excellence

Victoria University Chancellor Neil Paviour-Smith has warned of focusing on equity “at the expense of excellence” in response to the proposed Tomorrow’s Schools reforms.

Paviour-Smith, who is also managing director of Forsyth Barr but was speaking in his capacity as a board of trustees chair, raised his concerns about the potential for the planned overhaul to disadvantage those schools and students who are succeeding.

He voiced these opinions at a panel discussion hosted by think tank New Zealand Initiative on Monday.

Paviour-Smith has been the board chair at Wadestown School for a decade, and has sat on the board for 12 years.

The board of the decile 10 school had successfully managed property, and fought to maintain the character of the school, which included single-cell classrooms – as opposed to modern learning environments.

According to him, the regional education hub model – as proposed by the Tomorrow’s Schools review taskforce – would be “complete disaster and complete overkill”.

The proposal included hubs taking legal responsibility for property management, and being the employers of principals. The taskforce says its intent is to localise, rather than centralise, management and support of schools, teachers and career development.

The taskforce says it intends for parents and communities to continue to play a part in setting the agenda for individual schools, including creating an annual strategic plan and acting as a link between the school and community, while removing tasks potentially outside trustees' ares of expertise.

“I think we’ve got to be careful that any focus on equity can’t be at the expense of excellence.”

By giving schools more local support, the taskforce says it hopes to reduce inequity, and decrease the gap between those students at the top and those at the bottom.

But Paviour-Smith said system-wide governance changes would not address the issue, which he believed to be a lack of resources and expertise at a minority of schools (about 15 percent), which were struggling.

“The gap between the best and the worst is not going to be able to be fixed by a one-hat-fits-all approach.”

Getting the right resources and expertise to the schools that needed it would help fix the problem, he said, adding that further attention needed to be paid to improving teacher quality and teacher training.

“Our teachers are the ones that drive the outcomes ... They need to be well-paid and valued, rather than looking at school governance.”

He was not convinced the proposed overhaul would benefit the 85 percent of schools and the majority of students, who were performing well.

Rather than imposing something needed to help 15 percent of schools on the whole system, there would be merit in trialling the hubs in the schools that need it, and if it worked, others would adopt it, he said.

“I think we’ve got to be careful that any focus on equity can’t be at the expense of excellence.”

Equity through education reform

Principal of Porirua’s Corinna School, Michele Whiting, said she supported the hub model, and shared her experience as a decile 1 principal who took on extra work, because the trustees of the board did not have the time and expertise to do things like manage property and put in funding bids.

A more equitable education system was needed in order to address inequality across the board, Whiting said, as she pushed back against the framing of “disadvantaged children”.

“The poor don’t want your pity; they want your car and your house, and your overseas holiday, and your bach and everything else," she said.

Whiting also opposed Paviour-Smith’s concerns about the proposed changes essentially being a race to the middle.

If New Zealand didn’t look at this as an issue for the whole country, and instead people focused on protecting their own patch, “then we’re never going to get to that point where we can feel proud right across the spectrum”.

‘Tendency to catastrophise’

Taskforce member John O’Neill, who also sat on the panel, started his counter to Paviour-Smith’s claims by saying there was a tendency in “less-mature democracies” to “catastrophise”.

O’Neill, who is also a professor of teacher education and head of the Institute of Education at Massey University, said some who opposed the hub model had based their opinions on speculation, commentary and media coverage, rather than on the report itself.

“There’s a desire to protect what’s working for us, and pathologise the position of other people.”

The hubs were not intended to be a bid for full-scale centralisation; the taskforce didn’t intend to diminish the good work of trustees; and didn’t see the proposal as a one-size-fits-all solution.

The Tomorrow's Schools taskforce - led by Bali Haque - has been travelling the country to answer questions and explain the intention behind the recommendations. Photo: Lynn Grieveson

Through the Tomorrow’s Schools systems, many had accepted those schools that were winners earned their success, "and loser schools by-in-large get what they deserve", he said.

There needed to be a change to that mentality, and to the system. The taskforce believed reconfiguring the current system, or tinkering with the Ministry of Education’s regional offices would not do the job, due to a widespread lack of trust in the ministry.

NZEI and PPTA have also shared their thoughts on the proposed forms in recent days, with NZEI calling for clarity around resourcing and the cost of the hubs.

NZEI's white paper also recommends a longer period of consultation and change process to ensure there is sufficient conversation and understanding around the changes and their impacts, and pilot schemes should the hubs go ahead.

Meanwhile, PPTA generally supported the changes and the process so far, but wanted further information on the hubs and a guarantee they would be properly resourced. PPTA said there would also need to be political support from across the board in order to achieve a stable transition, and sufficient teacher numbers and proper training.

The taskforce reviewed the Tomorrow’s Schools education system, and reported back to the Government with 21 draft recommendations in December.

The consultation period, which has included a raft of public meetings, ends this week. The meetings have showcased a range of views, with the hubs being the most controversial part of the proposed overhaul.

Meanwhile, a group of 49 schools has launched a coordinated opposition – worth more than $20,000 - to the hubs proposal, while recognising some merit in other parts of the taskforce’s recommendations.

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