Education hubs scrapped, focus remains the same

The Government’s plans to overhaul the education sector no longer include the much-talked-about education hubs. Laura Walters digs into the detail.

The final outcome of the Tomorrow’s Schools review has retained its focus on extra support for schools and boards, but has done away with the controversial idea of the education hubs.

The review of the 30-year-old education system resulted in a draft set of proposals in December, in a bid to achieve more equitable outcomes across different schools and postcodes, and to take some of the governance burden from principals and boards.

What emerged was a very different vision for the future of the country’s education system. But for some, the proposed changes were a step too far, and a co-ordinated opposition to the controversial ‘education hubs’ gathered steam.

The finalised changes, announced by the education minister on Tuesday, still look to give more support for schools and principals, but the channel for those extra supports will not be those hubs.

The new-look Tomorrow’s Schools reform includes frontline support through a new education agency - sitting within a re-designed Ministry of Education - a new centre of leadership, new independent disputes panel for students and parents, and the option to transfer school property management to the ministry.

School enrolment zones would also be managed locally, rather than by each individual school, in an attempt to address the inequities that have stemmed from inconsistencies in school sizes and the flow-on funding impacts, as well as people coming in from out-of-zone.

Essentially, the Tomorrow’s Schools Taskforce and the minister have found a way to achieve many of the changes put forward in the original document, but in a way that has communities feeling a little bit more comfortable with what many saw as drastic changes.

“It’s about making pragmatic and workable improvements that we believe can gain broad support.”

On Tuesday, Hipkins said while the 1989 reforms empowered local communities and modernised an overly bureaucratic system, it led to uneven outcomes between schools.

“That has meant young people in some areas have missed out, and it’s been particularly challenging for Māori, Pacific peoples, and people with disabilities and additional learning needs.”

These inequities have been reflected in multiple reports and rankings that show New Zealand has a shameful gap between its top achievers, and those at the bottom.

“The changes ... acknowledge that the way schools are led and supported continues to work well in many cases,” Hipkins said.

One of the key criticisms - one that Labour governments often face - was that of over-centralisation, and the addition of extra layers of bureaucracy.

Some of those in the Communities Schools Alliance - the collective set up in opposition to the hubs - also raised concerns about the changes resulting in a so-called race to the middle.

Hipkins went out of his way to say the changes were not about more centralised decision-making “or smothering schools that already perform well”.

“It’s about making pragmatic and workable improvements that we believe can gain broad support.”

The detail

Boards will have additional support and guidance, along with mandatory governance training, and the Government will consider including greater input from mana whenua.

A proposal from the initial report that has remained intact is the transfer of responsibility for school property decisions.

Property issues will be simplified or transferred to the ministry, with some schools retaining the decision-making power if they meet certain criteria.

There will also be consideration of mandatory training for boards, as part of a move to make sure members had the expertise and support needed.

And creating enrolment schemes will no longer be done by boards, in a bid to deal with population growth and the challenges that brings. Enrolment schemes and zoning is always a contentious issue, and will continue to be, but an approach that takes into account different schools’ situations is hoped to present more equitable and workable schemes.

Much of these changes were in the initial proposals, but now they will not be out-sourced to the hubs. Instead it will be the responsibility of a range of different bodies, including the ministry’s new agency.

The Tomorrow's Schools review taskforce, led by Bali Haque, received significant pushback on many of its initial proposals, which led to an additional round of consultation. Photo: Lynn Grieveson

Hipkins said some people saw the hubs as being disempowering, and taking the decision-making power from schools and communities.

While that was never the Taskforce’s intention, the pushback on the hubs meant they were not an option if the Government was going to achieve enduring change.

Meanwhile, the new Education Service Agency will have more decision-making and funding powers, and aim to be the frontline arm of the ministry within local communities.

The agency is pitched as being more flexible than the current ministry, with a focus on reducing bureaucracy.

Meanwhile, principals will have access to the new leadership centre, as well as local leadership advisors.

And there will be minimum eligibility requirements for principals and incentives for underperforming or isolated schools.

Changes specifically for parents and students include the new disputes and complaints resolution panels, to deal with appeals over matters like expulsions and restraint. This will free up schools, and mean parents or learners don’t have to go through a separate judicial process.

You can’t win them all

So far, there has been no response from the Community Schools Alliance.

The minister said the finalised proposals were pragmatic. However, he knew most people would not agree with everything.

Hipkins said he expected most of the education community, and the opposition, to support about 80 percent of the plan, and disagree with 20 percent.

National Education spokesperson Nikki Kaye said the finalised plan was a “step too far”, especially in regards to removing decision-making on zoning and property.

National's Nikki Kaye says the final plan is a step too far. Photo: Lynn Grieveson

While National agreed the ministry needed a shake-up, Kaye said she was concerned the new agency would just be “shuffling the deck chairs”.

The opposition will release its education policy discussion document on Wednesday morning.

“National is focused on making changes in our education system that will ensure parents and communities remain at the heart of school decision-making and that will improve teaching and learning,” she said.

Meanwhile, ACT leader David Seymour said he would campaign to reverse the Government’s plans, saying they undermined school autonomy.

While there would be some changes in the way schools would run, Hipkins said the core principle of self-governance remained, and therefore the name of Tomorrow’s Schools would also stay in place.

The cost of the reforms is not yet known, but funding implications would be considered over the coming four budgets.

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