Ideasroom

Has Tomorrow’s Schools review gone far enough?

Earlier this month, Minister of Education Chris Hipkins released the Government’s response to the Tomorrow’s Schools Independent Taskforce report. The Supporting all schools to succeed programme of reforms he announced will entail the most significant changes to school governance and administration since 1989, but certainly not the wholesale change proposed by the Taskforce. Has the review gone far enough to address the systemic inequalities between New Zealand schools?

Thirty years ago, New Zealand ushered in a school governance system that placed the daily governance of all aspects of schooling in the hands of local communities. Known as Tomorrow’s Schools, the system was a world first and gave an extraordinary degree of autonomy to schools and elected boards of trustees. Now, the system is creaking and leaking, with obvious gaps emerging between school communities thriving under the system (generally the wealthy) and others that are not. 

Supporting all schools to succeed confirms concerns about this pattern of inequity. However, rather than dismantle or significantly rework the current model of school governance, it retains their power, albeit putting in place a greater range of support measures. It refers to this as “resetting the system”. 

In particular, the reforms recognise the demanding task of school governance and address this through greater resourcing, training and guidance for board of trustees members and school principals. They intend to rein in property management and maintenance through a more centralised system. And school enrolment zones will now receive external review to minimise the strategic avoidance of ‘less desirable’ students or selection of the ‘more desirable’. 

These are all changes sorely needed if the past 30 years are anything to go by. 

School leadership: The significant attention the reforms give to school leadership acknowledges the onerous role principals play in these self-governing schools and the need for more visible support systems for them. The recognition of the principal’s role as “demanding and complex and critical to the success of a school” is to be commended, as this acknowledges schools with more complex challenges need highly capable principals.

While the work of the Teaching Council, including a Leadership Strategy and Educational Leadership Capability Framework, has been recognised with the decision to invite it to establish a Leadership Centre, the main decisions regarding eligibility criteria for principal appointments and associated professional learning and development will lay with the Ministry of Education. It is therefore yet to be seen how these bodies will work together effectively to provide this much-needed support. It is to be hoped the establishment of minimum eligibility criteria will be supported by sufficient funding to allow aspiring principals to participate in the quality programmes that already exist. 

Education Service Agency: Other areas of the reforms are more ambiguous. Notably, the proposed Education Service Agency as part of a “redesigned Ministry of Education” has a raft of goals it aims to fulfil, but it is unclear how it will achieve “service-level transformation”. Will the Ministry, for example, return to Department of Education days by writing and providing curriculum resources and research advice? We very much doubt it. 

There also remains a gaping hole about professional development for teachers. For far too long, this has been left in the hands of independent contractors, with little coherency or rigour. How the Government will go about rebuilding trust and fostering greater collaboration within the education system is similarly vague. 

The reforms’ reliance on a “less prescriptive” Kāhui Ako (Communities of Learning), which to date has not delivered significant shifts in outcomes, is not likely to result in many gains in the future either. The reinstatement of a nationally co-ordinated approach to school advisory services with curriculum and education specialists is more likely to do this.  

While Supporting all schools to succeed has gone some way in softening the worst excesses of Tomorrow’s Schools, time will tell if these reforms go far enough in having the intended effect of reducing the deep inequalities that currently reside within and between New Zealand schools. 

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