Education

Tomorrow when the war began

Analysis: A growing group of schools across the country have launched a coordinated opposition to the Tomorrow’s Schools proposed changes, but the campaign is full of misinformation.

On Tuesday, a group of 49 (and growing) primary and high schools officially launched the Community Schools Alliance.

The alliance took out full-page ads in the NZ Herald and Dominion Post, as well as sending out a press release, setting up a website, a Twitter account and a Facebook page.

The schools are calling on parents to “say no to hubs”.

“Parental involvement in the governance will end and bureaucrats will take over the running of our schools through the creation of new Government offices called ‘Hubs’,” the alliance says on its website.

“New Zealand is the best place in the world to go to school. Let’s keep it that way,” the group of schools say in its newspaper ad.

Neither of these things are correct.

The alliance’s campaign comes as seven Auckland schools have also sent a letter direct to parents outlining their opposition to the proposed changes, and asking parents to submit their feedback.

This letter from Owairoa Primary School, along with its community of learning partners - Pigeon Mountain Primary, Bucklands Beach Primary, Mellons Bay Primary, MacLeans Primary, Bucklands Beach Intermediate and Macleans College - also includes misinformation about the taskforce’s proposals.

Bucklands Beach Primary School board chair Kieran Turner says the school does not support Owairoa’s position, and did not agree to have its name included in the letter to parents.

In the letter, Owairoa Primary School board of trustees chair Bruce Howard says: “It removes the democratically elected Board of Trustees and replaces it with bureaucrats.”

This statement is also untrue.

The taskforce seems frustrated by the coordinated campaign by a small number of schools, but it may partially have itself to blame for its failure to get across its message from the outset. Photo: Lynn Grieveson

In response to this opposition from schools, taskforce chair Bali Haque has released a statement in a desperate attempt to set the record straight.

“It is important that people are clear about what we are proposing and why.

“For example, we really want to encourage more parents to be actively involved in their school boards and this is why we recommend the boards’ focus be on student success and wellbeing, the goals, culture, and character of the school, and on appointing the principal,” he says.

It is unclear whether these campaigns, statements and letters from schools are a misunderstanding or a wilful misinterpretation of what the taskforce has proposed.

Throughout the consultation period, it has become clear the initial messaging from the group tasked with New Zealand’s biggest education reforms in 30 years was not strong enough.

The taskforce has since made a massive effort to travel the country, holding public meetings, and making information available on its website.

But the intention of the hubs seems to be lost in the fear boards of trustees will no longer exist, and parents and communities will lose their say in how local schools are run.

What the taskforce is proposing

The Tomorrow’s Schools Taskforce reported back with 21 draft recommendation in December. The key objective is to make New Zealand’s education system more equitable.

While the majority of students do well, about 30 percent are failed by the system.

New Zealand consistently rates poorly in global equity indices, including the OECD PISA review, the Equity in Education report, and UNICEF’s annual Innocenti Report Card.

This is the first review of New Zealand’s primary and secondary education system since Tomorrow’s Schools was introduced in 1989, and the taskforce’s proposals would see a major shift from the current system.

The most significant, and controversial, recommendation is the plan to establish a hub model.

The regional hubs would be responsible for about 125 schools (that number may change) and would take on the responsibility for things like property management and human resources.

"We really want to encourage more parents to be actively involved in their school boards and this is why we recommend the boards’ focus be on student success and wellbeing, the goals, culture, and character of the school, and on appointing the principal."

They would assume much of the “business” governance of the school, which boards may not have the time or expertise to control.

The hubs would take on all the legal responsibilities and liabilities currently held by school boards with automatic ‘delegation back’ to principals regarding control of operational grants, and staffing entitlements and recruitment. Hubs could also delegate back property responsibilities.

Under the proposed model, boards of trustees would still exist.

The board’s main responsibilities would be developing the school’s annual and strategic plans, focusing on student success and wellbeing, and developing localised curriculum and assessment for students.

Boards would also be involved in the appointment of principals and retain final right of veto on their appointment, but would no longer be the direct employer of teachers or principals.

If you’re yet to engage with the taskforce’s draft recommendations, you can read the report, the summary of the report, the FAQs, or watch a video to get yourself up to speed.

‘Say no to the hubs’

The alliance’s ‘say no to the hubs’ campaign claims boards will no longer exist; that they will be replaced with an extra layer of bureaucracy.

“It’s no exaggeration to say that with the powers transferred from individual boards of trustees to ‘hubs’, government officials will be centrally determining how schools are run and this will impact on the culture of individual schools,” Northland College principal John Kendal says in the alliance press release.

The group of schools warns of the bureaucracy, centralisation, and one-size-fits-all approach the hubs would bring.

Massey High School principal Glen Denham says the hub plan would “strip New Zealand’s world-leading, community-led public education system of what makes it unique”.

Meanwhile, the letter to parents from Owairoa Primary School raises similar concerns, with principal Alan McIntyre saying the changes would be “catastrophic” if accepted.

McIntyre did not respond to requests for comment.

Meanwhile, Massey High School’s Denham - one of the alliance’s four nominated spokespeople - was clear in his opposition during an interview with Newsroom.

“I choose kids over bureaucracy every single day of the week,” he says.

The hubs would take control and power from schools and boards, he says, adding that the changes would take New Zealand back 40 years.

“It is a campaign of misinformation. There is no verification of any of the facts and no invitation for readers to look for more information.”

When asked about the claims parental involvement in governance of schools will end, that schools governance will no longer be local, and that bureaucrats will take over the running of schools, Denham talks about the lack of details in the report, the absence of costing, the lack of explanation of how property and HR matters could be delegated back to boards.

The criticism of the lack of detail is entirely valid, and one that’s been brought up at community meetings held by the taskforce, as well as National and ACT during the past month.

Concerns about the risk of the hubs creating a centralised system, which would dilute the character and local focus of schools, is also valid. This issue has been consistently raised at public meetings, where the taskforce has explained its intentions for the hubs, which is the opposite of a centralised one-size-fits-all system.

Denham says there are also parts of the taskforce’s proposals the alliance supports, including prioritising and supporting the teaching of te reo Māori, improved teacher professional development, reviewing the decile funding model, and improved collaboration across schools.

However, claims the hubs will mean the end of boards of trustees is not accurate, and make it difficult for those parents wanting to engage in an important conversation about the future of education.

The Community Schools Alliance campaign has been funded entirely by the community. No operational funding, or funds raised for school activities or infrastructure have been used.

Calls for a balanced debate

Owairoa Primary School parent, and former school board member, Steve Voisey says he’s disappointed in the content and tone of the information distributed by the schools who put their name to the Owairoa School letter.

“It is a campaign of misinformation. There is no verification of any of the facts and no invitation for readers to look for more information.”

Voisey says he is pleased with the taskforce recommendations.

“The team have done a good job at looking at schooling at a system level - not simply moving deck chairs.”

Voisey is not alone in his support of the taskforce’s plan for fixing the lack of equity in New Zealand’s education system.

Submissions close on April 7, then the taskforce will report back to education Minister Chris Hipkins with finalised recommendations. Photo: Lynn Grieveson

Others such as from Hobsonville Point Secondary School principal Maurie Abraham, who blogs under the name Principal Possum, have called for a balanced and reasoned debate.

Abraham challenged the notion anyone could give a blanket ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to the taskforce plan given the 21 wide-ranging recommendations.

On Wednesday, NZEI released a white paper on the review, which shares some of the concerns of others, including a fear the hubs could lead to a “powerful centralised system, rather than a distributed network”.

“We believe the proposals the taskforce have put up include some workable approaches to the problems of the Tomorrow’s Schools model.

“But their suggestions also raise a lot of questions, and feedback from NZEI members indicates there is ambivalence and some scepticism about some of these proposals, including the concept of independent regional hubs,” the white paper says.

Taskforce disappointed

The taskforce is not opposed to feedback, suggestions, opposition or people who raise concerns or criticism.

Haque has gone to pains to say none of the recommendations are final, and the consultation period is a genuine attempt to listen to educators and communities and change the recommendations accordingly.

Submissions close on April 7, then the taskforce will report back to the minister with final recommendations.

“The last thing I would want to do is stop or interfere with a public debate,” Haque says.

But he is disappointed at the campaign by Owairoa and other schools, which includes incorrect information.

“It’s a worry that people are being given the wrong impression,” he says, adding that the letter to parents is a “gross misinterpretation” of the proposals.

Haque says the taskforce welcomes constructive feedback and suggestions. “But this does not help, to be honest.”

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