Comment

An education hub by any other name

Some are labelling it a backdown, but Laura Walters argues the finalised Tomorrow’s Schools changes are largely unchanged, and about as bold as it was ever going to get

In recent weeks, the education community has been gearing up for a Government backdown in relation to the most significant review of New Zealand’s education system in 30 years.

Murmurings among those who have been involved in recent consultation on the Tomorrow’s Schools review final report suggested the controversial education hubs – a core part of the plan – had been scrapped.

In recent months, Education Minister Chris Hipkins has been managing expectations. He's spoken repeatedly about the importance of consulting and taking feedback on board.

While the Government agreed with the taskforce’s problem definition – namely inequitable outcomes stemming from the competitive model – it wasn’t sold on the proposed solutions.

What was coming out the side of the extra round of consultation was a markedly different set of proposals, he’d said. Something that could be hailed as a win for working with the sector.

Put this way, it indeed sounded like a backdown, and this Newsroom education reporter was gearing up to question the Education Minister on why he’d been unable to hold his nerve when it came to bold, and much-needed, transformation of New Zealand’s inequitable education system.

So it was somewhat surprising when Hipkins unveiled the taskforce’s final report, and the Government’s response, to reveal an uncannily familar set of changes.

The one thing that appeared to be missing was the now taboo word – ‘hubs’.

But what’s in a name?

“Our first read of the Minister’s announcement is that community-elected Boards of Trustees will continue to govern schools which is very good news.”

For all intents and purposes, the things the Community Schools Alliance, ACT and the National Party were up in arms about remain intact: the outsourcing of property decisions to a government department; the outsourcing of enrolment and zoning schemes to the so-called bureaucracy; and more frontline support for schools from a new, locally focused branch of the Ministry of Education.

As Hipkins said, a lot of schools had interpreted the notion of hubs as taking away their autonomy.

But Tuesday’s finalised proposals showed the taskforce had found a better way of addressing issues around governance burdens and a lack of support, “where it doesn’t leave schools with the impression that they’re being disempowered in the process”, he claimed.

Rather than accusing the minister of putting lipstick on a pig, those who were worried about losing autonomy to centralised bureacracies labelled the Government’s “backdown” on the hubs a victory.

“We are pleased the Government has recognised New Zealand’s 2341 self-managing community schools are offering the very best education available to students anywhere in the world but a minority needs significant extra help,” Pat Newman, Principal of Hora Hora Primary School in Whāngarei, said on behalf of the Community Schools Alliance.

“Our first read of the minister’s announcement is that community-elected Boards of Trustees will continue to govern schools which is very good news.”

It seems the extra round of consultation, off the back of a loud and co-ordinated opposition, was actually more of an exercise in appeasement and rebranding, than an exercise in collaborative decision-making.

Some opposition to the changes remains, especially when it comes to the contentious issue of enrolment schemes and zoning.

There have also been questions from National’s Nikki Kaye and others from the CSA, including Auckland Grammar School headmaster Tim O’Connor, around the lack of clarity on specifics and timelines of the 10-year plan.

But largely, Hipkins and the taskforce appear to have won over educators who feared what they initially saw as “radical change”.

If anything, this is a lesson in how Government tells its story, in order to bring others on the journey. Especially when significant structural changes are required.

The prospect of radical change was seen by many as a bad thing, but it's what the education system sorely needs. Photo: Lynn Grieveson

Throughout the process, words like "radical" and "bold" have been used repeatedly - usually in a negative sense.

Fear of change and fear of the unknown is valid, especially when it comes to the education of our children.

But big changes are needed.

New Zealand’s education system has not had a proper rethink in 30 years. Fundamentally, we have held onto the same framework and values installed by a British regime in the 1800s.

In that time, there have been continued inequities, with the gap between learners at the top and those at the bottom continuing to grow.

Māori, Pasifika, children with disabilities and learning needs, and those from low-socio-economic households are disproportionately affected.

If you add the ever-increasing expectations parents and society place on schools, more complex needs, and growing population, the problems are looking pretty stark.

While most schools deliver laudable outcomes, too many do not.

Hipkins knew something major needed to be done to address these shameful inequities, and he was always going to be the best person to lead the work.

His extensive education work programme puts him squarely in the running to be this Government's most successful reformer, and with a Labour-friendly sector, experience, and mana, he had the best shot at getting something meaningful across the line.

The fact Hipkins managed to hold his nerve throughout a challenging consultation process to deliver a programme of work little changed from the "bold"  or "radical" initial plan speaks volumes.

Realistically, this is as bold of a change programme as this Government was ever going to achieve.

But in end the question will not be whether Hipkins' plan went too far (as Kaye claims), it will be: is it bold enough to lift up our most vulnerable and close this country’s shameful education equity gap?

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