It has been just over a year since the Prime Minister boldly announced the Government’s intention to invest an extra $359 million in funding over the next four years, and $155 million a year after that, to help raise student achievement through its Investing in Educational Success (IES) policy.

Twelve months on, a much-refined, much-debated version of IES has begun, with 11 communities of schools on board, accounting for 82 schools.

While the Ministry of Education is reportedly delighted with the take-up so far, and expects more schools to join IES soon, the primary teachers’ union NZEI Te Riu Roa has scoffed at the small proportion of New Zealand schools to come on board, and is focusing its efforts on working towards a new initiative, as agreed with the Ministry late last year.

The Ministry has now committed itself not only to IES and the Communities of Schools, but also to working with the NZEI on this new initiative, and consequently has widened the parameters of the funding initially set aside for IES. Where previously it was allocated only to those participating in the Communities of Schools, it has now also extended the $359 million pot to the work currently underway with the NZEI, which may well result in pathways and initiatives outside of the IES Communities of Schools framework.

So will the agreement really result in a “viable alternative to IES”, as the NZEI suggests? Or is the union taking the long way round to coming on board the IES policy, with the expectation of changing its shape further still?

A polarising policy

The IES policy was formed partly in response to New Zealand’s slide in the PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) rankings. In search of answers, the Government turned to the man behind the PISA survey, the OECD’s Andreas Schleicher, who claims that countries with top-performing education systems place their most talented school principals and teachers in the most needy schools. IES was built heavily on this premise, with much of the investment pegged for paying the best principals and teachers more money to spend time in other schools.

The Ministry of Education claims – based on the OECD’s and other international research – that the IES initiative will raise achievement by improving teaching practice, enabling better collaboration between teachers and schools, and helping all children benefit from the skills and knowledge of great teachers from across a group of schools.

The sector was caught off-guard by the Prime Minister’s announcement in January 2014. Scepticism towards the policy grew as sector groups began to question why they hadn’t been part of the discussions on how to spend such a significant amount of money to raise student achievement.

Two camps emerged. Broadly speaking, the secondary school sector – as represented by the Post Primary Teachers’ Association (PPTA) and the Secondary Principals Association of New Zealand (SPANZ) – supported the overarching aims of IES, but did not agree with the specific details of the policy, and actively participated in the consultation process to help shape it into something that more accurately reflected what it felt New Zealand schools needed.

Meanwhile, the primary sector took a more dissenting view. The primary teachers’ union NZEI Te Riu Roa and the New Zealand Principals’ Federation (NZPF) voiced some major objections to the policy and felt the money could be spent more effectively in other ways. When put to the vote, 93 per cent of NZEI members were in opposition. The NZEI even went so far as to devise an alternative avenue for the money, ‘A Better Plan’ which enabled schools to compare different ways that funding could be spent.

Objections to IES

The biggest issues surrounding IES appear to be related to the lack of genuine consultation with the sector; the concern that the resourcing would be linked to National Standards data; and the lack of robust, evidence-based research – particularly relating to New Zealand schools – to support the policy.

The consultation argument has become an old chestnut for education and it is frustrating to have to revisit this with every new policy the Ministry rolls out. The reform of national assessment models, the restructuring of Christchurch schools, the roll-out of partnership schools and many other examples have all been tainted, by varying degrees, by a lack of transparent and collaborative engagement with the sector. In each case, when met with such criticism, the Ministry appears to either push through regardless, or concede to go back and work through with sector parties. It appears to be the cumulative effect of this that has pushed the NZEI into such a strong opposing position with IES.

On speaking with Ian Leckie, principal of Tahatai Coast School in Papamoa, towards the end of 2014, he likened the way IES has been muscled in to the way National Standards were foisted onto the profession five years ago.

“And are National Standards raising achievement? No. If IES is foisted upon schools in the same way National Standards are, and class size, then schools will become disenfranchised with it.”

Leckie, a former NZEI president, questioned whether IES will actually achieve collaboration among schools as it proposes. Although his school is part of an effective cluster, he believes there are weaknesses in the cluster model, harking back to Tomorrow’s Schools, which introduced competitiveness among schools. He suspects IES will simply introduce competitiveness in a different guise.

Leckie doubted IES will have any effect on student achievement. “Where is the New Zealand-based evidence to support that this will raise achievement?”

Leckie’s sentiments are shared widely, particularly in the primary sector. The lack of sound evidence pertaining to what is beneficial for New Zealand children appears to be the most problematic issue with IES.

The NZEI claims that the evidence the Ministry presented in support of IES neglects the
New Zealand context, has “little or no logical connection to the IES initiative”, and that it is “not robust and in many cases, is inappropriate”.

Again this is a familiar response to recent education policy. Tomorrow’s Schools, NCEA, National Standards were all subject to poor implementation characterised by a lack of strong, supporting, New Zealand-based evidence.

The research informing the IES policy takes into account high-performing school systems like Finland and Singapore, and research stemming from the OECD, McKinsey Education, Michael Fullan and others. While it strives to put this research into a New Zealand context, it skims lightly across what is working and not working in New Zealand schools. It is this lack of relevant local evidence that has attracted criticism.

Leckie rejected the notion that IES will provide career pathways for the teaching profession.

“It doesn’t provide a career stepping stone for teachers – they might become a lead/expert teacher for a few years on extra pay but then return to their regular position and salary.

“Under IES we’ll be paying our best teachers to be out of the classroom and we won’t see the money coming into the school. It’s not the right mechanism to raise achievement.”

Leckie believes the funding could be used to much better effect. He outlines how he envisages a hypothetical amount of money could be spent at his school.

“With $80,000, for example, we would employ staff to work with priority learners, increase support staff, intensify programmes and provide ongoing resourcing for children with high physical needs.”

Many principals claim to have a better vision for the funding. However, others have hit back at the notion of specifying alternatives for the money. In a post published on the PPTA’s blog, Tom Haig writes: “Decreasing class sizes in Years 4–6, more teacher aides, 100% registered ECE teachers may all be worthwhile things to do, but they haven’t made the case for them being better ways to achieve the aim of the policy. And as for the claim that these would cost the same – wildly wrong, and oddly enough, would entirely benefit the members of the organisation that is advocating for it.”

There are some aspects of IES that Leckie is not wholly opposed to, like the notion of a change principal, for example. He is also pleased at the Ministry’s move to take the $10 million Teacher-led Innovation Fund out of IES to enable schools access to it, even if they are opting out of IES.

In spite of these concessions, Leckie said that if IES were to forge ahead, some schools will opt in and some will opt out and the two camps will never meet.

“In an ideal world we would go back to the beginning and start again.”

Reaching agreement with the secondary sector

And so, against a backdrop of strong opinions from the secondary sector and general opposition from the primary sector, a working group of education sector leaders was tasked to fine-tune IES and the policy underwent transformation.

The PPTA and SPANZ backed the policy after securing changes from the Ministry of Education, and agreements were formed, as well as with New Zealand School Trustees Association.

Among these modifications were changes to the original terminology – executive and change principals, lead and expert teachers were replaced with Community of Schools (CoS) leadership roles, across-community teacher roles, and within-school teacher roles. Inquiry Time has been written into the policy, with approximately 250,000 hours a year to be made available for teachers to learn from each other.

The key difference from the original proposal was that people in the new roles would be paid for having greater responsibility, rather than on the basis of performance.

The salary allowances were altered. The original proposal stated that expert and lead teachers would receive an extra $20,000 and $10,000 respectively. This has now changed to within-school teachers earning $8,000 more a year with two hours a week for their new responsibilities, while those in across-community roles would be granted 10 hours a week and $16,000 more a year. Principals in a CoS leadership role would receive $30,000, instead of $40,000 as originally proposed. The allowance would also include $1,000 per annum for each school and a Principals’ Recruitment Allowance of $50,000 per annum for a fixed term in order to attract principals to challenging schools.

NZEI’s agreement with the Ministry

Reaching agreement with the primary sector proved considerably more challenging for the Ministry, but eventually middle ground was found. It would seem Leckie’s wish to “go back to the beginning and start again” may have been granted to a certain extent; an agreement was formed towards the end of 2014 outlining what the NZEI described as “a viable alternative to IES”.

The new initiative is focused on successful transition through all stages of schooling and the resourcing and roles that are needed to support this. Critically, it hinges on “flexible models of collaboration” and joint working parties will look at existing and potential learning communities that encourage collaboration and transition.

The working parties, due to begin work now and report back in May, will take a grassroots, bottom-up approach, pulling together effective practices to inform the necessary roles and resources. NZEI president

Louise Green says it is essentially flipping the IES process on its head, and makes more sense than the “form driving function” approach initially taken by the Ministry in devising IES.

The NZEI appears confident that whatever shape the initiative takes following the findings of the working parties, it will work alongside IES with the Ministry’s full support.

“We have entered into this agreement with the Ministry in good faith, and we believe they have too. At the end of the day we are all here for the same purpose – to raise achievement,” says NZEI president Louise Green.

The Ministry has confirmed that the funding allocated for IES will also cover the roles and resourcing that emerge from its agreement with the NZEI.

“Funding of $359 million over four years and $155 million in subsequent years covers all the work we are doing on collaboration, transitions through the education system, and career pathways for teachers and principals,” says deputy secretary, student achievement, Graham Stoop.

“Agreements already reached with secondary teachers and principals, as well as the work currently underway with the NZEI, will all be funded from the $359 million the Government set aside to lift student achievement and provide improved career pathways for teachers,” says Stoop.

These comments show that the Ministry is prepared to fund roles and initiatives stemming from the NZEI agreement that fall outside of the Communities of Schools. It indicates a softening from the Ministry’s earlier stance on funding, that the $359 million would only be extended to those participating in the IES Communities of Schools. Indeed, its website specifies that “funding for the new roles and for Inquiry Time is available only to Communities of Schools”.

Or perhaps the Ministry is still hoping the NZEI will come on board IES and participate in the Communities of Schools in some guise – even if it means adding more tweaks and changes to the policy along the way?

Certainly, the Ministry does not cast its agreement with NZEI quite in the same light as the union does. Rather than reporting it as a ‘viable alternative’ to IES, the Ministry appears to view its agreement with the NZEI as a means of finding a way for the sector to participate in IES in a way that reflects the findings of the joint working parties.

“The joint initiative with NZEI allows for IES to be implemented in primary schools while we continue conversations with the union on how roles and resources supporting these goals might finally look in that sector,” says Stoop.

Stoop says there is considerable interest from the primary sector in IES, in spite of the NZEI membership’s rejection of the policy. He points out that of the schools already in a Community of Schools or expressing interest in being part of one, most are primary schools.

“Work is also progressing to form more Communities of Schools, with a total of 420 schools either already in a Community or actively showing interest in being part of one – that’s around 17 per cent of all schools.  Most of those are primary schools so there’s certainly enthusiasm in the primary sector. We’ve come a long way in just 12 months,” says Stoop.

If the findings of the working parties should produce an outcome that works within the parameters of IES and the Communities of Schools in some way, then it is possible the NZEI could come on board. If the NZEI is able to work flexibility, collaboration and a focus on transition into the IES policy, then that surely is a win for all concerned.

Louise Green makes the valid point that the process is far from finished. While she reiterates that the NZEI membership has rejected IES, she also says they are not ruling anything out at this stage.

“We are not closed to anything.”

Where to from here?

And so, it remains a game of wait-and-see while the joint working parties begin their work. Meanwhile, the Ministry is happy with how IES is progressing.

“We’re very pleased with progress,” says Graham Stoop. “It’s a year since IES was announced and a huge amount of work has been done since then with sector groups.”

The first 11 Communities of Schools cover 82 schools in several parts of the country.  They are beginning work this term to identify achievement challenges specific to the community. Once a plan is drawn up to meet these challenges, funding will be released for the new teacher and principal roles, and for paid time for teachers to learn from one another.

The Ministry remains optimistic about take-up of IES from primary schools, but has also committed itself to working with the NZEI to implement appropriate pathways and practices that might work alongside IES.

It remains to be seen whether this dual-approach will actually work and what IES and any spin-off policies will look like in another 12 months. Will there continue to be primary sector support for IES as it stands? Or can we expect a further iteration of IES following the NZEI/Ministry working parties’ report? Or can we expect a different channel altogether following the report, leaving the Ministry with the difficult task of working out how to divvy up the funding?

Time will tell. The next six months will be critical, not only in terms of what the NZEI working groups will produce, but in terms of how the Ministry engages with the union and the wider sector.

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