In the 1980s, the Royal Commission on Social Policy laboured long and hard, and produced a 5-volume report which a minister promptly declared useful as a doorstop. The Tomorrow Schools Independent Taskforce has not produced a tome with such a potential use, but it has generated a report which like the Royal Commission fails to generate policy ideas. It is a record of teacher discontent.
The chair, Bali Haque, is a very well-regarded former school principal. He was also deputy chair of the NZ Qualifications Authority but that experience has left no trace in the report. He was joined by another very well-regarded principal who also chairs the Education Council, and three educational researchers all of whom are respected in their fields. The absence of public policy or public management expertise is very obvious in the report.
The report proceeds directly from “It is not perfect” to “Therefore X should be done”. There is no enquiry into why what is obvious has not already been changed. There is no policy analysis to establish that a feasible alternative would be an improvement.
The report is curiously ahistorical. It works with a world of before and after Tomorrow’s Schools. But much has happened in the 30 years since Tomorrow’s Schools. The way the Curriculum has developed, the introduction of NCEA, the changes made in the processes of ERO and much more have all happened within the years since Tomorrow’s Schools and their shape and outcome have not been determined solely by the way school governance was constructed and managed.
Much also happened before Tomorrow’s Schools. In particular, more or less immediately preceding it was the Picot Report, Administering for Excellence. A group not unlike the Tomorrow’s Schools Independent Taskforce reviewed how the school system was administered. The Independent Taskforce might well have benefited from reading its predecessor, and spending some time thinking how it could be sure that its proposed Education Hubs would not incur the teacher condemnation suffered by the preceding Education Boards which was investigated by the Picot Committee, found to be largely well-substantiated and which informed the design proposed by the Picot Committee. (The Picot summary, “Good people, bad system” is echoed with less effectiveness in the Independent Taskforce’s anxiety not to criticise individuals. Picot’s slogan was good PR but was probably about half-right in both halves.)
The Picot Report while more policy-aligned than Our Schooling Futures (OSF) was still input to a good deal of policy development before Tomorrow’s Schools was formulated. In particular some aspects of Administering for Excellence were not pursued. Schools were not given discretion over staffing expenses. Teacher unions resisted losing their ability to influence staff salaries through centralised bargaining. The balance of school autonomy and central control introduced by Tomorrow’s Schools was different from that advocated by the Picot Committee. It would have been interesting had the Independent Taskforce enquired whether this early compromise in the design of school governance was significant in shaping subsequent developments.
The issue was always balance between local autonomy and central control – “local autonomy within national guidelines” in Picot’s salesmanship summary. This became even more prominent later when in the 1990s the Secretary of Education promoted a stance of “tight-loose-tight” in the desired relationship between central and local decision-making. (Tight specification of objectives, loose influence over local decisions about how resources could best be deployed in pursuit of those objectives, and tight evaluation of outcomes against objectives.) However, the policy debate – education being one of several public management contexts in which such thinking was prominent, internationally as well as in New Zealand – made little impact in the education sector which persisted in seeing central compliance demands and local productive activity.
Dichotomies keep reasoning simple, but frequently mislead. OSF proceeds with a dichotomy between “autonomous and self-governing” versus “networked and connected”. The Picot Committee had no such illusion. Picot’s background was in managing a chain of independent supermarkets and he knew about networks long before the term became fashionable. Independent supermarkets managed their own business but collaborated in their own interest with a central buying and funding agency. The idea of atomised, isolated schools came not from Picot or Tomorrow’s Schools, but from teacher responses to unexpected responsibility and opportunity.
Ironically, Picot deferred to educational expertise and insisted that Administering for Excellence dealt with education administration and not with pedagogical expertise or curriculum content. Picot was too skilled a manager to believe that administration could be entirely divorced from what was administered, and he had considerable experience in education governance (as well as in public affairs through his membership of NZ Planning Council). His deference was partly part of his salemanship, but it was not entirely so. He would certainly be surprised to see school governance given the prominence it has in OSF as an explanation of school outcomes. The Taskforce sees Tomorrow’s Schools emerging from a period of policy change and although it does not explore that change at all, it entirely ignores the debates of the Education Development Conference and other venues in the 1970s and 1980s, all of which fed into policy evolution of which Tomorrow’s Schools was one component.
OSF proceeds as if complaints that education agencies do not talk to one another are justified. They are not, and their acceptance illustrates the absence of experience in management of large organizations among the Taskforce members, despite the presence of two principals of schools which count as large enterprises and the experience of one of them at NZQA. Co-ordination is simply difficult (and expensive). It is no accident that within secondary schools, teachers find it easier to concentrate on their subjects rather that engage in debate about how they are inducing increased student capabilities in relation to the core competencies of the curriculum. Equally, teachers and principals find it easier to work within their school rather than between schools – and that has little to do with how the schools are governed.
In general, OSF treats teacher complaints as justified and a basis for recommending change by others. The Taskforce claims to have consulted widely but the material cited in OSF is overwhelmingly from teachers. “We heard” and “We were told” introduce matters of fact and become the basis for recommendations. Testimony is not evidence, at least not evidence of what is alleged although it is evidence of what is believed and it is reason to enquire into whether the belief is justified.
My enquiries as an economic historian have given me a great respect for learning by doing. Process innovation, especially, often derives from improvements identified by those engaged in the relevant process. The experience of teachers makes them an obvious source for information about the pedagogical practices which best fit any particular kind of learner, but it does not give them a basis for prescribing how schooling should be managed– or apparently how assessment should be organised.
The lack of any skills in public management is most apparent in the eventual resort to the notion that there should be more public expenditure on schools – with the usual euphemisms being that schools should be “better resourced” or “better supported”. Anybody with public management experience would start with recognition that the budget has to be managed at various levels. Expenditure on education competes at an aggregate level with expenditure on social welfare, or health, law enforcement, defence or other high-level functions. Not surprisingly, the Taskforce does not attempt to show that there would be a better public return by transferring expenditure from one of these other claimants to schools. Within education, expenditures within schools has to be balanced against expenditure on early childhood service, tertiary education, workplace learning, and non-institutional education services. Again, not surprisingly, the Taskforce does not make any attempt to suggest expenditure is misallocated at that level. But if there is no misallocation at one of those levels (or at the ultimate aggregate of public versus private expenditure), then “more resources” for schools or “more support” for teachers means less expenditure on schools elsewhere. Again, the Taskforce was probably wise to leave the search for economies to others, but it should have acknowledged that its recommendations were essentially about reprioritizing expenditure within schools rather than postulating free gifts from somewhere unspecified.
It is not only financial management in which OSF is deficient. The Taskforce recommends Education Hubs which are to be Crown entities but it is unspecific on what kind of Crown entity and uninformative about how Crown entities operate. A Crown entity may be a Crown agency, required to implement government policy, an Autonomous Crown entity, required to have regard to government policy but formulating its own policies and implementing them, or an Independent Crown entity, one which operates independently of the Executive government (usually in some quasi-judicial manner). OSF recommends that the Ministry remains responsible for “policy” and although it is not at all explicit about what that is, presumably Education Hubs are to be Crown agents, vehicles to implement government policy. As one of the complaints apparently endorsed by OSF is that schools are too often subjected to short term political agendas, Crown agents are hardly likely to satisfy the sector.
Crown entities have boards. Education hubs would presumably have ministerial appointments and some mechanism for representation from the schools which it services. Quite how those board members would have regard to the interests of the hub and not to their original schools is not a unique problem but it is not solved by wishful thinking. Crown entities have obligations; they have to make annual statements of intent, keep accounts, and withstand auditing of outcomes against expectations, the same accountability requirements as schools (which are Crown entities) but without C & AG concessions in recognition of the nature of schools. Any relief of the sector from accountability requirements is only in appearance. The staffing of Hubs as Crown entities would not be cheap; it would surely involve transfers from schools as well as from agencies like the Ministry.
Furthermore, responsibilities would be confused. The notion that Boards of Trustees would be responsible for strategy and an annual plan while Education Hubs would be responsible for a network of schools is a recipe for total confusion. This is also apparent in the uncertainty of OSF about how responsibility for appointing and monitoring principals would be allocated. The notion that Hubs might be responsible for closing schools (p. 115) shows ignorance of how political issues reach ministerial desks very quickly.
It is hard to resist the inference that the Taskforce was most concerned to relieve principals. The notion that compliance requirements crowd out “real teaching” is just a part of a much wider complaint, the unimportant but urgent – that in which I am not interested – always crowds out what is really important – that which interests me. In the university, we used to talk about brown envelopes, administration requirement, which got in the way of teaching and research, and admired the professor who really did decline ever to open a brown envelope. (His colleagues suffered the inconvenience of contacting him in other ways or finding ways around his behaviour, but I wondered whether he made a net contribution to scholarship through his intransigence.) These days, brown envelopes have been replaced by emails but the issues are the same. On the one hand, compliance can be a waste of time. On the other hand, those finding it hard to make progress with teaching and research can only too readily find brown envelopes or emails as a less demanding use of time. Merely shifting the issue from principals (or teachers) to Hubs is no solution.
(The idea of “real teaching” is a chimera. Teaching requires understanding of a student’s capability and monitoring of how it is increased. Assessment is not an add-on, a compliance requirement; it is an essential component of “real teaching”. So are tasks like designing and implementing timetables. Teaching may be direct or indirect. The departmental leader who makes a good allocation of tasks within a group of teachers is as much an effective teacher as the one who supervises a classroom.)
We might also deduce from the idea that Hubs would be responsible for evaluating networks of schools but not individual schools, let alone individual teachers, that the intent is a concession to teacher desire to avoid evaluation. Distaste for accountability is a human failing, for a politician facing an election, for a public servant called to a minister to justify a recommendation, for any professional required to justify their professional advice, as much as for a teacher experiencing an ERO review, but it is not a feeling to be indulged. Especially when public funds are at stake, accountability is required. And accountability is more than self-reporting; it is a relationship defined by agreed or understood objectives, independent monitoring which culminates in comparison of outcomes with objectives, and sanctions or rewards (not necessarily financial) depending on that comparison. Teachers and principals should be accountable.
In any case, regionalisation (like experimentation) has a chequered history in New Zealand. Being responsive to local communities sounds attractive, but these days “communities” are seldom geographically-based. Communities of interest are based on on-line communication as much as on location as neighbours. Regions still exist, but they are less important than they were. Indeed, it may be schools which most define regions and while geography remains significant, it is no longer as dominant as it was. However the big constraint is that New Zealand remains socially cohesive and very much observant of what happens elsewhere. That X is available somewhere else becomes a justification for why X should be available here. The Ministry of Education is working towards empowering a few regional offices to have more autonomy, paying attention to both regional distinctiveness and national cohesion. Replacing that careful evolution with a larger number of Education Hubs is simply foolhardy. The proposal does not accord with the principles of public management and surely cannot withstand re-reading the Picot Committee discussion of Education Boards.
Teaching is a demanding activity. (“Real teaching” is usually just a rhetorical device to avoid accountability.) Teaching requires understanding a student, a specific student, and identifying strategies to help that student achieve enhanced capabilities. The relevant capabilities are diverse, knowledge which becomes important in life, and characteristics which permit engagement all aspects of life. OSF reports the usual comment that schooling is about more than academic knowledge and although it does not dwell on what is usually another evasion tactic, it does not examine the purpose of teaching. The literature is immense but a convenient summary is “education has always been about more than knowledge manipulation and test scores. It is also, inevitably, about the formation of character. Schools are cultures that are saturated with values: who to admire; what to respect; what is worth knowing; who has a right to question what; where is the line between imagination and silliness, or teasing and bullying; and so on. And it is not in the School Rules that these judgements live; it is in the minutiae of daily interactions with teachers and older students, who demonstrate through their behaviour and their expressions what is worth noticing and what is to be treated with silent contempt; what is ‘cool’ and what is ‘babyish’; what is ‘funny’ and what is ‘insolent.’” [Guy Claxton “Virtues of uncertainty” Aeon (14 September 2014)]. Claxton has reviewed education policy in many countries and found much in common, whether in New Zealand’s objective to generate “confident, connected, actively involved lifelong learners” or Singapore’s plans aimed at “producing youngsters who are ‘creative and imaginative’ and ‘able to think, reason and deal confidently with the future.’” Claxton identifies eight key values: curiosity, courage, exploration, experimentation, imagination, discipline, sociability (in which he balances autonomy and collaboration), and mindfulness. These cannot be attained through exhortation or set-piece exercises, but they can be developed through teacher practice. They do not replace subject content, but they are what the OECD identifies as long ago as the 1980s, before the Picot Report, as the purposes of “learning through subjects”. What we should be aiming at is not only teachers across schools talking about examination practices and results in conventional subjects, important though moderation of assessment practices and results is, but discussion among teachers, whether within a school or between schools, on how evaluation in subjects contributes evidence of values such as those Claxton identifies. (Their precise identification is not important. The core competencies of the New Zealand curriculum easily generate a list not unlike this one. The core might be stated as achieving another aim of Tomorrow’s Schools, replacing a system which selected an elite with one which recognised achievement. Claxton has a gloss on that aim, which was widely shared in the 1980s, in writing “The elite private schools talked happily of developing qualities such as team spirit, fair play, judgment and rationality. They produced young men who could outwit an enemy, conduct a trial, preach a sermon and hold their own at High Table in a discussion of arcane subjects. And it was naturally assumed that, as we only needed so many Leaders and a great many more Followers, so mass education (for the followers) sought to develop a complementary character: obedient, punctual, punctilious, honest, tidy and clean, as well as possessing a degree of basic literacy and numeracy.” That should make some school common rooms wonder whether they have kept up with social trends in the last 30 years.
Claxton is a more or less arbitrary choice from a vast array of literature on the nature of schools. One might have expected a Taskforce with three education researchers to draw on that literature but while it provides a brief bibliography and a longer list of references, it barely engages with the international literature. Much of OSF could have been substituted by references to Cathy Wylie’s earlier publications which include some valuable material on learning processes but rely on the same inadequate analysis of governance structures as OSF. But then education researchers might have been expected to engage in modern analysis of discourse rather than repeat testimony as evidence. And when OSF occasionally goes beyond the New Zealand education literature, it does not generate confidence.
OSF advocates more attention to the gap between Maori and non-Maori education outcomes. Who doesn’t? The difficulty is reconciling all the competing pressures, not identifying the desired end result. The Ministry of Education seeks to align regional offices with iwi boundaries (while recognising that iwi is substantially a Pakeha concept and that hapu are fluid rather than tidy in iwi affiliations) but cannot ignore how territorial boundaries have evolved; an education hub defined by kaupapa Maori rather than geography would pose challenges of public acceptance without resolving questions of how various understandings of the Treaty of Waitangi can be reconciled with the processes of public management. Enormous gains have been made in allowing Maori to achieve in the school system, especially in recent years under the determination of Hekia Parata as Minister of Education, and we should learn from what has succeeded and what hasn’t, not proceed as though we are still in 1988.
The OSF analysis is superficial. It argues “There will continue to be considerable costs for society and the economy if we do not achieve educational equity for Maori. If we do achieve that equity, there will be gains in the region of a $2.6 billion boost to the economy each year.” (p. 29). It gives a reference and H. Schultze & S. Green, Making Sense of the Numbers, a BERL Report (2018) for Tokona Te Raki Maori Futures Collective project, Change Agenda: Income Equity for Maori does indeed have headlines “Current income gap for Māori is $2.6 billion per year” and “If we achieve equity, it will mean An additional $2.6 billion per year into Māori households” (p. 2) but p.8 of the report makes it clear that the result follows immediately from calculating the gap between the age distribution of earnings of Maori and non-Maori, “In total, the Māori population earn $2.6 billion per year less than they would if they all earned the average income for their age.” This opens an exploration of age, qualifications, occupations etc. It is not a research finding which starts from identifying what is required to bring the qualifications and occupations of Maori and non-Maori to equality, let alone to evaluate all the changes in income levels which would result from such an achievement. There are simpler ways to say that the gap in education attainment between Maori and non-Maori remains important. Interestingly, the Berl report starts with “Equity means fairness, in contrast to equality which simply means sameness” which entirely escapes the Taskforce. It shows, unintentionally, why it is important in our schools to generate capacity to evaluate claims of expertise.
Perhaps it is as well the Taskforce restricted itself to teacher testimony rather than sought to engage with the research literature.
OSF identifies the need for better Initial Teacher Education. It follows the conventional wish that entrants to teaching should be cleverer, both academically and in personality, but that is merely an evasion. The real issue is in equipping entrants to teaching with the skills to enable them to go on learning from their experiences. Perhaps we should re-examine the proposition that teaching is a profession. It lacks some of the usual characteristics of a profession, reliance on individual earnings rather than salaries, and independent maintenance of professional standards. The decisions of the mid-twentieth century to pursue higher salaries through militant unionism are still much more apparent than the conventional characteristics of a profession. But other occupations which are mostly government employees have managed to retain professional respect. If the Education Council succeeded in gaining control of professional standards for entry to the professional, setting standards for ITE graduates without relying on their entry requirements, and also set and monitored requirements for Professional Learning and Development (PLD), the standing of teaching as a profession might be raised. The current arrangements for PLD rely on teachers or schools or groups of schools identifying their needs within some loosely specified national priorities, and then selecting an appropriate accredited facilitator. The Taskforce would replace this with more central provision but it ignores the way that teachers rejected central provision as misdirected and inadequate.
It is probably right to conclude that the reforms which were introduced at the same time as Tomorrow’s Schools depended on unrealistic expectations of the capabilities of teachers. They were expected to seize opportunities opened to them, just as had happened in other areas where public services were reorganised as autonomous SOEs. The difference between teaching and management was underestimated. In some areas, we should not retreat. Reliance on teacher judgment rather than national tests has not been discredited. National tests seem simple but anybody with experience in assessment knows how misguided is the popular confidence in them. Teacher judgment is indispensable if teaching is to be a profession. But we might conclude that experience shows that turning a national curriculum into a local syllabus and thence into teaching plans requires more specialised expertise and less reliance on teachers as a whole than was thought in 1988-89. Note that this implies that there would be specialists and fewer classroom teachers for the same number of students. The Taskforce would have been valuable had it focused on such possibilities. Its limited discussion can contribute to relevant analysis, but it will need to have a more sensitive approach to balancing central direction and local autonomy than is characteristic of OSF.
That applies to the appointment of principals too. It is tempting to think that a central organization could place principals where they would have most effect – and undoubtedly principals now in decile 10 schools would be reallocated to centres of disadvantage. But central planning does not have a good record. It tends to become ineffective at allocation, but even more it stultifies innovation. We should certainly seek to facilitate recruitment of the best principals to where they would have most impact, but that should be done without rendering local communities powerless and without creating unhappy principals by denying them their preferences. The same argument applies to teachers generally. Had the Taskforce followed the equity versus equality idea, it would have noticed that the intent was to allocate teaching capability according to student demand (proxied initially by student numbers); what results from how the schemes were implemented was the allocation of teacher salaries by student numbers. A convoluted system of “management units”, previously “positions of responsibility”, is used to convert this into something a little closer to the desired distribution of teacher capability. Complicated formulae and countee-formulae is characteristic of central planning, and it would be far better to recognise that teachers vary by more than seniority.
In a number of areas, we now have capabilities which did not exist in 1988. In particular improvements in data collections and management make it possible to align funding with student need much more closely than the approximation achieved in decile funding. The requirement is not a change in school governance, but overcoming resistance in the sector to any change.
The Taskforce became fixated on boards of trustees. Teachers were always suspicious of mere parents being their employers and setting strategies for “their” schools. Most professionals are suspicious of non-experts placed in authority over them. But locating the appropriate boundary between professional and lay, and getting it understood by both sides, is the best response. I know of no evidence that the average performance of boards of trustees relative to the desired performance is any different from the average performance of teachers relative to what we want from them. OSF certainly does not provide any such evidence. It does not engage with the relevant evidence which exists in ERO reports and in the records of the School Trustees Association. The Taskforce even seems to share the nonsensical belief that boards of trustees should somehow operate in isolation from the school staff. Any sensible governance unit works by stimulating or requiring management reports and responding to them.
OSF recommends the abolition of ERO without any substantial analysis. An Education Evaluation Unit would replace it and we are told little other than that it would evaluate Hubs rather than schools. Over 30 years, ERO has accumulated a wealth of experience, negotiated changes in its responsibilities, especially in navigating the complexities of “assess and assist” and justified the response of C.E. Beeby to its creation, “Teachers will aspire to what ERO requires”. Over the years, ERO has developed experience in responding to a need to “assess and assist”. It is required to make independent judgments and it has to provide advice and assistance without compromising its ability to make judgments. Again, it shares this task with auditors in general, many of whom are the principal advisers to small businesses while remaining independent judges of the quality of their accounting.
The OSF recommendation that NZQA be disestablished is even less justified. There is no discussion of how national qualifications would be monitored and assessed. (Nor indeed any discussion at all of the responsibilities of NZQA outside the school system.) The notion that NZQA has been undesirably unresponsive to the Ministry and the reverse is nonsense; certainly both organisation has sometimes been irritated by apparent slow responses of the other, but then the lack of cordial relations between the Curriculum Development Unit and the Qualifications and Assessment Division of the “united” Department of Education before the 1980s was notorious. The Curriculum Development Unit had respected educationists but was often regarded by teachers as pointy-headed and impractical. The Qualifications and Assessment Division had less status and was widely regarded as in need of restraint less assessment should drive the curriculum. The last remains a common fear but it is a simplistic formulation of a wider set of issues. Curriculum and assessment must be linked even though they draw primarily on different academic specialities. The border between them is in standard setting and bith must contribute to that. To see assessment in the sense of marking exams as directly determining curriculum – or even the structure of classroom presentations – is simplistic. There is room for further analysis of the desirable relationship between curriculum development and assessment processes but that would be retarded rather than facilitated by disestablishment of NZQA. Some of the biggest gains in teacher capabilities in recent years have come from the assessment workshops organised by NZQA. There is still much to be done, but a great deal would be lost by leaving assessment to luck. Moderation is a crucial part of quality assurance; it is not just a compliance requirement imposed on teachers.
I am conscious that my views of OSF might not be entirely detached. While not directly involved with the Picot Committee, I did interact with the committee and it was a major influence on a working party I chaired which generated an analogous report on post-compulsory education. I was therefore involved, although only in a minor way and not always with approval, in the process by which Administering for Excellence generated Tomorrow’s Schools. Throughout the years since Tomorrow’s Schools, I have been continually engaged in various ways with the institutions which were created. I participated in, and chaired, an Advisory Council on Quality of Education at ERO; I have chaired the Technical Overview Group (Assessment) and its predecessors at NZQA and participated in or chaired various other advisory groups. I have also consulted for the Ministry, participated in advisory mechanisms and I currently chair the PLD Accreditation Panel. For several years between 1988 and 2008 I taught education policy to postgraduate students at VUW and engaged the CEOs and staff of the Ministry, ERO and NZQA in those courses. Consequently I could be said to have invested quite heavily in all the processes of which Tomorrow Schools was a herald. I have however been as much a critic as a proponent, and I think this response to OSF is objective.