Q: What’s good about New Zealand’s education system as it currently stands?
O’Connor: The best thing about the system is the people inside it. Teachers and principals have been underfunded, under resourced and on occasions belittled and attacked by government. Their resilience and patience is what holds the system together.
Q: And what needs fixing?
O’Connor: The competitive business model that underpins the system creating autonomous schools has reinforced the growing inequality that eats away at the social fabric of New Zealand. When it comes to children and their lives you cannot afford winners and losers. It has to be a win-win for everyone.
Q: Taking a broad-brush view, what’s your take on the Tomorrow’s Schools Review taskforce report?
O’Connor: The overthrowing of the failed Tomorrow’s Schools model is long overdue. Rearranging schools so they are not just about personal achievement but are understood as a public good is vital for us as a democracy.
Q: What do you think is the most compelling recommendation in the report?
O’Connor: The dismantling of the autonomous school model into a genuine national education system so that it becomes possible to make real and lasting change.
Q: Any proposals that particularly concern you?
O’Connor: The proposals come as a package. I’m concerned that government will cherry pick and put in place the easier ones that will have wider political support. I’m concerned that the public debate on the reforms isn’t driven by Principals of schools that are the winners of the current system defending their privilege.
The recommendations from this review need to be supported by reforms in curriculum, assessment and other aspects of the schooling system.
Finally, these reforms and everything else we do in education will have only limited impact if we don’t systemically address poverty and inequality across society.