There’s nothing quite like the screech of a faulty microphone, and a booming intercom interruption requesting the owner of a BMW to turn their lights off, to remind you that you’re at a public education meeting at the Tauranga RSA.

National education spokesperson Nikki Kaye

But the crowd of around 100 were understanding. After all, they’d made it there, 7pm on a Thursday night from all over Tauranga, especially to discuss the future of New Zealand education. It would take more than some mic feedback and an ill-timed broadcast to mar the evening.

“I guess you do things a bit differently here in Tauranga,” quipped National education spokesperson Nikki Kaye drily.

It was one of Kaye’s 40 public meetings held all over New Zealand to discuss the Tomorrow’s Schools Review. She was supported by National Party leader and Tauranga MP Simon Bridges, and Bay of Plenty MP Todd Muller.

In contrast to the recent meeting held at Auckland Grammar School, which saw some strong criticism for some the proposed reforms arise from the audience, the tone at the Tauranga meeting was somewhat mellower.

In fact, many questions didn’t relate directly to the Tomorrow’s Schools Review. Hands went up around the room to query things like innovative learning environments, charter schools, the parental role in early childhood education, the need to teach kids life skills before they leave school, and so on. It reflected the diversity of the audience; there were principals, teachers, teacher aides, early childhood managers and owners, educational charitable trusts, board members, business owners, and Year 13 students in attendance.

There was, however, some discussion around the Education Hubs, the proposed new entities to govern groups of schools.

One person questioned how an Education Hub in Tauranga could possibly make effective decisions about a school in rural Murupara.

Kaye was careful with her words. She is an advocate for shared services in education, and sees merit in some aspects of the hub proposal. But she has concerns about how the hubs would work in practice. She thinks clumping schools together according to region might be problematic, particularly for rural schools.

Kaye also voiced concerns around how the introduction of hubs might see a shift away from the collaborative relationship that has built up between principals and parents. With key decision making responsibilities wrested from boards of trustees and into the hands of the hubs, there is a potential for parents to feel like their stake in their children’s education has diminished.

One example lies in the treatment of student disciplinary matters, with hubs potentially responsible for suspensions, exclusions and expulsions instead of boards. One Year 13 student in the audience had issues with this and Kaye agreed it didn’t seem right for all the process to sit with officials who don’t know the local context.

A question about the appointment of principals – another activity taken from boards’ remit –came up nearly towards the end, with one person declaring the proposed five-year principal contracts “just absurd”. But there wasn’t much said on the matter. Nor on the closure of ERO or the phasing out of intermediate schools.

What did rate more than just a mention from the crowd was the need to properly fund special education.

“We have a funding model that doesn’t support inclusive education; in fact, it supports exclusive education,” said one advocate.

Resourcing came up a lot, and Kaye talked about the need to move to National’s social investment approach to funding.

But Kaye gets that people don’t want to see education used as a political football anymore; she gets that all the effort one administration makes in changing the system only to be undone by the next is not appreciated by anyone, least of all teachers and parents.

“People want some enduring cross-party agreement,” she said.

And while there were moments when she couldn’t resist putting the political boot in –she is very skeptical of Education Minister Chris Hipkins’ rush to get so many education reforms over the line so quickly, for example – it was refreshing to hear her support for aspects of the current Government’s policies too, such as Associate Education Minister Tracey Martin’s learning support action plan.

Leader of the National Party, Hon Simon Bridges

Simon Bridges, after doing battle with the same dodgy microphone and fielding some banter from the crowd about his hair cut, finished the evening by offering a similar sentiment.

“This Government is trying a lot of things. They’ve got 18 working groups going on at the moment in education. And I don’t necessarily entirely knock them for that as I think it shows a Minister who is ambitious, who is wanting to be bold in thinking about what’s happening in education. The most significant by a long way is the Tomorrow’s Schools Review. It’s quite radical.”

Bridges says while National agrees with the problem – the need to ensure all schools perform better – they have concerns that moving away from boards of trustees and local communities to a centralized model won’t resolve this for all schools.

And with that, the meeting was over. The audience, while perhaps not privy to the most significantly robust discussion of the year, certainly left feeling like their presence and opinions had meant something, like they cared enough about the future of New Zealand education to bother turning up and listening. Some lingered to bend the ears of the MPs. Others retreated to their cars, including – I’m assuming – the BMW owner, who was hopefully able to depart the RSA without any trouble.

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