Education Minister Chris Hipkins. Photo / Marty Melville

Education Minister Chris Hipkins has announced a review of Tomorrow’s Schools, the system set up in 1989 under which every school has been governed by an elected board of trustees. It is not clear what he sees wrong with the system.

In the paper he put to the Cabinet he said, “Tomorrow’s Schools shifted governance to local communities in what was initially a community responsiveness model. However, in keeping with the opening of economy at the time, this community responsiveness model then rapidly shifted to a competitive model with schools envisaged as independent businesses competing in a market.”

He has it the wrong way around. Tomorrow’s Schools was in fact a watered-down version of a true business model proposed to the Lange Government a year or two earlier.

A state education system that used competition in the way that a market does would give fund schools on the basis of the numbers of pupils they could attract and allow successful schools to grow, on more than one site.

They could have incentives to take over those with falling rolls, thus providing all communities with the brand of education they desire much as providers of groceries do. Low-income communities are not left with inferior supermarkets.

But this was too commercial for the comfort of most educational professionals who say “education is not a commodity”. It would also threaten their control of education by making schools more responsive to the preferences of parents and pupils.

Tomorrow’s Schools was a compromise. State schools which would be run by their own boards of trustees but with limited independence. The Ministry of Education would continue to control their size and there would be no incentives to take over schools that were losing too many pupils.

This, of course, did not stop some schools losing pupils to others. In cities where most people have several primary and secondary schools within easy reach, the people competed to get their child into the most reputable school that had room for them. With those schools unable to expand or merge to meet the demand for their brand, they have become highly selective.

They are not competing for students as Hipkins believes; students are competing to get into them. If this is unhealthy competition in his view, it is hard to see how his review of Tomorrows Schools will reduce it.

Long ago a government restored “zoning” to force schools to fill their roles with pupils living in the locality rather than selecting from applicants. Zoning does more for real estate than educational equity and Hipkins’ planned review should question it.

But his paper offers no ideas for improving the system. He has given himself until the end of the year to write terms of reference for a taskforce to be set up.

After 30 years, Tomorrow’s Schools is probably due for review, as are other the curriculum and examination reforms of that time. Boards of trustees are of variable standard and some schools still struggle to maintain their roll. But if the review was not starting with a jaundiced view of competition, it might consider children could be better served with more of it.

Source: NZ Herald

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