“A once-in-a-generation opportunity to review education.”
That’s how Bali Haque, chairperson of the Tomorrow’s Schools Review taskforce, described the review at Education Central’s recent ChalkTalk debate in Wellington.
The debate saw education discussed both through the framework of the task force’s recommendations and in broader terms. And throughout it all, the issue at heart was inequality.
“It is about cultural change, transformational change … for me, part of that cultural change is from we to us.”
Tomorrow’s Schools, today
Haque began by noting that not only is New Zealand’s performance against international benchmark statistics plateauing, but the gap between students who performing well and those falling behind is widening.
“The gap between how we are performing is growing. It’s the highest in the OECD and it’s stubborn.”
The crowd heard that while some schools were flourishing under the current system, others were struggling.
“Principals are taking the best [teachers] from schools that are less able to compete with them,” one audience member stated.
Others voiced concerns around the variance of a board’s abilities and responsibilities, student poverty levels and school resourcing.
NZEI president Lynda Stuart said the increasing diversity within New Zealand’s student population means an increased need for schools to be able to meet those diverse needs.
Stuart is also the principal of May Road School in Mt Roskill and said there is a quiet consensus for change.
“There is a sense that we need to be resourcing our system better and supporting our students and teachers better.”
Her school has a high proportion of children for whom English was a second language. The current system did not recognise the needs of these students, as well as those students with different learning abilities, Stuart said.
“There are huge numbers of children who require other support and we want to give them that support,” she said.
“A learning support coordinator in every school is absolutely essential.
“It is a job at the moment that people are doing on top of other workloads.”
Wellington High School Deputy Principal Karen Spencer agreed that a learning support coordinator was required in each school.
“The need exists regardless of deciles.”
She also welcomed the idea of an equity index, which already existed in the early childhood setting, she said.
University of Auckland education and social work professor Peter O’Connor said our current schooling system reinforces the inequality prevalent in wider society, as the 1989 Tomorrow’s Schools reforms were based on a system of “winners and losers”.
“If we think about the philosophical beginnings of Tomorrow’s Schools, it was essentially to set them off on their own, adrift.”
O’Connor likened current perspectives on schooling to traffic congestion – people complained about getting stuck in traffic when driving their children to school, but did not consider carpooling or catching public transport, he said.
“The Tomorrow’s Schools review is not just about lifting achievement, it’s about bridging the divide,” he says.
“Sometimes the difference is as little as two or three kilometres away.”
Would education hubs reduce inequity?
Opinions were divided as to whether the suggestions outlined in the taskforce’s report would alleviate any of the current issues.
New Zealand is a small country with more than enough resources, but these resources are not utilised effectively, Haque said.
“What’s also missing is a coherent delivery system.”
The proposed education hubs would address the access issues some schools had to resources and support, he said. A system where schools were left to fend for themselves was unusual internationally.
“Some schools who feel that they’re doing all right want to be left alone … that’s not usual, that’s not done in anywhere else,” Haque said.
“Something like a hub is not unusual in other jurisdictions.”
One solution to allow schools who believe they are adequately resourced and supported to continue independently was the suggestion for hubs to be optional.
Haque did not support this proposal, which he believed would lead to further polarisation between schools at either end of the spectrum.
Spencer added that she believed schools were already willing to work together with others in their community.
“That willingness to group around hyper-local concerns already happens,” she said.
“The reach [of the hubs] to groups of schools a) becomes more logistically manageable and b) supports the networking and collaboration.”
The knowledge and resources are currently available, but are simply inaccessible to some schools, she said.
“Where will the learning support teachers, where will the expertise come from? I don’t think that’s the right question.”
It is difficult for schools that couldn’t see their own situation reflected in the report to understand the needs of other schools, she said.
One audience member believed the ability for principals to move between schools within the hub would encourage better relationships within wider school communities.
“The thought that you could end up as principal in any of the other schools would certainly change how you relate to other schools.”
However, another questioned how the hub system would have a different effect from the board of trustees model when both were affected by under-resourcing.
A board of trustees chairperson noted that while he understood the need to elevate the underserved schools, he was concerned what the effect would be on those schools that were currently doing well.
“I’m in the risk management business and I’m worried about the risk to everyone else in applying this blunt instrument.”
From ‘my school’ to ‘our schools’
Meanwhile, Stuart approached the issue of disparity between kahui ako.
“At the moment we can look at some very good kahui ako, we can look at some mediocre kahui ako and we can look at some kahui ako that aren’t doing very well, but at the heart of this is collaboration.”
She hoped the review would result in a cultural shift from ‘my school’ to ‘our schools’.
“One of the things we’ve got at the moment is huge distrust within the sector,” she said.
“What we see envisaged in the hub is a really strong community service.
“We do need to have support closest to the child, closest to the school and easily accessible.”
One of her concerns with the report and subsequent conversations is the lack of input from the early learning sector and the effect this could have on transitions to primary school.
“I really worry about the alignment between the two.”
PPTA Junior Vice President Melanie Webber, who was in the audience, said she would love the opportunity that the hubs would provide to work in and learn from another school.
“That sort of cross-pollination is really powerful.”
NZSTA President Lorraine Kerr said schools were often blamed for issues that arose outside the school gates.
“I’ve always believed the schools have been seen as the centre of society’s woes.”
Another audience member agreed, saying, “If you want to solve equity issues, you’re not just going to solve them in schools.”
Haque firmly believed the suggestions outlined by the taskforce’s proposal would lessen the inequality within our education system, but welcomed debate on the review as enlightening and necessary.
He urged members of the public to get involved in the consultation process and to write to members of parliament to petition for cross-party agreement.
“The opportunity to make a difference and get this out of the political arena is too good,” he said.
“This is around social justice for our children, fundamentally.”
Chalktalks was proudly brought to you by the University of Auckland.