To read that the New Zealand Principals’ Federation is “pretty damned impressed” and the PPTA is in favour of a National-borne education policy is almost unnerving.

While it is inevitable that criticism should emerge in some form, mainly from opposing political parties and teachers’ union NZEI, it appears John Key has played a trump card with this one.

As with most things, timing is everything. The Prime Minister’s announcement came at the start of an election year and approximately a week before schools went back. Education has been one of National’s more difficult areas over the past few years, and the announcement of something positive and proactive served the Government well in distancing this brave new classroom from the more contentious issues of the past two years. Charter schools, National Standards, Novopay, and PISA rankings all appeared to pale alongside the news that $359 million is to be injected into New Zealand’s schools in an effort to help schools raise the level of student achievement.

How to spend $359 million

The grand plan goes something like this. The money will be used over four years to create four new roles, which collectively will help raise the bar for New Zealand education.

The first role is that of Executive Principal, which will be filled by “highly-capable principals from across the country” who, while remaining as principal of their own school, will also help provide leadership, support, and mentoring to principals across a community of schools. The Government envisages around 250 Executive Principals across New Zealand by 2017.

Supporting the Executive Principals will be Expert Teachers – role two – of which there will be around 1000. Expert Teachers will be experts in various subject areas and will work inside classrooms within their community of schools, helping teachers improve their teaching practice and to lift student achievement.

Then there will be around 5000 Lead Teachers, who will essentially be role models for other teachers in their community of schools, helping them to observe and learn from their teaching practice.

The fourth role is the Change Principal – principals who will be employed for a fixed term of three to five years to help schools that are really struggling.

In addition to the new roles, the new investment also includes a $10 million Teacher Innovation Fund, which will enable team-based, teacher-led research and development at a practical level, working within schools or across groups of schools. This is expected to tie in with existing initiatives such as the Quality Teaching Agenda.

The Ministry didn’t arrive at the decision lightly. Minister of Education Hekia Parata says the new initiative is supported by OECD evidence and research based on the experiences of the education systems in Hong Kong and Singapore – two of the best-performing countries in the international PISA study.

As an editorial in the Herald stated, “How can you be highly critical of steps to lift schools’ performance that have been recommended by the OECD’s leading educationalist and are backed by a large body of international research? To do so risks implying that you are unconcerned if New Zealand slides further down.”

Performance pay in disguise?

Yet there are also many reasons to be cautious about the new initiative.

There have been suggestions that it is merely a better dressed version of performance pay. The Government’s earlier attempts to foist performance-based pay linked to student results on teachers was unpopular for a myriad reasons, and primarily because it was seen as unfair and unproven.

However, the recent proposal appears to be a means of rewarding excellent teaching and leadership; a welcome initiative. Not only is it designed to spread excellence over communities of schools, but it is likely to motivate teachers and principals to aim for such roles, thereby lifting the level of teaching and school leadership.

Poor career pathways in teaching have long been lamented in education circles. There have been frequent cries over the years to raise the profile of teaching as a profession, and this, coupled with the recent move to graduate teacher education programmes, looks set to do just that.

So good is the scheme for teachers, that it is almost hard to tell if the creation of better career pathways is the main objective or an excellent by-product of a scheme designed to help lift achievement.

The Government believes it is one and the same.

“Our current system often leads teachers to move out of the classroom to advance their careers, and our children can lose the opportunity to learn from the best,” says the Prime Minister.

“What we are doing is designed to give teachers the opportunity to further their careers while staying in front of our kids in the classroom.”

No one denies that this is a great initiative for teachers, but will it really translate to improving student outcomes? Therein lies the rub.

Can shared experience raise student achievement?

For outright critics of the scheme, the notion of improving student outcomes through the creation of new teaching and principal roles is unfeasible. For those sitting more tentatively on the fence – the majority it would seem – there are many questions about how it all connects up to achieve a system lift.

While the learning and change school network initiative has earned wide praise in New Zealand and beyond, not all agree that cross-sector sharing is the answer. Viviane Robinson, an expert in school leadership, believes shared experience is not the way to bring about improved student outcomes.

“We know from numerous experiments in school clusters that putting school leaders together to develop a shared improvement agenda can be a colossal waste of time and money,” she wrote in the Herald recently.

“Clusters have failed because they lack appropriate expertise, because principals could not shed their competitive mind-sets, and most of all, because the cluster leaders are conflicted and unclear about the nature and source of their authority in the group. Unless this is clarified in advance, the appointed executive principals, no matter how skilled, will struggle.”

Robinson is not the only one to suggest that the detail of this scheme needs to be carefully thought out.

The working group appointed with the task of fleshing out the initiative will comprise education sector leaders including representatives from unions, principals’ associations, and Māori and Pacific Island education groups.

Among the decisions facing the working group will be the selection process for the new roles, and how to enable teachers and principals to successfully share expertise across schools while not neglecting their own schools.

But the lunch boxes are still empty

Beyond niggles about the nitty-gritty lie some much greater concerns.

The NZEI says that unless the underlying causes of poor performance at school, such as poverty and poor health, are properly addressed, student achievement cannot be raised.

Indeed, research has shown that poverty plays a major part in children not learning well. Visiting US education expert David Berliner told a recent NZEI conference that outside influences account for about 60 per cent of children’s performance, and school factors, 20 per cent. He said it is very difficult for principals who have improved one struggling school to repeat their success somewhere else.

While the Education Ministry has introduced measures such as PB4L to better involve the wider school community in helping deal with behavioural issues, there are still calls for more to be done to ease the burden of child poverty in New Zealand.

The ‘lunch box’ furore – in which the media exposed the reality that many young

New Zealanders arrive at school with empty tummies and empty lunch boxes in low-decile communities and were expected to learn – was met with a rather weak Government response last year.

“If this is the best the Government can do about child poverty then children are in for a continuing rough time,” Child Poverty Action Group director Mike O’Brien said at the time.

Many would argue that without a true commitment to eradicating child poverty, no scheme, no matter how well-financed or how well-executed, will truly achieve a system lift as hoped.

“These changes will have limited impact if they are not accompanied by bold initiatives to address social inequality and poverty,” says University of Auckland’s dean of education Graeme Aitken, in the Herald.

Aitken makes the valid point that the selection of teachers should be not be based on achievement levels alone, but should also factor in the external influences affecting students’ achievement, like hunger or a volatile home environment, for example.

It’s got potential

Indeed selecting excellent teachers and principals is an important aspect of the new programme. As is sustaining excellence. Lead and expert teachers will need nurturing and support, as will those coming through the ranks and aspiring for these roles.

Viviane Robinson suggested in her Herald article that principals appointed with leading change and improving the quality of teaching and learning will need to have opportunities for professional development open to them.

For all the caveats and provisions, ifs, buts and maybes, the new scheme certainly has potential.

Labour leader David Cunliffe described Key’s speech introducing the initiative as a “six page apology for Hekia Parata”, a shrewd soundbite given the Ministry’s messiness surrounding class sizes, Christchurch schools and Novopay.

However, the new policy, when viewed – just as National intended – alongside the new Prime Minister’s Education Excellence Awards, the education festivals, the efforts to enhance initial teacher education through postgraduate qualifications, the Network 4 Learning, and the new teachers’ professional body EDUCANZ, gives the impression that the fog is lifting a little over education in New Zealand.


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