I have had a read of the report on Tomorrow’s Schools by the ‘independent’ taskforce led by Bali Haque. I have also read his defence of it published here.

I have never read a document on the New Zealand education system that has more potential to cause irreparable harm to New Zealand children and their families. It doesn’t take long for their massively ideological pre-supposition to be made clear.

“Because schools are self-governing, agencies have lost the capacity and capability to deeply influence [i.e. control] schools in their core business of teaching and learning.” (p9 of their summary document).

Their work clearly was trying to find a whole lot of problems that their “solutions” fit and failing miserably. It is all about control – of Boards, Principals, teachers, resources, etc. Adding another layer of bureaucracy to the New Zealand system and removing parental influence is the very, very last thing needed.

Their proposals aim to hugely reduce the democratic influence of the New Zealand people in the education of their children.

Some of the problems they have identified need attention but that needs to be well directed. Their approach is like finding that 10 cars in a fleet of 1000 have bald tyres so ordering the replacements for all (as well as painting them dull grey and having State selected and controlled drivers). The vast majority of the recommendations they propose would set New Zealand education back decades. They appear to have no understanding of where the actual teaching/learning interface is.

New Zealand’s education problems are in a narrow but significant band. Our students are increasingly competing in an international education and career market and need to be prepared superbly to do so. Our upper levels – predominantly higher socio-economic, Asian and European students still do well on international measures. This report more than edges towards restricting the ability of higher decile schools to keep developing and extending their students. The attitude reminds me of one of my first representative rugby practices as a 20-year-old. We started with laps as a warm-up and I was away running. One of the old clunkers crossed the middle of the field and pretended to do up his shoe laces, grabbed me as I went past and said; “Slow down you little prick – you are making us all look bad.” The schools that are flying in New Zealand should be given more freedom – not less. That other schools are faltering is not their fault or problem.

But it is a problem! The cumulative effect of 13 years New Zealand education results in comparative UE pass rates of 67% for Asians, European 44%, Pasifika 22% and Māori 19%. This is a national disgrace and we have given up on believing it can be different. It is also a problem that Haque’s report will do nothing to change (although more “equity” may be achieved by slowing down the thriving schools). I would expect Labour Maori caucus will see this and stand against the proposals. The principles of Tomorrow’s Schools are far more valid and workable that what the new proposals provide but the Decile 1 – 3 schools need much more help and some of these are obvious:

  • provide a qualified business manager alongside the Principal and Board. Thirty per cent of schools fail to stay within budget – which means 70% do and don’t need governance interventions. This allows a much more significant concentration on academics.
  • resource all Decile 1 – 3 schools to have class size of 15:1 and have highly specialised assistance to do all of the things that research shows to work if you differentiate the learning and the model with those ratios.
  • massively alter the structure of the Collective Agreement to allow Decile 1 – 3 Principals to incentivise working at these schools. Also provide significant Professional Development in these schools to enhance teacher quality and best practice environments.
  • have specialist roles in Decile 1 – 3 schools to have families engaged in the education of their children from Year 1 through to UE and on into tertiary education.
  • actually trust the Principals and support them to do an excellent job – don’t take opportunities away from them and thus put in place a massive disincentive for mavericks and change agents.

The New Zealand curriculum is generally very good in that it contains enough content and an understanding of skill but also had a remarkable amount of freedom for staff and schools to work with. The current New Zealand teaching profession is in grave need of improvement but I would argue it is more qualitative than quantitative. The bar to entry for Primary training if far too low, university graduates are not tolerating another year without income therefore not considering secondary training and the main incentive to get more income is to teach another year. The report – in the main – ignores most of this. Too offensive to the unions?

The Ministry of Education have 3000 staff already. What on earth do they do? How much does that cost? When were all schools asked for an evaluation of their performance? How much of what they do has any kind of impact on the day to day success – or otherwise – of our children?

As a Trust we have had the misfortune of having to work closely with the Ministry for the last six years – while there are some good people, each time we are interacting with them I am unsure whether I am a character in 1984, Brave New World, Animal Farm, Catch 22 or a Monty Python Film. We have wasted so much time in these processes and the mode is an anathema to good educational practices. The very last thing that schools in New Zealand need is another layer of bureaucracy and control. Haque states that the “Hubs” would select the Principal for State schools (for a 5 year period) but the schools could provide up to half of the interview panel and have the right to veto. Would they also be able to view all CVs or will the shortlist be vetted for those who are ideologically pure and will toe the line?

The education sector and New Zealand public are being told they will be able to submit and comment on the proposals. This reminds me of Eddie Izard’s “Cake or Death” skit. There needs to be a third option – i.e. completely reject the report, put a much less ideologically disposed and far more creative group to the task, address the real problems getting in the way of high quality education for our young people … and get on with it.

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