The way we run our schools today was first proposed in 1988, by a supermarket director and business leader called Brian Picot. His views about schooling were a product of his times and reflected a wider nationwide deregulation of the economy.
The major idea was simple: competition is always a good thing because it drives up quality, encourages people to be responsive, and gets rid of slackers. Since this was deemed to be true in business, Picot postulated, it should also be true for the schooling system, which, at the time, was considered hide bound, lacking in innovative ideas, and non responsive.
Thanks to Mr Picot, and David Lange, the education minister at the time, New Zealand created what can only be described as a revolutionary schooling system which became known as Tomorrow’s Schools.
It was, and remains the most devolved education system in the world, with every single school in the country being deemed an independent Crown entity with its own elected board.
In this new Tomorrow’s Schools world, the Government was to set only the broad rules and schools were free to get on with competing and making decisions locally for the good of their communities.
Non-performing schools would be identified by an audit agency, and would gradually disappear as they closed down through lack of custom, just like any failing business.
Freed from Government control and bureaucracy, Picot believed, schools would flourish. He was only partially right.
Many schools have indeed flourished and enjoyed the freedom to the run their own affairs, and few would want to return to the mind numbing bureaucracies of the 80s.
However, pretty soon after the system was established it became clear that we cannot actually run a schooling system like a commercial business.
Some schools have large numbers of children who experience disadvantage whilst other schools have large numbers of children who are advantaged. While we know all students can make significant gains in learning and achievement, regardless of their circumstances, it is clear we are not starting on a level playing field by any means.
We cannot ignore disadvantage and hope that the market will sort it out. It can’t, and it doesn’t. What does happen however is that too many children emerge from the schooling system broken, and angry. If these significant numbers of children fail to contribute to the future of this country, and become alienated, we all lose.
By the early 90s the Ministry of Education understood that schools, particularly those in disadvantaged communities, and small, rural schools, needed support and could not simply be abandoned to market forces.
Since then we have seen decades of what can only be described as tinkering with the system, with numerous ad hoc changes and interventions from governments of various persuasions.
The purpose of this tinkering has been to try to plug gaps which the underlying competitive system, which still operates, has created.
We are left with a system so bedevilled by tensions and contradictions that it cannot work as effectively as we would like.
For example, school competition is encouraged but what happens to children in schools which are not “winners”? And how can these schools be supported, perhaps by other schools, when the system is driving them to compete with each other?
Boards of trustees are given huge responsibilities and powers, but what happens when schools cannot find enough people to sit on a board, or when board members don’t have any governance experience?
How it is possible for school principals to be leaders of learning, CEOs, property managers, and board members all at the same time?
Most of us would expect that our children should have access to quality schooling regardless of where we live, but how can this be achieved when the system is designed to create winner and loser schools?
Parents want choice about which school they send their children to. But what happens if this means some schools grow, gain additional resources, and are labelled as successful, whilst children left in schools with falling rolls, often the most disadvantaged, then have to cope with fewer resources and are labelled as attending “failing schools”.
Government education agencies are expected to solve all these problems but they actually have quite limited powers in relation to boards of trustees.
None of these issues are simple. They cannot be solved by ad hoc tinkering and well meaning interventions. After almost 30 years, it is time to have a good re-think about what we want for our children’s education, and design a system that delivers it.
For the good of all our children, and our nation as a whole.
Bali Haque is chair of the Independent Taskforce reviewing the Tomorrow’s Schools system. Find out more about the review and have your say at conversation.education.govt.nz/tsr
Source: NZ Herald