Education in New Zealand. looks to be heading back to the 1870s. Would that be back to the future or forward to the past? Photo / file

The Department of Education was founded in 1877. It set teaching standards and funded 12 elected regional education boards. These hubs defined school districts and administered the school system and its teachers, with each school having a committee of local residents.

Fast forward 140 years, zipping past a truckload of various reforms such as Tomorrow’s Schools et al, and a new Education Workforce Strategy has just been released. This calls for the creation of a network of Crown agencies — or Education Hubs — to oversee groups of schools and take over many jobs now done by the boards of trustees, which in effect are committees of local residents.

Gee, the latest scenario sounds a lot like the original one. Maybe it would have saved a lot of trouble and money if we hadn’t bothered with all the bits in between.

Tomorrow’s Schools was the baby of David Lange. Jacinda-like, he’d led Labour to a stunning victory in the 1984 election. In a post-election TV interview, Lange, flush with the exhilaration of Labour’s win, was asked about the new Government’s economic priorities. Beaming ear to ear, and with refreshing informality and infectious bonhomie, Lange boomed in response that he “didn’t really know too much about the economic stuff, but Roger will be taking care of all that.” And so he did.

Labour’s lunge down the neo-liberal luge is, of course, now the stuff of history. As the Jolly Roger was hoisted aloft, Lange could only haplessly watch his cherished traditional Labour values fly out the galley window.

But he did seem to salvage one policy initiative that he thought captured what Labour should be all about — Tomorrow’s Schools.

The intentions were pure — to put schools firmly under the stewardship of the very communities they were meant to serve. Locally elected boards would do the housework and set the agendas for both staff and students alike. Alas, insidious neo-lib tentacles got there first.

The results at the chalkface reflected perfectly the polarising forces that played out in the now deregulated wider society. Schools were replicating the new market forces, where a few skimmed the cream and the rest took the hindmost. A minority of schools in higher socio-economic areas acquired boards stacked with the professional skills necessary for effective running of the highly complex organisations that schools are.

But the majority of boards — now lacking institutional governance expertise — struggled with the mare’s nest of schools’ everyday logistics. And what were meant to be more flexible and community-responsive curricula turned into administrative nightmares for teachers now having to reinvent the wheel at nearly every turn. For many, their classroom priorities changed from progressing curricula into permutations of personal survival.

Forgotten was the raison d’etre for the original school boards working to Department of Education standards: it was all set up to simply let school staff get on with the core business of teaching.

Institutions like the Bank of New Zealand, State Insurance and the like were originally set up to counter private sector rorting in those sectors. Sound public service reasons similarly applied for virtual monopoly situations like railways and electricity. So-called reform often tossed the baby out with the bath water. Ditto, Tomorrow’s Schools ended up trying to deliver a public service in a fake free market model.

Launched three decades ago, it’s entirely appropriate that Tomorrow’s Schools backtracks and explores other options — even if it means a return to some of the original concepts.

So now we have yet another Independent Task Force doing the rounds, but at least it’s recognition that the model needs remodelling. Educators also need access to a basic bottom-line curriculum and resources that — where more top-shelf options aren’t viable — can be a back-stop user-friendly curriculum for all.

There’s good reason why currently about 40 per cent of teachers are heading for the hills after just five years in the profession.

Source: NZ Herald

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