‘Sweet As Bro’. A country’s catchphrase can say a lot about the population’s attitude and this slogan is what many Kiwis are proud of: being laid back, easygoing. A much-appreciated environment for a highly strung European with Vitamin D deficiency. But what about the infuriatingly ‘Yeah Nah’ or ‘Yes and No’? This non-committal mindset has resulted in some long overdue conversations being put off for far too long.

Strangely, even after being a member of various committees over the years, the Board of Trustees (BoT) of our previous school never entered my mind as a point of contact when communicating my dissatisfaction with the direction the school was taking. The heated debates I was trying to encourage with the principal never ignited and it was another parent, not the principal, who suggested I take it a ‘step further’ and go to the Board. By this time I had already spoken to media about the implementation of ‘modern or innovative’ learning environments at state schools without the research to back them and speaking out had made me very unpopular with some staff and parents. My husband and I trusted that the Board of Trustees would treat us fairly, but they decided to consult a lawyer instead and base their final decision on what was legally necessary instead of improving relationships and (in my view) learning outcomes. A week later we took our kids out of school. We felt forced out because of the defensive approach of the school and failure to adequately address our genuine and well-researched concerns.

Perhaps having access to an Education Hub at the time would have helped resolve our issues? A perfect mix of paid education professionals and locals that had the time and energy and emotional detachment to go through our dispute properly could have made a huge difference.

The BOT of our previous school drastically changed the school’s education philosophy without consulting parents and when we complained, the Ministry of Education (MoE) was blamed for forcing these changes. A meeting with a Senior Policy Analyst from the MoE last year revealed that yes, with leaky buildings and population growth in mind the MoE had encouraged MLEs/ILEs for our state schools, but this Policy Analyst and also Education Minister Chris Hipkins (see letter) insist that they do not force schools into changing their learning environments. It is however common knowledge that in recent years schools that needed a spruce-up to their classrooms could apply for new building money from the MoE, but that in order to no longer struggle with ageing stock they were encouraged to adopt an open plan design.

These mixed messages are confusing. My interpretation is as followed:

MoE in 2012: The way we currently teach and learn in school is no longer suitable. All schools will be Modern Learning Environments by 2020 to ensure teachers can work collaboratively and children learn to be self-managing ‘digital natives’. These steps are essential to prepare our children for the future. We will provide funds and training for a smooth implementation. We are conducting research to support these drastic changes.

MoE in 2018: Each school’s Principal and BOT chooses how teaching and learning take place in their school and how they design their buildings. We no longer care that some are ‘innovative’ and some are not and are no longer worried about how this will affect our children in future. We can’t provide the research promised that supports the implementation of Modern Learning. We will blame all failings of this system on the schools and their leadership and will ‘save’ the education system by taking back control.

Boards that have worked their butts off after hours and on a voluntary basis to ensure the education of the children at their school is top notch are understandably worried that ‘others’ without their background knowledge and passion will take over. Boards of TRUSTees – the name is comforting in itself. But trust has not been a feeling associated with the Ministry of Education for a long time. Why let THEM take over?

But from what I can tell after reading the Tomorrows School Review is that the proposal is extremely reasonable and if executed properly could seriously relieve some much-needed pressure off schools’ leadership. Ministry takes on property and employment responsibility again, leaving principals free to focus on learning in consultation with the community. And there should still be ample opportunity to be involved in decision making for those who are so inclined, only no longer in the safe bubble of their affinity group.

My own experience with one BOT at one school leads me to believe that releasing some responsibility from a small group of people leading our children’s education is welcome and necessary and that this move could make our education system more equitable. Not only because BoTs don’t always possess the expertise to run schools successfully, but also because of the ‘Yeah Nah’ attitude. In a small town like Blenheim, everyone knows each other and loyalty is important to people. Nodding your way through a meeting is sometimes easier than standing up to your best friend’s aunt. In line with the HIPPO effect where the Highest Paid Persons Opinion matters most, some Boards will protect their Principals ‘no matter what’ and this has put children and their families in vulnerable positions.

An Education Hub might lead to more healthy debate and therefore more sensible decisions in education. But the success of this will depend heavily on trust between schools, their hubs and the Ministry and of course the dirty F word: funding. Will there be enough money to make this reform run smoothly? And where are all these so-called experts coming from who will man the hubs?

The ultimate goal is that all children at all state schools in New Zealand have an equal chance at succeeding and no family be forced out from their school community for raising concerns about the school’s lack of consultation or shift in educational philosophy. If this review can make this happen I am all in.

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