There needs to be some personal context for this opinion piece.  Two and a half years ago, I “retyred” after 48 years in education.  My roles have included secondary teaching, union activist, teacher recruitment manager, and working in teacher industrial relations. I was the Ministry of Education’s first PR/communications manager while being a board of trustees’ chairperson at the same time. I spent 15 years in the Beehive as private secretary/senior advisor for seven Ministers of Education, beginning with Lockwood Smith and ending with Chris Carter.

For two years I helped give the young people of Christchurch a say in the rebuild of their shattered city, post the 2010/11 quakes. Finally, I worked with employers and local government in a couple of rural areas helping form partnerships help secondary schools better prepare their students for the world of work.

My work, both as communications manager for the fledgling Ministry beginning with the implementation of the Tomorrow’s Schools reforms in 1989, and as a private secretary in three of my seven Ministers’ offices in the 1990s, gave me an insight I think into the purpose of the reforms.  I should acknowledge that I was a fan of the TS reforms – you couldn’t be the PR manager of the Ministry and not be!

At the same time, as the foundation board chair of a primary school in the new governance structures, I had a pretty unique opportunity to look at the implementation of the reforms from both sides. I was, and still am, a passionate believer in local control of education decisions, within an agreed set of standards and guidelines.  For me, giving parents a real say in the education of their children was revolutionary and exciting. My experience on the Appointments Committee of the former Hamilton Education Board, concerned me greatly.  We had an ancient mayor of some obscure rural settlement chairing a committee of lay people, none from the areas where staff were being appointed to, making decisions about what teacher should be appointed to what school.  The principal of the school was allowed to come and give us his or her (nearly always his) view, and then they would leave the room while the rest of us made the decision. These were frequently not in line with the principal’s thinking. I found this daft.

So, what really were the political motivations for the TS reforms? I believe they were two-fold.  First, to break up the old, monolithic juggernaut that was the Department of Education. This would wrest control of education out of the hands of the “chalkwits” like me – ie ex-teachers, and put its control in the hands of parents.  Second, it was to lessen the influence of the powerful teacher unions – the PPTA and the NZEI. As a member of the National Executive of the PPTA in the late 1970s and early 1980s, it was clear to me the Department could hardly break wind without the unions’ agreement. In fairness to us though, we truly did think the Department and unions were working hand in hand to improve and advance education for our young people.

Then of course there was the matter of industrial relations. The Department, with assistance from the State Services Commission, was responsible for the negotiations on teacher pay and conditions. I was part of the Department’s team. I remember shortly after the TS reforms being at a lecture by Sir Geoffrey Palmer, at the time a senior minister in the Lange Government. The reforms had stripped the education bureaucracy of its responsibility for teachers’ conditions of service.  He was particularly scathing about public servants, especially those of us involved in teacher pay negotiations.  This came at a time when the teachers had won a large pay increase on the back of a period of strict pay control by the Lange Government throughout the 1980s. What I naively didn’t know, or hadn’t thought about, was that my salary in the Department was tied to the secondary teachers’ pay scale.  In Palmer’s mind, I was part of a conspiracy to give teachers a large wage boost so it would be passed on to me and my fellow ex-teacher bureaucrats.  I was affronted and aghast at this attack on my and my colleagues’ integrity and said so to Palmer.  He scoffed at me and reiterated his view. I would have felt better had he simply said that removing people like me from being involved in such decisions would solve a perceived conflict of interest, which I probably would have agreed with. But that was the rhetoric behind the political thinking of the reforms – stick it to the bureaucrats and the unions.

The TS reforms were not really about improving education outcomes or results for young people.  There were some words around that in the reform documents, but they were window dressing to give some educational respectability to the reforms.  The 1989 reforms were all about radically changing the administration of education to give local control over education, thereby taking control away from centralised bureaucrats – and teachers.

By and large the reforms were successful. As the current Minister relooks at the system, I am confident he will be careful not to throw away some of the advantages of the 30-year-old reforms. He will be mindful not to simply recreate the former controlling education boards, which is how the proposed hubs are in danger of being perceived. Hopefully the Ministry’s district offices will be replaced by well-resourced, professional “assistant/advisory hubs”.  Matters such as property management for example, should never have been passed to schools.  Most principals are ill-equipped and not trained to be total managers of schools.  They really need to be curriculum and professional leaders, not tied up with getting tradesmen to fix blocked toilets, leaking roofs and broken windows and working out five-year property plans. I’ve also seen too many examples of bad decisions being made by boards on their choice of principal. There needs to be much more professional input into the appointment of key staff of a school, not from a control perspective, but from an advisory perspective, as the Department used to do in secondary schools prior to 1989. One of the outcomes of these new reforms will hopefully be that the hubs and schools work in partnership to ensure the very best for their students. Chris Hipkins has a solid background in the policies and administration of education and I am convinced common sense will prevail in the outcome of his welcome reforms.

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