The Government’s taskforce on education presents, on the face, of it, a compelling case for radical reform. The Tomorrow’s Schools regime has been in place for 30 years with very mixed results.
It has not championed education as the “great leveller” in society nor been a guarantor that your local school would provide even a basic, no frills, quality education for every child.
Clearly and sadly, it has failed on both scores, particularly for Māori and Pacific students and those requiring learning support.
The taskforce’s resounding message is that autonomy, competition and localised school success must give way to equity for all, collaboration and benign centralised control.
It is hard to argue with such sentiments but neither ideology is a complete recipe for success on its own, nor should the debate cast them as mutually exclusive.
The report is rightly adamant it wants to end the culture of winner and loser schools where children miss out on life opportunities based on school choice. However, if the reforms are not carefully thought through and implemented we could end up with just “loser schools”.
Here are some of the key questions that need to be tested during the consultation phase next year.
First, the New Zealand state school system has a rich diversity, including single sex, integrated, co-educational and kura. Parents believe they have a fundamental right to send their child to a school which aligns with their religious, cultural and philosophical world view. Will parents be forced to send their child to the local school or be refused enrolment at a school some distance away which accords more closely with their personal values?
Secondly, school principals struggle now to get expert, coherent and timely advice on legal, financial, property, health and safety and dispute resolution matters. There is a serious recruitment and retention issue across the entire education sector. How are the education hubs going to fill the void?
Thirdly, it is acknowledged some schools do not follow due process and ignore the principles of natural justice when suspending students. There is also no effective appeal for parents.
A school’s disciplinary code, however, reflects the standards and values of that school community. Should schools retain the ultimate right to exclude or expel a student? Or, as proposed, will this power be given to an education hub official?
Fourthly, as president of the Secondary School Principal’s Association for three years, I saw first-hand the innovation, creativity and entrepreneurship of many schools, albeit confined to those schools. With the shift to standardisation, how will we prevent the education hubs from sucking the capacity out of schools to be enterprising trailblazers?
Fifthly, if we are serious about equity, should a principal’s salary be calculated on the magnitude of the challenges a school faces and what added value they bring to the school, rather than the size and wealth of a school?
Sixth, schools respond and adapt to whatever external measures are used to assess them. If it is league tables, some schools will engage in questionable enrolment practices, curriculum offerings and forms of assessment.
Should the reforms add new measures of success for schools, such as wellbeing, key competencies, soft skills, progress of the student and pathways beyond school rather than just NCEA results?
Finally, international students are more than just a cash cow for schools. Principals often use the money to support equity by employing teacher aides for students with learning needs. Has the taskforce considered the impact of proposed changes to international students?
The taskforce is to be applauded for presenting radical reforms.
However, a radical approach, though brave, comes with significant risks as we saw with Tomorrow’s Schools.
It is our collective responsibility to dive deep into the detail of these proposed reforms and ask the difficult questions lurking in these recommendations. If we had done so with Tomorrow’s Schools 30 years ago, perhaps we would not now be contemplating such a radical shake-up.
Pat Walsh is principal of John Paul College, Rotorua.
Source: NZ Herald