I have encountered a variety of dumbass education policy in my teaching career that spans a millennium. But the former National government‘s “Communities of Learning” surpasses all in terms of potential wastage of taxpayer money with little tangible benefit. Over $300 million to be exact.

The policy was implemented about three years ago under the guise of “investing in education”. An investment approach to public policy that made little sense in terms of the cost benefit analysis of real investing. It was an exercise in window dressing.

Schools were to form themselves into voluntary groups. They could then access a pool of funding. They would share knowledge and expertise to enhance learning and teaching within their cluster of schools. It was very vague in tangible outcomes. As an investment policy it was always going to be a dog. No one with half a brain invests serious money with such a vague outcome.

Schools would lend their expert teachers to other schools within their group. Principals could appoint expert teachers who would be freed up from their classroom teaching to share their knowledge and skills with other teachers in their own school and other schools within their group.

I closely read the policy documents associated with this fiasco and was astounded at the naïveté and lack of appreciation of the reality of classroom teaching and school dynamics. I tried to figure the political angle, thinking this may be the implementation of merit pay by stealth. I was concerned that both the teacher unions and the National government were supportive, which was a definite recipe for poor education policy. My conclusion was that it was window dressing of the worst type to give the appearance of innovative public policy. The teacher unions were just appreciative of any extra money being given to education no matter how wastefully it was spent. It was very bad policy disguised as innovation. The reality would be a colossal waste of taxpayer money with little enhancement of education outcomes for students. Here are several reasons why.

Firstly, those schools most able to form themselves into communities and access the funding were likely to be affluent schools that have the administrative resources and political nous to do so. This has proved the case with high decile schools gaining a far higher share of the funds available.

Secondly, principals are notoriously territorial. They are not going to allow their best teaching staff to wander around spreading wisdom while their own students are left with a reliever. They are also going to ensure that any funding primarily benefits their own school rather than the broader community. Otherwise their Board of Trustees will be asking some very sharp questions of them.

Thirdly, a smart principal will use any funding generated by such an ill-defined policy to attract and retain quality staff as staffing becomes tighter. This is not necessarily a bad thing. But if a system of performance pay is going to be implemented let’s be honest and open about it. Principals are using the guise of Communities of Learning to dish out extra funds and reduced teaching loads to their chosen few. A system of de facto performance pay based on the guise of collaboration between schools is the worst of all possible systems.

Finally, the funding available under the scheme means that the positions offered in the Communities of Learning are more lucrative that other mundane roles in schools. Like any work environment there is a limit to the talent pool. So some schools are struggling to find Deans who provide crucial pastoral care for students. Quality staff would rather offer themselves as expert teachers because these roles are better paid and less onerous.

This is likely why a recent survey by the PPTA shows a majority of secondary teachers are unhappy with the entire scheme. It has done little or nothing to enhance their teaching or the learning of their students.  It is a facade, a joke, a recipe for talkfests and pointless meetings. I challenge any teachers who have undertaken roles in their Communities of Learning to provide tangible quantifiable evidence of the wider  benefits in terms of student learning. $300 million is a lot of money. If it is to be used to attract and retain quality staff then let’s be honest about that. A system of de facto merit pay is unpalatable to most teachers. Let’s also ensure all schools have access to this funding not just the richer ones. The Community of Learning project is an ill-defined policy that is not providing value for taxpayer money. Get rid of it and use the money for better defined purposes.

Peter Lyons teaches Economics at Saint Peters College in Epsom.

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