By: Simon Collins

Radical plans to end New Zealand’s system of self-governing schools are opposed by almost half of all school boards, judging by an initial sampling.

As most schools return next week, the Weekend Herald conducted a survey of board chairs of 30 schools starting with the letter M and has found 14 generally supporting the proposals, 12 generally opposed and four with mixed views.

If this pattern persists as the debate develops, the Government may come under pressure to compromise, possibly leaving more power with elected school boards rather than transferring all their legal powers to proposed regional “hubs”.

A group of conservative secondary schools led by Auckland Grammar headmaster Tim O’Connor is gearing up to fight the proposed changes, which O’Connor says “would bring to an end the notion of the traditional secondary school in New Zealand”.

“We must ensure the Government does not proceed with this proposed attack on state education as we know it,” O’Connor has told Grammar parents in a newsletter.

But the head of the taskforce proposing the reforms, Bali Haque, is insisting that the hubs should take responsibility for all state and state-integrated schools.

“We don’t think it’s a good idea to create a dual system where some schools are deemed to be able to do it and some schools are not,” he said.

“Those schools that don’t need it also have obligations to other schools in the system, and they need to contribute their expertise to other schools. They need to be part of the system.”

The hubs, each looking after about 125 schools, would control:

  • Appointing principals, with the approval of the board of trustees, on five-year contracts.
  • Monitoring school quality and performance, taking a hands-on support role to replace the Education Review Office, which would be abolished.
  • School property, although building maintenance and replacement could be delegated back to competent school boards.
  • Financial management, including approving a school’s budget, although principals would keep day-to-day control of operations grants.
  • Health and safety.
  • Approving school zones and capping the numbers of out-of-zone students.
  • Ensuring that students with disabilities or learning support needs can attend their local schools.
  • Student suspensions and expulsions.

The current system dates from a 1989 reform called Tomorrow’s Schools.

Some school boards in the Weekend Herald survey said they feared that transferring their powers to regional hubs would force them to drop elements of their distinctive character such as Māori culture, Cambridge exams and school houses for teachers in rural areas.

O’Connor said Haque’s plan for hubs to appoint school principals for five-year terms, with the ability to transfer them to other schools after each term, would destroy the distinctive cultures of different schools.

“In order for a school to develop a culture, you need to have a leader who is going to be there for the future,” he said.

“We are going to have a cyclical rotation of leaders roaming around schools so they are all going to be the same.”

But Haque said elected school boards would still have “up to 50 per cent representation” on selection panels for new principals and would have to approve any appointment.

“We view the world as these hubs being support mechanisms focused on delivering the very best for students,” he said.

“We see the board and the hub working together to ensure that the parents and the community of that school get the best possible principal. It’s a support system rather than, ‘You will do this.'”

He says the taskforce has not considered whether schools would be able to keep Cambridge exams.

And schools would not lose their international student revenue, school houses or “nest eggs”.

He acknowledges that integrated schools own their own property and more thinking is needed on how they would be affected.

A spokeswoman for Education Minister Chris Hipkins referred questions to Haque. Hipkins has not committed the Government to implementing any of Haque’s proposals, which are open for public submissions until April 7.

National Party education spokeswoman Nikki Kaye plans to start a series of public meetings on the proposals next month and said Haque’s proposals have “swung too far” away from the 1989 “Tomorrow’s Schools” model of self-governing schools.

“We are not arguing for the status quo,” she said.

“I do accept that there is a group of schools for which the governance system, but also partly the way they get service from the Ministry of Education and get delivery around school property, is not working for them.

“But I have said quite carefully in the last few weeks that the report has swung too far in terms of the concentration of power of officials.”

Haque’s taskforce also plans to hold 31 public meetings in February and March and will run an online survey on its key proposals on the Education Conversation website.

Source: NZ Herald

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