A Massey education leader who is passionate about the need for equity in education has been appointed to a government taskforce to undertake the biggest review in 30 years of the way our schools are governed, managed and administered.

Head of the Institute of Education, Professor John O’Neill, is one of five experts recently appointed to the panel by the Education Minister, Chris Hipkins, to review the Tomorrow’s Schools reforms introduced at the end of last century. Based on the Picot Report (headed by Brian Picot), Tomorrow’s Schools dismantled centralised education administration by making schools into autonomous entities, managed by boards of trustees.

Professor John O’Neill

Professor O’Neill hopes the Taskforce will find ways to address growing social and economic gaps that undermine children’s learning and achievement, and that have led to “gated and gutted’ communities.

He says his own academic career in education policy scholarship at Massey has been “greatly shaped by the watershed Tomorrow’s Schools reforms of the 1980s and 1990s and their practical effects on learners, families, local communities and the work of diverse education professionals.”

The Taskforce will make recommendations to ensure the education system is fit for purpose now and in the future to reflect significant social and economic shifts since Tomorrow’s Schools, which he says was introduced “very rapidly through ‘trial and error’ with almost nothing by way of small scale pilots.”

“In that sense the Tomorrow’s Schools architects had a strong conviction of what they no longer wanted in terms of the old Department of Education’s so-called monolithic bureaucracy but only a vague concept or ideology of what should replace it,” says Professor O’Neill. “Tomorrow’s Schools was a review of, and for, its time. After thirty years we have a lot of evidence of the strengths and weaknesses of a completely devolved school system experiment. It really was an experiment.”

New era for NZ education

He says New Zealand’s education system and culture have evolved since Tomorrow’s Schools thanks to the influence of events such as the ratification of United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, as well as the impact of new national curriculum documents, the public education service commitment to being te Tiriti-led, and greater economic and civic engagement by iwi and hapū.

“We are also a far more ethnically, culturally and linguistically diverse population than in the 1980s. That’s wonderful for the health and vibrancy of our society,” he adds. “Sadly, though, we are also now far more divided socio-economically, between what I often call ‘gated and gutted’ communities. One in four children live in material hardship and income poverty.”

“That knowledge occasionally makes me weep and daily reminds me of the magnitude of the task if we want to create a more level playing field for our youngest members of society. Schooling has a role to play but it cannot in and of itself fix the harms caused by an inequitable society. In terms of our immediate Taskforce work, though, these too are certainly major challenges to grapple with when we think about systems and processes to promote

meaningful school governance and administration that makes a difference in kids’ lives. Tomorrow’s Schools certainly hasn’t caused educational inequalities, but I think it’s fair to say it has contributed to a greater divide between the haves and the have nots.”

Big questions ahead for Taskforce

Along with other Taskforce members Bali Haque (Chair), Barbara Ala’alatoa, Mere Berryman and Cathy Wylie, Professor O’Neill will advise on changes within a “very broad remit, effectively allowing us to make recommendations on most aspects of the schooling system as we see fit. Essentially, the requirement is to ensure that the schooling system is re-purposed for this and the generations of tamariki and mokopuna that will follow.”

He says the Minister and the Ministry have been at pains to emphasise that the Taskforce is genuinely independent. “That’s great to know but also more than a little intimidating given that the schooling system involves something like $10 billion annual government expenditure and that there are around three quarters of a million students in the system at any one time.”

Professor O’Neill says he was “very surprised to receive a phone call out of the blue from the Secretary of Education saying that the Minister of Education would like me to be a member of the Independent Taskforce. It is such an honour, and a privilege, to have been shoulder-tapped.”

His “fundamental moral compass” is to ask “how does the system work in all children’s best interests and materially advance the rights of each and every child? How do we govern and administer state schooling as a coherent national system of provision so that children learn richly and holistically and are fully prepared to grapple with the environmental, social and economic ‘wicked problems’ that may otherwise be our only legacy to them?”

The Taskforce members will attend the national Education Summits in May and will also be consulting as widely as possible in the time available before reporting back to the Minister by November 2018.

The review will explore the following key themes:

  • The ability of governance, management and administration of the schooling system to respond to the education needs of the future;
  • The ability of schools to respond flexibly to their local communities and the need to balance this with every child’s right to a responsive education at their local school, regardless of where they live;
  • The roles of governance, management and administration in schools, and how they could better support equity and inclusion in the educational progress and outcomes for all children throughout their schooling;
  • Giving active expression to te Tiriti o Waitangi by exploring the impact of the governance, management and administrative system on the ability of schools to meet the needs of all Māori students and assessing its effectiveness for Māori medium students.
  • The environment within which schools operate, including the roles of the Ministry, ERO, NZQA, Education Council and NZSTA in supporting schools (and the yet to be established Education Advisory Service and the Leadership Council).

More information on the review, including the Cabinet paper is available at http://www.education.govt.nz/tsr

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