For near enough to 20 years, the VLN has been facilitating online supplementary learning for students who can’t access the knowledge they need. ‘Facilitating’, not ‘providing’ – the VLN is largely made up of the schools that collaborate within it. As a measure of how important the network has become to the students it assists, Jude Barback used the example of Kaitaia students accessing Level 3 physics learning they’d otherwise miss out on, via a link to an Auckland School.

Funding and integration have always been issues for the VLN, which exists outside the education system proper, and Rachel has been consistently vocal on the need to hammer out a framework that can allow the network to carry on with a supported mandate.

When it was announced that the new government was to scrap the COOLs project, Rachel hoped that the education powers that be would be future focused enough to grasp the importance of the VLN, and provide at least a solid hint that VLN is seen as something worth supporting. She says that hasn’t happened – in fact she believes the Tomorrow’s Schools report Our Schooling Futures: Stronger Together Whiria Ngā Kura Tūātinitini reveals that the taskforce hasn’t understood the relevance of a digital networks in the first place.

“In repealing CoOLs it was stated by Minister Hipkins that, “The Government considers that the contribution of online learning is better positioned within a strategic discussion with the education sector.” In recent consultation with the Taskforce, it is becoming increasingly clear that the strategic discussion isn’t happening. This is deeply concerning as it affects the future sustainability of VLN communities and the way they will be able to work with and across schools in a new education regime.

“The Taskforce group seems to have little understanding of the work, scope or potential of VLN communities in NZ schools which have been successfully operating for over two decades.”

Back in December, Rachel struck a more positive tone when she spoke with Education Central. She said then that she could see “encouraging signs” as the taskforce embarked on it’s work. Review documentation mentioned the VLN alongside Te Kura as having a role to play in the provision of digital learning. She says the government appears to have walked back on this.

“The combined VLN communities (VLN Primary, NetNZ, FarNet, Volcanics, HarbourNet) have roughly 3000 students involved in supplementary online learning from 200 schools across Aotearoa NZ. These 200 schools collaborate through the VLN communities to enable online learning for their students and in doing so are working strategically to provision

flexible schooling, curriculum and timetabling, while working in an integrated and proactive way nationally and regionally.

“If you have read the report in any depth you will see this is the type of role the Taskforce suggests Te Kura take (p.63). So what is the VLN communities role to be in a future schooling system? The Taskforce does recognise that the VLN enables delivery of curriculum choice for small and rural schools but doesn’t go much further than that. It is very disappointing that the Taskforce has had minimal consultation with the VLN communities who have been pioneers in collaborative flexible school networks, nor have they made the connections signposted by the Minister of Education about the link to the CoOLs repeal and the wider education conversation.

“These education conversations were meant to be the place where the future directions of online education would be discussed and potentially worked out.”

Even the Taskforce’s acknowledgement of the role the VLN plays in rural education comes across as mixed messaging, says Rachel, read in the context of the report as a whole.

Recommendation 27, under ‘Resourcing’ (page 115), explicitly calls for small schools to be merged if they are unable to deliver “quality education”. Rachel calls the mild language of the paragraph in question nothing less than a “shot fired at the rural education sector.” She goes on to invoke the spectre of the ‘Education Development Initiatives’ of the 1990s and early 2000s, when 170 small rural schools were closed after a process of network reviews.

Rachel argues that the Taskforce has missed a number of tricks in their report back to the sector. Another would be her contention that the VLN can play a big role in supporting rural school leaders – therefore helping to ease what can be challenging roles in isolated communities, which will make them more attractive to potential candidates.

“Rural schools have a vital role to play in strengthening rural communities, and education in a small rural school equips our children well for the future. These schools should be recognised and supported as a valuable part of the education system and of wider society. Principals who are well supported and collaborate in online communities can be just as connected and provide as many opportunities for their children as those in large urban schools.

“We recommend that the Taskforce change their deficit thinking about small rural schools and remove Recommendation 27 from their proposal; and that they engage more closely with the VLN community schools about their role in contributing to a future focused collaborative schooling system.

“It doesn’t seem to me from their report that the Taskforce recognises a place for the VLN communities. Ironically, if the VLN communities could have become CoOLs, Communities of Online Learning, then we would have had recognised status within the schooling system have a more equitable voice in the conversation.”

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