It may not boast as catchy an acronym, but, under a model proposed by the Tomorrow’s Schools taskforce, a new independent agency called the Education Evaluation Office (EEO) could replace the Education Review Office (ERO).

The Government-appointed taskforce’s recommendations, which were announced in December, include the dismantling of both ERO and the NZ Qualifications Authority (NZQA).

Meanwhile around 20 new ‘regional hubs’, each in charge of about 125 schools, would take over most of the legal powers held by boards of trustees. This, ideally, would leave schools to focus on education.

ERO and NZQA would be replaced by single new entity, the EEO. In a significant change, it will not monitor schools directly, but instead will be charged with holding the Ministry of Education (MoE) and new regional hubs to account.

The EEO would report directly to Parliament “on the performance of the education system”, the taskforce’s report says.

The regional hubs will monitor the schools and ideally ensure the system has collective accountability for all schools in its communities.

Tomorrow’s Schools taskforce chair Bali Haque has denied that the hubs represent an extra managerial layer and says they will be a support mechanism for schools and families.

If the Government gives the go-ahead later this year, the proposals will see a radical overhaul of New Zealand’s education system for the first time in 30 years.

ERO has been responsible for reviewing and evaluating self-governing schools since 1989.

It was set up under Tomorrow’s Schools to review and publicly report on the quality of education and care of students in all New Zealand schools and early childhood services.

But the Tomorrow’s Schools taskforce found the quality of ERO audits varied greatly from school to school. The taskforce also had some concern over the way the review process over-emphasised ‘accelerating learning’ at the expense of other elements of school performance.

The report’s FAQs outline how the hubs would monitor schools’ performance “on an ongoing basis”. They would “provide support as necessary, and ensure whānau and parents have access to quality information about every school in the Education Hub”.

The new EEO would have responsibility for evaluating the performance of the New Zealand education system, including the performance of the MoE, “based on agreed national goals and measures”.

Stephanie Thompson, principal of Beach Haven School, says ERO was useful in providing “some assurance” of the quality of public education.

Meanwhile ERO’s National Evaluation Topics – topical resources based on school reviews that reflect current issues – are “outstanding and a wealth of information,” she adds.

“They’ve been very helpful in assisting schools such as ours, to determine what quality practice from a Kiwi perspective looks like”.

ERO can work well, she says, in the right circumstances: “When the team reviewing your school are experienced educators, the agenda is clear and transparent, and the process mirrors your own self-review processes, then it can be a robust and in-depth evaluation that can be a positive ‘higher-level’ form of self review, that affirms what you are doing and your next steps, from an independent perspective.

“When it works like this, then ERO is a valuable process.”

But, she says, some of the education profession’s concerns have included the variability of the review teams and the “pedantic nature” of the reviews and narrowness of the focus.

“Because it is an evaluative process, it tends to not offer support in the ‘where to next’ phase, and for those schools where there have been issues identified that can be problematic and is not at all strengths-based.

“The audits have certainly changed over the years, but it would be fair to say there is still some variability of quality. A key question is, who reviews the reviewers?”

Te Akatea Māori Principals Association president Myles Ferris describes the current system that ERO is part of as “deeply flawed and suffer[ing] from institutionalised racism”.

He argues that the criteria by which schools are judged, are not based on what is really important, “particularly for Māori and Pasifika schools”.

The value judgements that are made by ERO managers on whether a school, the principal or the board can successfully manage their roles has been proven, he says, to vary widely, based on a school’s demographics and in particular their ethnicity.

“The drive by many of our kura to develop localised curriculum and to provide solutions for the needs our tamariki has been heavily curtailed by the drive to embed the Global Economic Reform Movement dogma into the New Zealand system.”

Those schools have been punished, he says, for not focusing predominantly on reading, writing and mathematic results, and this has been at the expense of creativity, hauora and cultural identity.

“ERO have been an instrument in the previous Government’s hands in ensuring that this has been imposed on our system.”

There is not much detail available yet about the proposed model. Public consultation on the recommendations is open until April 7 and the Government not due to make its final decisions until later in the year.

However Thompson says she likes the idea of the hubs needing to be accountable.

“Currently there is no accountability for the performance of the MoE, and its effectiveness in supporting schools to be successful.

“In theory it should ensure our system has collective accountability for outcomes and success (including equity and disparity) so that we become a system that is not about ‘mine but ours’.”

Ferris agrees. “Evaluation of our system by an independent body is essential.”

In practice this could be difficult for a body to be truly independent from government, he argues, “however it will be important to try”.

Thompson is keen to know more about the ‘sampling reviews’.

“There still needs to be a place where an independent body can do an audit to ensure schools are meeting their communities’ needs and quality practices are in place but this could be a component of the hubs.”

If the hubs work as intended, in theory no schools should be left behind because hub personnel will be in there, “ready to support and resource any concerns”, she says.

“If experienced principals are appointed to complex schools this also should lessen the need for review as it currently occurs.

“A strong and skilled advisory system would be more solutions focussed than the current system and ensure those schools that are struggling are supported faster and in an appropriate way – a long time before it becomes crisis.”

She would like to see a more responsive approach where the advisor to the school spent regular time getting to know the school and its community.

A one-off group of people “coming in every few years is merely a snapshot”.

In contrast, “a long-term relationship with your hub could be a really positive improvement”.

“If the hubs are being evaluated for its success (based on the data and quality of support it provides schools) by the independent EEO, then schools should experience more success because the interventions, if a school needs them, will be timely and bespoke.”

An ERO spokesperson said the agency is not commenting on the taskforce proposals. NZPF and PPTA representatives contacted by Education Central were also not available for comment.

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