Photo: Getty Images
Photo: Getty Images

SocietyApril 3, 2019

I’m a school principal – here’s why I support the Tomorrow’s Schools changes

Photo: Getty Images
Photo: Getty Images

The independent taskforce report on Tomorrow’s Schools recommends big changes to school governance, and a lot of principals are up in arms. Auckland high school principal Claire Amos explains why she’s not one of them.

As the sun set on the school year at the end of 2018, the Tomorrow’s Schools Independent Taskforce published their report and recommendations for changes to the way schools have been operating since the introduction of Tomorrow’s Schools in 1989. The taskforce looked to review the education system at large, with a particular focus on the ways in which schools are governed, led and resourced. The report is a weighty tome, coming in at 144 pages and presenting “a package” that identified eight key issues and 32 recommendations, with a focus on “developing a system that promotes equity and excellence and ensures that every learner achieves educational success”.

The report is as courageous as it is polarising, and while its recommendations are detailed, their relative brevity can leave enough space to enable some to presume the worst. The recent months have seen many responses which represent a diverse range of voices and views. The loudest of these seem to be driven by ideological positions and a desire to continue to reap the benefits of one’s luck, protecting the advantages that come with a well-resourced school and a well-heeled community.

The report focuses on eight key issues:

Governance and the fact that the Board of Trustees self-governing model is not working consistently well across the country.

Schooling provision and the idea that the nature, type, provision, and accessibility of meaningful schooling for all New Zealanders is inadequate.

Competition and choice with unhealthy competition between schools having significantly increased as a result of the self-governing school model.

Disability and learning support arguing that students with learning support requirements should have the same access to schooling as other students.

Teaching, noting that while the quality of teaching is the major in-school influence on student success, our teacher workforce strategies are currently left wanting.

School leadership which is central to school improvement.

School resourcing which is currently inadequate.

Central education agencies such as ERO, Ministry of Education and NZQA that struggle to be as effective as they might be.

The report addresses concerns about equity, the ever increasing gap between the haves and the have-nots, and the question of who are ultimately the winners and the losers in our current education system. It attempts to address achievement rates that have plateaued and increasing concerns about principal, teacher and student wellbeing. This is not a report for the faint hearted. Ultimately, it seeks to address the very real needs of many of our schools and communities, without causing too much to change for those already winning at the game of life…and at school.

Recommendations 1, 2 and 3 talk about refocusing the roles of boards of trustees (BOTs) so that their core responsibilities are to:

  • Provide input into, and retain final approval of, the appointment of the principal, and the school’s strategic and annual plan
  • Be responsible for managing and reporting on locally raised funds
  • Provide advice to the principal on matters related to student well-being, belonging, student success and achievement; localised curriculum and assessment practices; property, finances, health and safety, and other matters.

The clincher, however, is that school and BOTs will work with the new cog in the educational machine: a local Education Hub.

The Education Hub is presented as an opportunity to create local support that is untethered from the layers of bureaucracy that are so often prevalent in the Ministry of Education. These hubs have the potential to play a pivotal role in creating what could hopefully be a new more efficient educational ecosystem that is given the freedom to respond to schools and the communities as needed.

It is important to remember that for every well-heeled, well resourced school in a major city, there are literally hundreds of small schools and school leaders who struggle to resource and run their schools while also fulfilling, often single-handedly, responsibilities for property, business, ground keeping – and if you’re lucky you still have time for that rather important job of teaching. These same communities and schools often struggle to appoint board members with a  range of useful skills; in fact they often struggle to appoint board members at all.

Our educational landscape is far from a level playing field and quite frankly the idea of Education Hubs being on hand to support schools’ governance responsibilities around business and property, while also providing professional development and teacher support, sounds like a gift to any principal who wishes to be a leader of learning. And that’s the case even if it might mean we need to relinquish being an entirely self-governing school. Some have been quick to paint this proposal as a complete handover of school governance to the hubs and ultimately the loss of much cherished control. But as the report explains, this will not be the case. The hubs will, however, be an opportunity for schools and BOTs to access much needed localised support.

Other areas of concern have focused on the suggestion that Education Hubs would provide principals with ongoing employment (rather than the school) and that hubs would work with the BOT (who would retain final say) to appoint principals to a particular school on a five year contract. The report argues that “this would allow Education Hubs to provide opportunities for principals to gain experience in a variety of school settings and to contribute where their expertise is most needed across the community of schools.”

It is understandable why this might rattle cages, with principals quite rightly enjoying the security of their current (permanent) contracts, in roles they have fought hard to win. But it is important to note that this is a concern that has already been addressed by Bali Haque, the Tomorrow’s Schools Independent Taskforce chair. Speaking to a group of secondary school principals recently, he said that this would simply represent an opportunity for a review and a conversation every five years – not, as many have portrayed it, as an opportunity to yank principals out of one school and plop them in another at will.

On the whole, it is important to see this review for what it is. It is a courageous yet carefully thought-through “package of recommendations” which seeks to provide support where it is needed, while leaving enough space and flexibility for those already succeeding to continue to do so. Yes, there are recommendations that may prove uncomfortable for some and downright challenging for those who struggle to see themselves as a mere cog within a much larger machine. This is not a report that panders to the winners in the current context. It is a report that seeks to support those who genuinely need it while protecting much of what is great about our education system – schools that are encouraged to reflect the needs and flavour of their community and develop a localised curriculum – and simply enhances that by providing more responsive localised support.

My only real concern is we are not brave enough nor selfless enough to support changes that might benefit our entire educational system for fear of relinquishing perceived control. Of course no report is perfect, and with 32 recommendations to consider the devil will be in the detail. There is always the risk of unintended consequences (as there was with the Picot Report in 1988) and there’s a very real risk of some of the richness of these recommendations being lost in implementation, or that plans are so slow to roll out that few improvements are seen for years to come. But on reflection, even when we consider all of these factors, the Tomorrow’s School Report creates a vision for tomorrow where there is little to lose and much to gain.

Agree? Disagree? Read the full Tomorrow’s School’s Independent Taskforce report here and decide for yourself. Public submissions on the report close on April 7.

Claire Amos is the principal of Albany Senior High School in Auckland. A version of this column appeared on her personal blog.

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