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SocietyNovember 13, 2019

A principal responds to the Tomorrow’s Schools Report 

Photo: Getty Images
Photo: Getty Images

Yesterday the government announced their reform of 1989’s Tomorrow’s Schools legislation. Claire Amos, a school principal in Auckland, reflects on what it all means. 

When the first draft of the Tomorrow’s School Report landed back in December 2018, I reflected that “the only real concern is that we are not brave enough nor selfless enough to support changes that might benefit our entire educational system for fear of relinquishing perceived notions of control.” So nearly a year on, and doubtlessly several iterations later, has the Tomorrow’s Schools Taskforce’s final report and recommendations become any more courageous?

In short, no. Is it transformative? In parts. Is it promising? Possibly. 

To be honest, I’m not sure anyone expects radical recommendations in the current political climate. With an election less than 12 months away and polls suggesting we could go either way, it would be a very brave government or a very foolish one who would mess with the sacred cow that is self-governing schools in New Zealand. But with that said, this report does recommend changes and the government is committing to take action. So what changes will we see?

We will see the formation of a new entity known as the Education Service Agency (ESA), or as I like to refer to them: “the not-Education Hubs”. While they don’t go as far as the Education Hubs would have in the earlier report, they do look like they will provide support where support is needed, just not in the heavy-handed ways hubs may have done. The latest report also promises a “redesigned Ministry of Education”. What that actually means, well, your guess is as good as mine. I guess in the wake of KiwiBuild, it’s safest to leave political promises a bit fuzzy. 

It looks like the group that reviews schools, the Education Review Office (ERO), will stay. So will the New Zealand Qualification Authority (NZQA) which will also get some support from a soon-to-be-formed National Curriculum Centre. I suspect these moves are pragmatic as both entities are large and complex and their functions would be hard (and bloody expensive) to replace. I do worry that we are adding yet more players and complexity to what is already an overcrowded educational landscape. For a small country, we do seem to have a lot of separate acronyms doing oddly discrete tasks. 

There are positive shifts for principals. The Teaching Council will provide a Leadership Centre (yes, that’s another entity to throw on the pile) who will provide advisors, professional development and support for school leaders. 

Property management is probably the area that is seeing the most radical overhaul with the simplifying or removing of infrastructure management and maintenance responsibilities from boards. Key services will also be centralised, such as planned and preventative maintenance. Schools and communities will continue to have significant input into the design of their physical spaces, but it looks like this is an area ripe for re-centralisation. And to be fair, as a principal who would much rather be a leader of learning than a property developer or manager, this couldn’t happen soon enough. 

Other notable changes include moving the responsibility for establishing enrolment schemes (read: zones) from Boards of Trustees to the ESA so schools won’t be able to fiddle enrolment policy so as to include or exclude certain parts of their community. If we can remove elements of school competition in the process, then that will be a win for everyone. 

Another biggie is the refocusing of the role of school boards to ensure that every student is able to attain their highest possible educational standard, that the school is physically and emotionally safe, and that the school is inclusive and gives effect to Te Tiriti o Waitangi. School boards will be provided with more professional support and oversight and all board members bound to a national mandatory code of conduct. These are all good and sensible shifts. 

Deciles are out and the equity index is in. Hopefully, this will more accurately target additional funding to schools with higher levels of disadvantage and mitigate the socio-economic challenges faced by their ākonga. Whether this will make it more difficult for people to attach misguided labels to schools, we’ll just have to wait and see. While we are here – deciles do not equate to quality. We need to disregard the bullshit notion of “top schools” which so often simply refers to large, high decile schools with really nice blazers. 

Finally, hidden in the footnotes of the report, there are a couple of notable nuggets worth mentioning. It looks like the Kāhui Ako model (which helps to support groups of schools coming together as communities of learning) will stay, with the much-needed commitment of more flexible resourcing. Online learning is also looking to be supported to grow with a commitment to grow flexible learning and specialist provision. This would include the roles of Te Aho o Te Kura Pounamu (Te Kura) and the Virtual Learning Network (VLN) and the national and local special kura. My cynical self wonders if the omission of “online learning” in the actual report was by design, particularly after Labour were so resoundingly critical and so publicly quashed the formation of Communities of Online Learnings (COOLs).

So there you have it: the Tomorrow’s Schools Report and commitments as I read them. I do wonder if we might have missed the opportunity to do something which may have radically levelled the playing field in terms of how we (more equitably) support, resource and govern schools across New Zealand. With that said, I do see very real attempts to provide greater support where support is needed. I also have no doubt that radically revisioning our education system a year out from an election would have been politically risky, ridiculously expensive and nigh on impossible to resource. 

And while I might have hoped for something bolder, something more radical, it is clear that when it comes to educational policy and where education is such a political volleyball, fortune really does tend to favour the mild. 

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