Politics of whitewater – Considerations for Communities of Learning | Kāhui Ako

Dr Jennifer Charteris and Ms Dianne Smardon

Change is a powerful force in education in Aotearoa New Zealand, and negotiating the whitewater of new policy directives and initiatives is a constant for principals, teachers and school communities. In recent years, we have seen a raft of changes, including:

One important way to think about and evaluate policies and practices is to examine the power relations involved. Power relations are subtle dynamics that are often assumed to be just ‘the way things are’ – but by explicitly examining where power lies, we can reflect on whether policies and practices are fair or equitable. Power dynamics lurk within relationships and networks. For instance, there are power relations between PLD providers, leaders and teachers when targeted assistance is brought in to tackle school culture and low student achievement. There are also power relations between principals of schools, with factors including their school size, sector of schooling, community affluence, leader political profile and public influence. Therefore, the powerful currents that serve to mould and shape the work of teachers, leaders and PLD providers need to be carefully critiqued.

It can be argued that compliance oriented processes – in particular those that uncritically promote a ‘businessification’ of school leadership where leaders use “business processes” – are an exercise in power that structures the focus of schooling. This brings with it a shift in language that reflects a systematic blending of education with economics – a blending that creates tensions and trade-offs between educational and economic goals. Of course ‘the (economic) bottom line’ is important, and PLD provision is more cost effective when schools cluster. Yet what is lost? Is it the autonomy promised through the initial economic rationalism of Tomorrows Schools – a cost cutting measure that devolved accountability to communities? Is it the capacity for leaders to consult with their unique communities to determine and co-construct a philosophical direction for schooling in their specific school context? In short, does an exclusively fiscal focus potentially narrow the possibilities for individual school sovereignty over PLD funding?

Policy, funding and community levers

Policy, funding and community levers are like rapids in the river – forming powerful forces that propel change in schools. While the Ministry of Education states that “[p]articipating in Kāhui Ako is not mandatory and there is no plan to make it so”, PLD funding is linked to the Communities of Learning initiative and so forms a most influential lever that encourages participation. There is a convergence of policy, funding and community leverage here. The power of collaboration is compelling and we know that the pastoral structures of learning communities can create impetus for teachers to ‘climb aboard’ with policy change initiatives. In a case study we conducted into PLD in Aotearoa New Zealand schools, a principal (pseudonym – Kate) highlighted the perils of ‘stepping off’ or getting ‘left behind’.

“I liken it to a freight train. You get on that and all those carriages are bearing down. All those schools are a carriage each. And the momentum for change toward a goal is huge. You dare not step off the train because you will be run over. You will be off it and it’ll carry on and you will be left behind. So, there is a lot of pressure, peer pressure or professional pressure, to keep on the change train and working together to mould change together and make it work.” — Kate, principal.

(see pages 24-26 of NZ Principal, June 2016)

Here Kate describes the Communities of Learning | Kāhui Ako initiative as a movement that exertspeer pressureandprofessional pressureon principals to sustain momentum. The initiative is a “freight train” of change in Aotearoa New Zealand education that signals both closer regulation of PLD providers (with accreditation requirements) and devolution of funding directly to clusters of schools. Rather than schools individually having centrally targeted Ministry funded PLD provision, the sector is becoming privatised. Groups of schools are bulk funded to purchase PLD provision from an accredited provider. This involves increased control of both PLD funding directions (the what) and the nature of the service provision (the who), with in-service teacher education providers requiring accreditation.

Power relationships exist between communities, where ‘high profile’ providers are selected to promote specific PLD and are seen as an asset to the community, based on their national reputation. The Communities of Learning | Kāhui Ako initiative also requires schools that may have very different PLD needs to come together to make funding decisions that will determine the collective and individual directions of their schools. This raises a question about how power relations will play out as the schools making up a Community of Learning | Kāhui Ako negotiate this decision making process.

Questioning Communities of Learning | Kāhui Ako 

The argument for enhanced quality of PLD provision that increases effectiveness, improves outcomes, sustains improvement and strengthens networks sounds compelling. Drawing from our work as researchers investigating PLD in Aotearoa schools, we consider below the pros and cons and power relations involved in the restructuring of PLD provision and pose some questions for consideration:

  • How are the dynamics of principal groups related to power relations pertaining to age, gender, size of school and place in the sector? There can be power effects within groups of principals, whereby some principals may exert more influence than others. For instance, those who experience social class and/or male privilege may exert more power over those who are from a different background. As principals represent the interests of their school communities, the power relations within these groups are an important consideration.
  • With clusters of schools operating for many years now, how might the existing power relations change with the new requirements? Will these new PLD accreditation requirements be a disruption to well-functioning school collaborations or will they provide an enhancement?
  • Are funds distributed equitably so that there is enough to cover each school’s bespoke individual PLD needs?
  • How do schools with diverse PLD needs (e.g. special schools) have their unique needs met under this funding model?
  • How does the Communities of Learning | Kāhui Ako model enable the unique ethos of local communities, tangata whenua and Pacific Islands’ communities to be recognised and prioritised?
  • Aside from reducing the cost of PLD through clustering and tightening the government’s grip on the nature of provision, are these changes really going to target equity and social justice outcomes, as per the espoused justification provided?
  • Is the move to devolve PLD funding to clusters actually a further step away from the ethos of freedom sold as part of the self-managing schools model? This move could be seen as a process of control over ‘what’ and ‘who’, yet accountability and responsibility are being farmed out to schools and clusters.

In the Communities of Learning | Kāhui Ako model we see the devolution of control from centralised provision to privatisation – and yet, with the fiscal incentives attached, arguably there is a tighter governmental rein. It is therefore ironic that we can see the freedom argument evoked above, and in the Ministry of Education’s Communities of Learning | Kāhui Ako explainer (para, 6):

“The recent update of the Education Act maintains the governance arrangements for individual schools.”

Dismantling the will to critique

There is an adage that fish don’t see the water – the parallel being that it is difficult to recognise the machinations of neoliberalism when one is swept along in it. Curriculum, assessment, and funding have always been forceful mechanisms used by policy-makers to regulate and control schooling processes. Over time, government initiatives that were initially resisted (Tomorrow’s Schools, National Standards, Communities of Learning | Kāhui Ako, Innovative Learning Environments, and the privatisation of education including through devolution of PLD, building contracts and ongoing resource management) become not just accepted but right, appropriate, and normal – as ‘the way we do business around here’.

Educators, however, can paradoxically behave as advocates for things that actually work against what is most beneficial for themselves and their school communities in the long term.  New initiatives introduced and embraced in an excited flurry of change can become obstacles to student, teacher, leader and school flourishing although, at the time, the initiatives’ shortcomings may not be apparent. This is particularly so when we are shooting down the rapids in a system that ‘‘systematically dismantle[s] the will to critique’’. Policy, funding and community levers are implemented in ways that can make it difficult, if not impossible, to apply critique. This lack of agency may be caused by systematic approaches to reducing resistance:

  • the presentation of government initiatives as a fait accompli that practitioners have to accept,
  • incentivised funding packages that may be withheld, and
  • the promotion of relationships that actually exert peer pressure to ensure that resistance is untenable.

In struggling to paddle the whitewater of educational change and government initiatives, then, educators and researchers have an ongoing role in ensuring that their questions serve as critic and conscience of education – and that their questions are heard.


Jennifer.jpgJennifer Charteris is a teacher educator with teaching experience in New Zealand, Australia and the UK. She has worked with students, teachers, principals, school communities and school in-service advisors across the primary, secondary and tertiary sectors. Her doctoral research was in the area of learner agency. As an in-service teacher educator with the University of Waikato, Jennifer provided professional learning for principals and teachers that aimed to raise student achievement through targeted assessment for learning and culturally responsive pedagogies. She is currently Senior Lecturer of School Pedagogy at the University of New England in Armidale, Australia.

Dianne.jpgBased in Hamilton New Zealand, Dianne Smardon undertakes contract work for the University of New England as a teacher educator and researcher on the Nauru Teacher Education Project. Between 1998 and 2013, she led Assessment and Leadership professional development projects for teachers and school leaders in New Zealand. In researching teacher education in New Zealand and the Pacific, she has contributed to a range of research outputs. She has published research articles on school leadership and systemic improvement though collaborative peer coaching practices.

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