More than bricks and mortar: A critical examination of school property under the National-led Government

Dr Leon Benade, School of Education, Auckland University of Technology

‘Flexible’ building policy

The current National Party-led government (in power since 2008) is erecting modern schools around the country—a policy that comes at a cost. Teachers are largely unprepared for flexible learning spaces that bring together multiple teachers and students (see my earlier blog on MLE/ILE). These (enforced) changes require students to master new learning habits and routines, while parents’ most recent school memory may have been of sitting in rows or possibly in grouped desks, in so-called ‘single cell’ classrooms with one teacher and no more than 30 or 35 students. So, where has this policy come from, and what does it look like in action?

Some background

The New Zealand Ministry of Education is strongly influenced by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) Centre for Educational Research and Innovation (CERI) research on innovative learning environments. The OECD (and CERI) has used its research to to persuade member states to be increasingly innovative in their education policies. The present National-led Government echoes this intent by adopting the OECD definition of ‘innovative learning environments’ (even if the government’s leader is somewhat unclear on the topic), and by actively promoting the notion of ‘21st-century learning’, which underlies many current education policies in New Zealand. The Ministry of Education believes the construction of flexible learning spaces will support the changes to learning and teaching required to meet the demands of the 21st century. Just how serious the government is in this intent is evident in a reading of the Ministry of Education strategic property plan that indicates all schools will have modernised teaching spaces by 2021. Therefore, understanding current education policy requires taking account of the link the government and Ministry of Education sees between flexible buildings, pedagogy and learning for the 21st century.

Policy mechanisms

The Ministry of Education Schools Property Infrastructure Service currently allocates approximately $500m annually to maintain and upgrade school property. The ‘10 Year Property Plan (10YPP)’ enables schools to plan for critical health and safety and essential infrastructural works, regular maintenance, and roll growth. If these priorities have been met, schools can choose to modernise their learning spaces, through renovation, retrofit or new build.

The ‘5 Year Agreement (5YA)’ is a sub-set of the 10YPP and allows schools more flexibility and the opportunity to complete smaller capital projects without having to wait ten years. Again, provided health and safety and infrastructural work have been prioritised, schools are able to modernise existing facilities or, in exceptional cases, completely replace existing, but defunct, facilities by building flexible learning spaces. Thus, one way of interpreting the existence of the 5YA is that it is a mechanism which enables the Ministry of Education to achieve the strategic plan goal of rolling out modern learning environments to all New Zealand schools by 2021.

A downloadable assessment tool (a spreadsheet) requires school boards to demonstrate whether their facilities meet required ‘FLS standards’ or criteria. The seventeen criteria include:

  • flexibility of general learning spaces
  • the scope for present buildings to encourage the development of collaborative learning
  • digital technology provision
  • furniture
  • reference to the requirements of various learning areas,
  • teacher spaces
  • and the general internal environment (referring to technical issues such as lighting and acoustics).

This tool, then, demonstrates that the Ministry of Education (following broader government policy) intends all schools to adhere to the requirements of designing ergonomically furnished flexible learning spaces, that support multifaceted teaching approaches and encourage collaborative learning and teaching in technology-rich settings—whether teachers are ready for such pedagogical shifts or not. 

Critical summation

State-of-the-art, modern school buildings are the outward embodiment of current state education policies that seek to develop digitally-connected lifelong learners for the 21st century global knowledge economy, while relentlessly focussing on raising student achievement. Flexible learning environments have come to be viewed as the ideal vehicle to encourage the required changes to teaching and learning that will support these ends. The developing imaginary of the teacher of the 21st century, and the creation of flexible learning spaces designed to develop and enhance changes to teaching and learning, are not up for debate and discussion, and 2021 is the target year for every state school in New Zealand to have modern learning environments. The Ministry of Education (through its assessment tool for Boards) presents as unproblematic the nature of these facilities, and the practices envisaged within, while the single cell classroom is an object of scorn.

The current government, and its state apparatus, the Ministry of Education, seems to assume that by simply altering the look and feel of the place of learning, teachers will alter their style of teaching to that promoted by the Ministry – namely, a pedagogy to prepare students for the ‘unknowable’ 21st century. What this deterministic, linear thinking fails to recognise though is that practices make the space (rather than the other way around) and that space is more than just an empty container filled with people and furniture. Furthermore, it is unhelpful to write off teachers who resist attacks on their tried and trusted approaches as ‘relics’. Nevertheless, it is now wishful thinking on the part of any teacher, school leader or parent to imagine that they may somehow avoid having to experience a flexible learning space as long as they are in, or associated with, a New Zealand state school. The school building programme that reinforces this situation may be one of the enduring legacies of the current National Government.

Leon squareLeon Benade has research interests in teachers’ work, school policy, ethics, philosophy in schools, critical pedagogy, and the New Zealand Curriculum. His current research focuses on how ’21st-century learning’ impacts the work of teachers and school leaders, particularly in relation to the establishment of Innovative Learning Environments (ILE) and digital pedagogies. Related areas of interest include the question of teachers’ critical reflective practice and the evolving role and nature of the concept of ‘knowledge’ in the 21st century curriculum.




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