The Tomorrow’s Schools Taskforce Report (Part 1 of 4): The lack of debate

Professor Martin Thrupp and Dr Katrina McChesney, University of Waikato

This piece begins a four-part series about the Tomorrow’s Schools Review Taskforce report released in December 2018 reviewing the administrative arrangements for New Zealand schooling over the last three decades. The Tomorrow’s Schools Taskforce has conducted the core review of a series of some 15 reviews across the education sector, and whatever results from the Tomorrow’s Schools report will likely have very significant implications for policy and practice in Aotearoa New Zealand in years to come.

We are already half way through the consultation period following the report’s release, and we are concerned that there won’t be much depth of response before the closing date on April 7. We base this concern on the lack of public discussion we have seen in the media, in staffrooms, and in other settings where, traditionally, educational proposals have been hotly debated. Given the scale of changes recommended in the report – with Taskforce chair Bali Haque calling for ‘transformational change’ of the structure of our schooling system, and arguing that ‘tinkering with the system … won’t work’ – careful and critical feedback from a broad cross-section of NZers is essential.

In this post, we consider the reasons for the lack of debate we (and others) have observed thus far, and seek to highlight why this consultation matters so much. In the three posts that follow, we then hope to provide some resources, questions, and observations to help stimulate more debate over the remainder of the consultation period.

Why so quiet?

There are some obvious reasons for the lack of debate since the report’s release. The report was released prior to Christmas and what’s turning out to be a long hot summer. The report is also a big one, with a lot of detail. It’s not the sort of thing that can be managed in a single sitting.

A more deep-seated problem is that the academics, union leaders and journalists who would have often led debate on such a development in the past might not have much capacity to do it this time.

Over time, but especially during the downturn in teacher education over the last decade, Faculties of Education have been gutted as much as the school system. They have been repeatedly restructured and downsized. The resulting pressures are an international problem as much as a local one. In fact, the main reason I (Martin) am able to write here is that I read the report because our Communications team asked me to respond to a media query. I was then asked to chair sessions about the report for other Waikato staff. What if I had not been asked to do these tasks? Would I too have let the report slip by?

In addition to these time pressures, many of the academics who might otherwise have commented on the report are  ‘within the tent’, caught up in the multiple large review groups assembled by the Labour-led Government and therefore unable to critique them if they wanted to. Meanwhile, members of the taskforce are trying to shore up support for the reforms and we have started to see some of those opinion pieces coming out (see here and here). These pieces are being debated, but not so much in education circles yet.

Union leaders are typically vocal in their response to new policy proposals, but the teachers’ unions are still trying to negotiate pay increases for the sector. Union leaders’ initial responses to the Tomorrow’s Schools report were fairly innocuous (see here, here, and here); in the circumstances, who could blame them for pulling their punches, perhaps in order to preserve any remaining goodwill?

Journalism is struggling in New Zealand and most journalists won’t have the time and resources to engage properly with the report either. We saw the same problem with National Standards also. That said, Education Central published a series that started to open up each key issue in the report, the recent New Zealand Herald feature by Simon Collins was very helpful, and there’s sure to be more to come.

All the above factors have arguably contributed to a lack of debate and consideration around the recommendations in the Taskforce’s report. As such, the forthcoming consultation meetings around the country (being organised by members of the Taskforce and by Opposition spokesperson Nikki Kaye) could easily become taken up with simply informing participants rather than with much genuine debate around the ideas. The same will most likely be true in school staffrooms, professional development events, and other settings where educators meet.

Why does it matter?

There is a lot at stake around the current proposals. Many of the problems raised by the Taskforce were already becoming obvious in the first decade after the original Tomorrow’s Schools reform: Labour even used the notion of ‘winner and loser schools’ in its education policy statement Labour on Schools going into the 1999 election. But it’s because the problems are now so deep-seated, and because New Zealand society has changed so much over the same time, that any reform that could make a difference needs to be very carefully considered.

Also potentially at stake are local decision-making, the best use of educational resources in a situation where there is never enough, the likelihood of introducing new pressures on an already stretched system, and the potential impact of the proposed changes on wider reforms in education and perhaps even on the public sector as a whole – so it’s all pretty important, then!

We encourage all New Zealanders – and especially all those involved in education – to engage with this kaupapa. Read the report, discuss it with others, and submit your feedback via the online survey or by attending one of the consultation hui. We hope the remainder of this blog series helps spark your thinking, whether you agree with our views or not.

In the next post, we look at the introduction and summary, which reveal the strong equity framing of the report. Although on a personal level we support the calls for changes to make our education system more equitable, from a strategic standpoint we found this framing to be an opportunity missed, because we think the strong equity framing is unlikely to appeal sufficiently across all areas of society.

In the third and fourth posts, we will look at the specific recommendations of the report. The latter part of the report (from page 38 on) provides further rationales for reform besides the equity argument. It also offers a lot of good analysis and the full lists of recommendations (some important ones got missed in the summary). Parts three and four of this series therefore focus on the latter part of the report and comment on some of the specific recommendations.

We’d love to hear what you think!


Thrupp squareMartin Thrupp is professor of education at the University of Waikato.  He has edited collections about New Zealand education policy published in 1999, 2010 and 2017He  is currently working on a comparative study of the privatisation of schooling in Finland, Sweden and New Zealand. 

Katrina McChesney 2018 staff photo square.jpgKatrina McChesney is a lecturer in initial teacher education at the University of Waikato. Her research interests include teacher professional learning, educational improvement, and student wellbeing. 

4 comments

  1. It’s good to see some reflection on this, as it is being largely overlooked, as you have said. For me and those I have spoken to, the issues are mainly that the proposals are far too wide ranging to fully comprehend, and that we are so very busy actually working in our jobs as educators there is little left of us to focus on this, important thought is certainly is (week 1 with a day off for Waitangi Day, and I still clocked up way over 40 hours by Friday). It’s a tricky beast, but well worth what time we can give it.

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