Professor Martin Thrupp and Dr Katrina McChesney, University of Waikato
This piece is the second in 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.
Our previous post highlighted the lack of debate thus far around the report’s recommendations. This post focuses on the ‘framing’ of the report – the underlying messages about the agenda, value system and goals that are evident in the introduction and summary sections of the report. The remaining two posts in this series look at the more detailed analysis and recommendations that follow in the main body of the report. We hope these posts help stimulate discussion, debate, and submissions as part of the ongoing consultation process.
The report’s introduction and summary sections
The 148-page report begins with a two-page introduction (outlining the review process) and a 12-page summary of what the taskforce identified as the 8 key issues with our current schooling system, and their recommendations for change. Looking at these sections gives a ‘big picture’ sense of what the report is about.
This is how the report summary starts presenting “Our overall findings”:
“On some outcome measures, many of our students do well at school. However, the system is not working well enough for our most disadvantaged children and young people. This is not fair or just. It costs all of us when the system does not deliver for everyone. Conversely, when we get it right there will be substantial economic and social benefits for us all.” (p. 11)
Most of the rest of this section is also concerned with educational inequalities.
My (Martin’s) immediate response to this opening gambit was: “Tell us something we didn’t already know!” It’s the same theme that has been taken up by Ministers and education agencies for years and pushed at teachers and principals in multiple ways: the idea of the ‘long tail of underachievement’, of the ‘one in five’ not achieving, of some students being ‘underserved’, and the like. The focus on inequality has also been reflected in policy; for instance, having a “well below” but no need for a “well above” in the National Standards, ERO using schools’ treatment of Maori as a proxy for overall school quality, the Kāhui Ako ‘Achievement Challenges’ and so on. This emphasis on inequality easily leads to a politics of blame (see also here) where schools and teachers are held solely responsible for student underachievement, rather than wider socio-economic and political conditions.
More worrying in this particular instance, the Tomorrow’s Schools report’s writers are deluded if they think most teachers, principals and school communities – or even wider New Zealand society – will be unified around the ‘levelling of the playing field’ that follows from this concern. Why? Well, educators (however well-intentioned) tend to get caught up in their particular context. Most are focused on catering as best they can for whatever students they serve, whether they come to school in worn-out shoes or are driven to school in expensive SUVs. It is also clear that many New Zealand parents are not actually looking for an equal education – they are seeking ‘positional advantage’. They are looking for an education that offers their children relative advantage in securing networks and future life chances. This is true of middle class Māori and Pāsifika parents as well as Pākehā, even if ethnic identity looms large in their decision-making as well. Many, if not most, parents want to be able to send their child to a ‘good school’ – but this aspiration necessarily requires that there will also, somewhere, be ‘not-so-good schools’. Whose children will go to those schools?
Addressing social inequality is therefore a naïve theme to be leading nationwide education reforms with. And yet the social inequality angle is also driven home explicitly at the end of the introductory sections:
“We firmly believe there is a strong case not just for significant additional investment in the schooling system, but also a major redistribution of resources so that priority is first given to meeting the needs and potential of the most disadvantaged and marginalised students.” (p. 37)
As a result of this emphasis, we believe many schools and school communities won’t see their interests being represented by the report. It lacks the local ‘our school, our community’ appeal (however illusory) of the original 1989 Tomorrow’s Schools reforms – in fact, many of the proposals in the 2018 report can be seen to detract from that local focus.
Its not surprising, then, that NZ Herald’s Simon Collins has reported many board chairs not supporting the proposed changes, and some strongly opposed. In some cases, local schools stand to lose a lot of power. But, ultimately, many educators and communities will probably just be asking: “What’s in it for us?”
How to explain the opportunity missed
How did the Taskforce make such a mistake? Why did they choose to frame the report around something that could be so controversial, evoke such a conservative pushback, and be unlikely to lead to unified support? We can see several possible explanations.
First, the Taskforce may have struggled to find a narrative for the first part of the report that would show how reform could be seen to benefit all school communities. Yet the back part of the report clearly points to the nationwide failings of the current arrangements in terms of a compliance culture and inappropriate accountabilities. These are highlighted by the discussion of the central education agencies and will be discussed in Part Four of this series. It would have been feasible to stress these failings of the current system for all schools, while still pointing out that these failings have often impacted disproportionately on lower socio-economic and marginalised communities.
Second, it may be that the Taskforce just wanted to speak truth to power, and hoped to either inspire or shame the middle classes into sharing their resources. Good luck with that project! Mere Berryman, one of the Taskforce members, often refers to Gloria Ladson-Billings’ notion of the ‘education debt’ owed by dominant ethnic groups. While we ourselves (Martin and Katrina) strongly agree that equity issues in our education system urgently need addressing, there’s little evidence that such debt is widely accepted in Aotearoa New Zealand. If it was, we would not see the levels of segregation between schools caused by families capitalising on their socio-economic advantages and the reluctance of successive governments to address this problem.
Third, the makeup of the Taskforce is relevant. This has been noted previously, but it seems the Taskforce particularly lacked people to put forward the outlook of middle New Zealand and make sure the report would appeal across the broad spectrum of schools. There are many principals who serve quite wealthy school communities but who still have a view to the common good. Such people could have made a useful contribution to the taskforce and its work, even if the social justice intent of the present members is laudable.
Why does it matter?
There is a reason the last Government often took a cautious, ‘small-steps’ approach to reform. Overt policy change relies on at least a certain level of public support, and like all governments, the current Labour-led government pays attention to public opinion. The way that the Tomorrow’s Schools Taskforce report has been framed strongly around equity concerns may jeopardise the level of public support that is able to be obtained. This means that even reforms that may be highly justified could become very difficult to achieve.
The framing of the report also makes a mockery of the very open public consultation that preceded it. The Government was so keen to have cross-party support for this process and its 30-year plan for education, that former National Party Minister of Education Lockwood Smith was made guardian of the process. There was all the promise of the 2018 Education Summits and then that nationwide survey asking the most open of questions: “What would you do if you were boss of education?” This consultation should have resulted in a wide range of priorities for education becoming evident, and a summary report that presented New Zealand’s aspirations for our education system.
In contrast, the report released by the Tomorrow’s Schools Review Taskforce presents a much narrower equity focus as almost a single mandate for change. It’s a gift to anyone who could claim to champion an education for all NZ children and young people rather than just the disadvantaged. They could argue: Why break a system that works for many to fix the problems of the rest?
Andrew Little has warned the National Party and education spokesperson Nikki Kaye against “politicising” children’s education by running their own consultation meetings. But by emphasising the redistribution of resources, the Taskforce proposals are themselves very political. A bold reform agenda has been revealed – but whether this will pay off remains to be seen.
In the remaining two posts in this series, we examine the reform agenda itself: the recommendations for change in 8 key areas of the New Zealand compulsory schooling sector. Whether you celebrate or are frustrated by the equity framing of the report, we encourage you to think carefully about the proposals and contribute your feedback via the online survey or by attending one of the consultation hui.
Martin Thrupp is professor of education at the University of Waikato. He has edited collections about New Zealand education policy published in 1999, 2010 and 2017. He is currently working on a comparative study of the privatisation of schooling in Finland, Sweden and New Zealand.
Katrina 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.