Professor Martin Thrupp and Dr Katrina McChesney, University of Waikato
This piece is the third in our 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. Our first post shared concerns about the lack of debate so far over what are far-reaching proposals. Our second post examined the report’s overall focus on improving equity in NZ’s education system, and the implications of this approach.
In this third part of the series, we start to make comments about what particularly caught our attention in the latter part of the report from page 38 on, which is where the bulk of the analysis and also the full recommendations are. The Taskforce provides discussion and recommendations on what they identify as the eight key issues:
- Governance (including the appropriate role of school Boards of Trustees and the proposal to establish education hubs)
- Schooling provision (including school types, school hours, transitions between schools, the overall provision across all the schools in a geographic area, and pathways for Kaupapa Māori and distance schooling)
- Competition and choice (including enrolment schemes / zones, school donations, international fee-paying students, staffing and funding formulae, and the consequences of those policies for certain schools and groups of learners)
- Disability and learning support (including students’ access to schools, teacher preparation for catering to diverse needs, specialist staffing, and funding)
- Teaching (including how we attract, train, treat and retain teachers, current models for teacher appraisal and Kāhui Ako | Communities of Learning, and pathways for support staff)
- School leadership (including workload, performance management, appointment processes, and how to attract and develop school leaders)
- School resourcing (especially compensatory funding)
- Central education agencies (how to position and reposition central agencies such as the Ministry of Education and Education Review Office).
In this blog post, we look at the Taskforce’s Key Issues 1-7 above. The eighth issue, the ‘Central Education Agencies’ is discussed in the fourth and final post, along with concluding points about the report as a whole.
It is important to note that our comments need to be read alongside the report itself, as we have no space to summarise all the relevant arguments and proposals. We have provided direct hyperlinks through this post to help readers jump to the relevant sections of the Tomorrow’s Schools Review report. The headings listed in the Table of Contents under each key issue are also useful as they communicate some of the Taskforce’s major arguments and rationales for change. Finally, the background information provided on pages 22-27 of the report may be useful to many readers as well.
Removing inappropriate responsibilities of volunteer Boards of Trustees is a good idea. The analysis here builds on all the research over the years on self-managing schools by Cathy Wylie, a member of the Taskforce. Liz Gordon also highlighted the inequities between the work of Boards in wealthier and poorer areas more than two decades ago*. We also agree with the need to establish more intermediaries between schools and the national centre, such as the proposed education hubs. However, there are important questions about the relationship of these hubs to the Ministry of Education and what this might mean about how they work and whose interests they serve. We will come back to this in Part 4.
Rather than the elements of compulsion and control that are likely to create resistance from so many schools and communities, we think the hubs should offer services to schools that teachers, principals and Boards will want to voluntarily take up because they can see the advantages of doing so. The hubs should serve as a resource for schools and it may also be that schools could choose to take up some hub services but not others. Taking this approach would also reduce the demand on the hubs as they launch, when they could be taking good people out of a system that is already particularly stretched in terms of human resources.
This ‘opt-in’ voluntary approach won’t achieve all the strong equity and steering goals wanted by the Taskforce, but it would still improve the support available to many schools and hence reduce the inequalities within the system. It might be argued that a voluntary approach to taking up hub services will create a divide between the hub-serviced schools and others, with hub-serviced schools seen as lower quality because they couldn’t manage their own affairs. But if the hubs were well-resourced and offer a package of good services then many schools across the socio-economic spectrum would sign up for their services and once this happens it would dispel any notion that hub-serviced schools were inferior ones.
Also raised in this section is the controversial idea of principals being on five-year contracts so hubs can move them around to wherever they are deemed needed. Although this proposal is intended to address equity concerns by sharing around expertise, it doesn’t respect the importance of good school leaders having a strong understanding of their local context, nor the length of time (several years, we would say) needed to build that understanding. Principals would barely be getting to grips with a school and community before they would have to start counting down to the next school.
2. Schooling provision
Much of this section seems fair enough and it is positive to see calls for our overarching schooling provision strategy to be more strongly informed by Te Tiriti o Waitangi. Reinforcing Kaupapa Māori settings through a dedicated hub seems an important suggestion.
The report’s preference for middle schools (Years 7-10 / old Forms 1-4) over intermediates (Years 7-8 / old Forms 1-2) is an interesting one. Perhaps this is another equity-inspired measure intended to help clip the wings of expansionary secondary schools, the sort of schools where principals are rewarded with higher salaries and which encourage CEO-type leadership because they are so large? It might also protect children for another couple of years from the assessment ‘creep’ that has turned so many of our Year 9 and 10 courses into NCEA training grounds with practice ‘credits’ to be collected through enormous amounts of single-subject, summative assessment. I know that I (Katrina) would rather my child could have another two years of the kind of fabulous, rich, inquiry-based, integrated teaching and learning offered by many intermediates than two years of ‘junior NCEA’ – not to mention the space and nurturing for socioemotional, personal, leadership and extracurricular development that would be afforded by the extra 2 years at middle school, exactly at the time when children need this most. That said, my children (Martin) enjoyed their intermediate school days within the current two-year model, and the NZHerald’s Steve Brunias also offers a sympathetic view of this phase of children’s schooling. There are also many parents who would prefer not to have their year 7 and 8 children in schools with older teens, potentially increasing their exposure to unwanted behaviours or issues. Clearly, there is much to consider and debate on this point!
3: Competition and choice
This section offered another good discussion. The Taskforce recognises it can’t do much to directly impact segregation (controlled choice is ruled out by the Taskforce) and that the schooling system must respect parents’ wishes for diverse options (no hard zoning either). Therefore, the proposed approach is for hubs to exercise a bit more control over enrolments and enrolment schemes than at present as well as proposing a range of measures (such as changing the rules around donations and international students) to reduce the advantages enjoyed by some schools in the educational market. It is inevitable that such changes will be challenged by some principals and boards of schools that currently benefit. But they could all be achieved without making it compulsory for schools to use hub services.
4: Disability and learning support
The discussion of disability and learning support shows a strong awareness of the extensive problems in this area within the existing system. The Taskforce report concludes that
“It is clear that the system is not currently serving students with disabilities or additional learning needs well. Many of these students’ needs are not able to be met by schools, resulting in significant negative impacts for them and their families.” (p. 83)
It is pleasing to see wording here that acknowledges that students’ needs are often not able to be met. Rather than employing the ‘politics of blame’, the Taskforce is acknowledging that systemic conditions mean that schools haven’t been able to cater for diverse students in the ways they would like to. The recommendations address national strategy and policy as well as the funding, staffing, and teacher training issues needed to create significant change. However, the proposal that the Ministry “allocate national funding pools” (p. 84) again raises questions around the nature of the relationship between the Ministry and the hubs (see Part 4 of this series).
This section covers a multitude of issues, including teacher education, PLD and support staff. We agree that “our system needs to do better at recruiting, training and supporting new teachers/kaiako” (p. 87). It is long overdue for NZ to move beyond the reactive, market-driven approaches to teacher recruitment that have led to repeating cycles of over-supply of teachers, then reduced teacher education enrolments (due to concerns about employability), then reduced teacher education programmes and staffing (because of the drop in student numbers), and then ‘suddenly’ (shock!) another under-supply of teachers to start the new school year and an urgent flurry of advertising, international recruitment and ‘recapture’ initiatives. A far more strategic approach in this area is indeed needed, with current shortages forecast to get worse rather than better.
With regard to teacher education, we would have liked to see an emphasis on reinforcing major existing pathways before proposing ‘alternative’ and ‘school-based’ models (p. 94). For example, our University of Waikato teacher education programme has turned out thousands of great teachers over the years and already has strong links to schools. The same is true of many other university providers. But as mentioned in our first post, Faculties of Education around NZ are under huge pressure and should be the first priority in terms of teacher education. What would be especially helpful would be increased staffing to reduce staff-student ratios back to previous, more favourable, levels.
The PLD arrangements proposed through the hubs are another area that schools could take up voluntarily, attracted because of the quality on offer. Existing PLD and appraisal models were intended to be powerful levers for change, including through the identification of system-wide priorities and embedding best-practice models of teacher learning such as teacher inquiry into appraisal requirements. There have been clear national focuses on improving literacy, numeracy, and cultural responsiveness across our schools, although there has also been critique of the way this has been handled, as well as concern that the system-wide mandates to date have led to an element of “compliance driven ‘tick the box’ activity” (p. 92). Nevertheless, the taskforce’s proposal to increase flexibility around both PLD and appraisal for teachers/kaiako may be a double-edged sword if doing so makes it easier for some teachers to ‘opt out’ of engaging with challenging new ideas or professional learning processes.
6: School leadership
This section raises the huge pressures on principals that prevent many staff from seeing themselves in the role. This is a significant concern (see here, here, and here) so it is good to see some fresh thinking in the report. The possibility of moving some tasks around property management, finances, health and safety and generic policy work to hubs would make a real difference to principals’ workloads and free them up to focus more on pedagogical and strategic leadership. A Leadership Centre would be established within the Teaching Council to help grow a diverse and well-equipped body of aspiring and practising school leaders. Leadership is being rightly positioned as a part of the teaching profession and not something outside of it.
The Taskforce also seeks pathways for principals to move into other leadership positions, a good point as these pathways are largely missing from the current system. The hubs would have leadership advisors, offering a possible career step for principals seeking to move on. As already mentioned, there have to be concerns around the number of people available to staff and lead our schools AND fill the new roles at the education hubs. It’s a tension that would have to be managed very carefully.
7: School resourcing
The School Resourcing section starts by briefly noting the inadequacy of overall funding for schools. It was good to see this problem acknowledged, especially given that it lay outside the terms of reference for the Taskforce. System-wide under-funding limits what schools and teachers can do, and also has an impact on whether people choose to become part of the teaching profession. This issue is central to the NZEI and PPTA teacher collective agreement claims, with teachers protesting overall workload and working conditions – all aspects that ultimately come down to the total funding invested into the school system.
Most of the rest of this section was taken up with a discussion of better compensatory funding approaches to replace the decile-based system. The taskforce have proposed doubling the amount of compensatory funding from 3% to 6% of a school’s overall funding. This is a good idea given that the existing funding model hasn’t resulted in the equity it was intended to (reasons for this are discussed in the report) and given that comparable OECD countries allocate schools twice as much ‘equity funding’ as NZ. The Ministry has developed an equity index to replace the decile system so that this funding can be calculated based on the characteristics of the actual students enrolled at a school (and their families) rather than just the surrounding neighbourhood. Individual students are supposed to be non-identifiable in the calculation and funding process. The Taskforce endorses this approach but it remains to be seen how similar or different it is from the social investment approach favoured by the previous Government.
About the final part of our series
There is much else of interest in the sections of the report discussing Key Issues 1-7 but this posting is already long enough. The final part in this series will focus on the Taskforce report’s discussion of the central education agencies (Key Issue 8). That discussion highlights questions about power-relations and responsibilities in the proposed arrangements and also brings to the fore aspects of the proposals that will appeal to school communities nationwide. We will conclude by noting the sheer scale of the education reform agenda being opened up by the Labour-led Government and by questioning the idea that the Taskforce report must be taken up entirely.
* Gordon, L. (1994). Rich and poor schools in Aotearoa/New Zealand. New Zealand Journal of Educational Studies, 29(2), 9-24. Unfortunately we were not able to find an electronic version of this article to hyperlink, but interested readers may be able to access a hard copy of this journal through a university library or similar.
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.