The Tomorrow’s Schools Taskforce Report (Part 4 of 4): The power relations in the new system, and summing up

Professor Martin Thrupp and Dr Katrina McChesney, University of Waikato

This piece is the last 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 our concerns about the lack of debate thus far over what are some 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. We considered the recommendations related to Key Issues 1-7 in our third post. This final post starts by examining the eighth ‘Key Issue’ identified by the Taskforce: the central education agencies. There is discussion of power-relations and responsibilities in the proposed arrangements, a plea to avoid closing off discussion of different ways forward from the report, and a suggested approach for (re)reading the report in a more constructive way.

8. The central agencies

Issue summary | Full discussion | Full recommendations

The section on the central education agencies is mostly not about the proposed hubs: rather, this section talks about a range of problems in the existing central agencies and then recommends making changes in the Ministry of Education, dissolving ERO and the NZQA, establishing an ‘independent’ Education Evaluation Office, and expanding the Teaching Council.

The report is quite critical of the existing central agencies, while recognising that their employees are trying to do their best. For instance:

“We have heard considerable feedback from the sector about the operational efficiency and responsiveness of the Ministry. Principals/ tumuaki overwhelmingly find the Ministry to be overly bureaucratic, risk averse and often unresponsive, with management structures that are top-heavy and opaque. Parents and whānau have also told us of their frustrations with facing a bureaucratic and unresponsive Ministry when trying to have their concerns listened to and acted on, or when seeking practical support for their child.” (p. 119)

Reducing the number of central agencies will help to avoid them competing for political influence which has been a big problem in the past. It will also help to avoid disconnects and inconsistencies in what the agencies are responsible for. For example, NZQA ‘own’ the assessment frameworks and must uphold the associated standards (e.g. through moderating NCEA internal assessment), but the Ministry ‘own’ the curriculum that the assessments must map onto. The Ministry ‘own’ some assessment data, but other data sits with NZQA (e.g. NCEA). The ministry also ‘own’ teacher professional development – so while NZQA moderators are tasked with monitoring the appropriateness of teachers’ internal assessment judgements, they then have limited ability to contribute to professional development that might help address any issues and misunderstandings they see in teachers’ assessment practices.

The intended power relations between the various parts of the reconfigured system are also of crucial importance. In particular, it seems that the Ministry is still going to have some form of control over the  hubs, even though the hubs are supposed to be “autonomous of the Ministry” (p. 49). This Ministry control remains because the Ministry is going to monitor the hubs using KPIs (Key Performance Indicators) agreed with the Ministry and Minister (see p. 49). Having worked overseas in an educational improvement project that monitored its provider organisations using KPIs, I (Katrina) have seen first-hand how this approach can descend into a compliance culture, ‘rigging’ of data, and a focus on how things look rather than how things actually are. At the same time, when discussing ERO reviews, the Taskforce acknowledge that “reviews can incentivise the wrong behaviours” (p. 122).

Another concern we might have about the relationship between the Ministry and the hubs is that it continues a divide between those who determine policy (central agencies) and those expected to carry it out (hubs and schools). It will make it easy to continue a politics of blame, except that now hubs as well as schools can be found wanting. We would have preferred to see a system where the Ministry is responsible for not only policy but also delivery, and thus would be forced to recognise the constraints on education (such as the system-wide under-resourcing  highlighted in Key Issues 4 and 7), as well as the possibilities.

The notion of an ‘independent’ Education Evaluation Office should also be questioned. The emphasis on independence harks back to 1980s discourses of needing to avoid ‘provider capture’ by standing above and beyond the rest of the system.  (Incidentally, the Taskforce itself is supposed to be ‘independent’, but that’s not realistic either – especially in a small country). It is worth noting that the monitoring framework within the proposals (hubs monitoring schools and the Education Evaluation Office monitoring the overall system) seems to be data-centred. It is no surprise, then, that another key review, the Curriculum, Progress and Achievement Advisory Group, has been asked to “…develop a programme of work that builds capabilities across the full system to be data literate.” We think there is a place for discussing how a national inspectorate body or similar might bring a more human dimension to processes of ‘monitoring’. ERO’s shortcomings have been not so much because schools are visited by people for evaluative purposes but rather the framework and timelines within which ERO reviewers have worked.

It is the contractual relationship between the Minister and agencies, the way that Ministers purchase outputs from agencies, that has probably set the scene for many problems in the existing education system. These problems have included agencies having to agree to excessive or reductionist outputs. The large number of reviews that ERO is expected to do each year, which in turn impacts on the way they are carried out, provides a ready example. This contractual relationship has resulted from the State Sector Act 1988, which is also under review but outside the terms of reference of this Taskforce. It will be interesting to see the potential impact to education of any changes made to the State Sector Act.

Must the report be taken up entirely?

Overall, the tone of the Taskforce report is placatory as well as authoritative, acknowledging that the proposals “are not changes that can be implemented overnight” (p. 134). But as we have already noted, the report is also being presented as a kind of blueprint, where the sections are detailed and interrelated and we are told that if anything is removed the overall plan is not going to work. According to the Taskforce, it is the “totality of recommendations in this report, if properly implemented, [that] will contribute significantly to bringing about the change that is required” (p. 133). This approach doesn’t leave much room for the consultation that is going on now, and the likelihood that parts of the plan will be heavily contested. Is there really only room for the public to say ‘yay’ or ‘nay’? What if elements of the proposals have to be modified, delayed or abandoned altogether?

We should also remember that this review is only the first of a large number of reviews taking place across the sector. For instance, the Curriculum, Progress and Achievement group mentioned above reported to the Minister before Christmas with another large set of proposals. The Labour-led Government has opened up widespread consultation and advice, but it is another thing to carry through on the recommended changes. The Government could easily end up with too many balls in the air in education. The potential overall impact out in schools is not something that is within the control of the Taskforce, as they are only working with part of the puzzle.

What’s more, all of these reforms will be hungry on resources at a time when the system has become run down and faces shortages in many areas. One kind of response to any capacity problems might be to invite more involvement of business, charitable and/or philanthropic interests, something which often happens with major reform programmes in education these days. The report doesn’t say much about further privatisation, but nor does it rule it out. It does say, though, that the hubs are going to be ‘brokering’ services (p. 51) – whatever that turns out to mean.

We think it would be more realistic for the Taskforce to claim to have provided a strong discussion of the problems of the existing system (which it has) but to be more tentative about its recommendations. For instance, we agree with the need for some kind of intermediaries like the proposed hubs to provide much needed services to schools. But there are many ways that the hub idea might play out advantageously; hubs wouldn’t necessarily have to have all the characteristics and roles that the Taskforce report has outlined in order to support the work of schools. In our previous post, we suggested a more voluntary and gradual model, which could be combined with quicker changes in Ministry policy for all schools wherever the most straightforward problems have been identified. At the same time, we would not claim to have the perfect solution either. Rather, we are trying to illustrate that there are more ways than one to solve a problem.

To us, the Taskforce report should continue the ‘conversation’ (to use the Government’s favoured term) rather than trying to close it off by effectively saying ‘it’s our way or the highway’. Nevertheless, a continuing conversation may not be easy to have, judging by activity to date. Perhaps the lack of debate that we noted at the start of this series is partly induced by ‘consultation fatigue’. The Government opened consultation without anything much to respond to; now we have a big detailed report and it is a shame to think that the consultation opportunity around it may have been squandered.

While public consultation has its place, there needs to be a genuine commitment to continuing discussions with those in the sector who are going to have to make the changes work. This might take quite a while and meanwhile the Government’s overarching theme for the year is ‘delivery’ and the next election is not far off. It should be possible to find some areas to deliver on more rapidly, thereby keeping the electoral pressures at bay.

Finding unifying themes within the report

In our second post, we questioned the wisdom of the report’s introductory sections being so heavily focused on social and educational inequities. The discussion of the central education agencies (key issue 8) highlights the potential for an alternative narrative. The report could have been focussed more on the impacts of managerialism, of a compliance culture and of inappropriate accountabilities. For instance the way the report highlights problems emanating from the central agencies is something that schools and communities nation-wide would identify with. But as it is, this perspective is somewhat hidden towards the back of the report – and if readers are not won over by the strong equity arguments earlier on, they may never make it this far into the document.

This suggests a different strategy for (re)reading the report. We think it should be read in the first instance to find concerns that will find broad agreement nation-wide because of frustrations about resources or processes that have been experienced across the nation’s schools. These concerns are actually spread right through the report; for instance, teacher supply, special education, and professional learning. As these commonalities are identified and recognised, they can be used to establish a shared platform or rationale for change before tackling the more demanding discussions of the needs of different and unequal communities.

In closing, we thank you for reading our blog posts on the Taskforce report. You can contribute to the consultation up until April 7 via the online survey or by attending one of the consultation hui. Or, as we have done here, you can also bolster discussion using channels outside those set up through the Taskforce. Everything helps – Nāku te rourou, nāu te rourou, ka ora ai te iwi. (With your contribution and mine, the people will flourish).

 


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. 

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