Opportunity missed: Why the government’s failure to reform Tomorrow’s Schools means some schools will continue to make poor decisions, with negative impacts on teachers and students

Dr Judie Alison and Rob Willetts

The review of Tomorrow’s Schools conducted by the current government is likely to result in minor tinkering to the 30 year old Tomorrow’s Schools model rather than much-needed wholesale reform.  This is a disappointment, but unsurprising given the pressure on government from entrenched power elites such as high-decile schools in leafy suburbs, the School Trustees’ Association and officials who cannot imagine a different system.

Tomorrow’s Schools: Past and present

The theory of Tomorrow’s Schools is that it allows schools to make good decisions for their particular context; however in practice it means that the government has little ability to stop schools making bad decisions instead.  The accumulated effect of poor local decisions in individual schools can have a negative impact on the system-as a whole. For example, the cumulated effect of numerous schools failing to adequately address teacher workload is a factor in loss of teachers from the profession. Failure to radically reform Tomorrow’s Schools means this will continue.

Tomorrow’s Schools is classic New Public Management, involving a “tight-loose-tight” method of control of education.  Government sets expectations/targets and requirements for schools (the first “tight”) and monitors them against these (the second “tight”).  The “loose” part in the middle is that government exercises little control over how schools meet the expectations, including the impacts of those decisions on teachers’ conditions of work at the school level.  Individual schools tend to be relatively unresponsive to policy changes signalled by government agencies unless there are powerful incentives in place for them to respond.  This has been described as the ‘policy gap’ between central government and schools.  Tomorrow’s Schools as a system provides few mechanisms for preventing poor employer patterns of behaviour and this structural constraint is compounded by the doctrine that employer flexibility is a primary goal and should not be limited.  This leads to resistance by government agencies to using those mechanisms that do exist, such as collective agreements.

Each school is influenced by a range of local factors: competition for students, staff recruitment and retention issues, the attitudes of the senior leadership team, and so on.  Leadership teams often adopt the position that they “know best” about what is right for their school, and they may ignore guidance from the central agencies, such as the Ministry of Education (and occasionally even the law).

A useful case study: Teacher performance appraisal

The recent history of performance appraisal is a useful case study that highlights how “administrivia” (unproductive administrative work overload) can burgeon and central agencies be unable to stop this.   Every school is required to appraise staff performance, but how appraisals are conducted is one of the many elements of teachers’ conditions of work that is determined by each school.

An outcome of the 2016 Secondary Teacher Collective Agreement round was a Workload Group involving all the government education agencies, PPTA, and the School Trustees’ Association.  Performance appraisal was one of its major focus areas.  The group recommended, among other things, that “The Education Council  provide support and clear online information targeting teachers, middle leaders, senior leaders and BOTs about exactly what the requirements are for performance management, appraisal and certification, with a view to stopping over-engineering of these processes.”

However, not a lot changed as a result.  The Education Council, now the Teaching Council tweaked their website advice, the Education Review Office, which is delegated the task of auditing and moderating performance appraisals, discouraged schools from requiring teachers to produce huge amounts of evidence of their practice, but this could only be advice.  Neither ERO nor the Teaching Council actually had the power to tell schools not to do what they were doing.

Performance appraisal was revisited in the Accord (see https://www.ppta.org.nz/dmsdocument/850) discussions between NZEI, PPTA and the Ministry of Education after the 2019 collective agreement round, and again there was a shared wish among the parties to stop the “over-engineering” of performance appraisal because it was “not adding the value we expect from it”.    It was agreed that Education Act Clause 382 S.1 (i), which required the Teaching Council to audit and moderate performance appraisal decisions for at least 10 per cent of the practising certificates issued or renewed each year, would be removed in the reform of the Act.  This was duly included in the Bill, but no other changes have been proposed to give effect to the Accord discussions about stopping the over-engineering of performance appraisal in schools.

The Teaching Council has written to schools and placed on their website the following statement:

While schools and centres are free to design their appraisal processes there is no requirement in law or by any agency that an appraisal system must include:

  1. An inquiry to be undertaken by teachers
  2. Reports to be kept of all the professional development teachers do
  3. A portfolio of evidence compiled by teachers.

The list above encompasses most of the areas where there were excessive demands in some schools.  However, the problem lies in the words “schools and centres are free to design their appraisal processes”.  It might be assumed that if the Teaching Council tells schools what is not required, they will all stop doing it, but in our experience it doesn’t work that way because:

  • There’s a long history of low trust between central agencies and schools, and this makes schools nervous about changing.
  • Schools are influenced by previous understandings of requirements, so tell themselves that they are best to keep doing what they’ve been doing.
  • Previous PLD has encouraged schools to have comprehensive systems with lots of documentation, meetings, observations, teacher inquiry, and the like.
  • There is a lot of sharing of misinformation between schools which can eclipse what is communicated centrally.
  • Some senior leaders see designing complex systems as career-enhancing activity.
  • Beliefs that appraisal leads to high teacher and student performance are not easily disrupted, despite the parties to the Accord agreeing that the evidence of this does not exist after some twenty years of requiring teachers to be appraised.
  • Changing any school system means work for someone, and they’ll find reasons not to do it, such as: the law hasn’t changed yet, the Teaching Council is still consulting, ERO is still auditing…
  • Excessive teacher workload is a covert cost in schools that is often not accounted for in decisions.

Conclusion

In summary, in our self-managing school system, much unproductive workload is driven by school initiatives and/or local community pressure.  Government has little power to require self-managing schools to drop poor work practices.  When changes occur at the policy level that would allow schools to behave differently, the evidence to date is that many schools will find reasons to continue with current practice rather than modify it.

The Tomorrow’s Schools Review recommendations held out the prospect of a body capable of providing oversight of school Human Resources and wellbeing practices and modifying poor practices.   However, the Review outcomes have left schools as individual self-managing entities and this will mean that many of these unhelpful practices will continue unchecked.  Providing greater support to schools through the new support agency within the Ministry of Education (an outcome of the Tomorrow’s Schools Review), and leadership education by the Teaching Council, won’t stop some school leaders making bad decisions, either through ignorance or arrogance, or worse, both.


Dr Judie Alison worked as an Advisory Officer at PPTA between 2002 and 2018, following a teaching career that began in 1971. In 2007, she completed a PhD in Education titled ‘Mind the gap! Policy change in practice. School qualifications reform in New Zealand, 1980-2002.’ Since retiring from full-time work, Judie has completed contract work for PPTA and for the Ministry of Education.

Rob Willetts has worked as an Advisory Officer for PPTA since 1995, undertaking a number of research projects and producing a range of reports. His main responsibilities have been to cover school resourcing, teacher supply and industrial issues for the Association. Prior to this, he was a secondary school teacher for 12 years.

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