Freedom, hubs and the curriculum

Briar Lipson
Insights Newsletter
22 March, 2019

New Zealand schools enjoy relative freedom.

Some teach 21st century skills, others a knowledge-rich curriculum. In some classrooms devices are integral, in others they are banned. Some treated last week’s Climate Change March as part of the curriculum, others labelled it truancy.

Generally, freedom works. But the Tomorrow’s Schools independent taskforce wants to change the balance between freedom and control. It wants to create new regional education hubs responsible for everything from employing teachers to advising on curriculum and pedagogy. The hubs will even “assume all the legal responsibilities and liabilities currently held by school Boards of Trustees”.

In protest, a group of principals united this week under the Community Schools Alliance. They believe the taskforce’s proposals “threaten the distinctive identity of schools ranging from Māori iwi schools to conservative Auckland Grammar”.

Schools and principals fear losing their freedom under the proposed education hubs, for example, over curriculum and pedagogy. The taskforce calls the New Zealand Curriculum world-leading. Yet schools like Auckland Grammar actively ignore the prevailing messaging around the curriculum: Grammar does not integrate subjects or let students lead learning. Instead, it maintains a traditional subject-based curriculum and expects teachers to lead. It also offers Cambridge International Exams alongside NCEA.

Two Fridays ago, Auckland Grammar exemplified its approach at a teacher development day. Topics included the history of attitudes to knowledge in the school curriculum, and a psychological analysis of the failure of constructivist, discovery, problem-based, experiential, and inquiry-based teaching.

If the New Zealand Curriculum is indeed world-leading, then the speakers and their evidence are wrong.

If principals, teachers and parents choose Auckland Grammar for its subject-based curriculum and authoritative teaching, then their fear of hubs is legitimate.

It is too easy to dismiss the perspectives of schools like Grammar as elitist vested interest. Their grounds, facilities and endowments may well be hard to replicate, but the curriculum they teach is only made elite by culture, and our failure to teach it to all children.

Schools everywhere can prepare their pupils with the powerful knowledge that enables them to participate in their cultures. They can organise that knowledge coherently in subjects and follow evidence-based pedagogies to teach it.

The real challenge our schools face is finding and retaining passionate and knowledgeable teachers, especially to work in our most disadvantaged communities. When the taskforce returns to the drawing board (or device), perhaps they will make this their goal.

The opportunity to give feedback on the taskforce’s proposals is available here until 7 April. On 1 April, the Initiative will co-host a panel discussion alongside Victoria University’s Faculty of Education. Follow this link to read more about our speakers and register.

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