If someone threatened to burn down your house but instead left an unsavoury on your lawn, you might well find yourself feeling grateful. You might even feel more empathy towards your assailant’s complaint.
Many school boards will be feeling this way following Tuesday’s announcement about Tomorrow’s Schools. Boards are to retain control of most school matters (excluding enrolments and some aspects of property). The proposed new Crown entities – Education Hubs – have also been dropped in favour of a ministry overhaul.
However, while trimmed and tidied since the taskforce’s original report, the government’s proposals are not without thorns. Buried in a section innocuously titled ‘Learners at the Centre’, the government sets out a legislative amendment which, if permitted, will lead to the slow and certain ruin of school.
At present, the primary objective of boards of trustees is “to ensure that every student at the school is able to attain his or her highest possible standard in educational achievement”. Boards have secondary objectives too, like ensuring their school is a safe place that caters to students with differing needs. However, the order and clarity are important. For an undertaking as vital and complex as education, having a clear primary objective matters.
However, the government is proposing to erase the distinction between the primary and secondary objectives. It wants to compel boards to put the Treaty, inclusion, and the physical and emotional safety of students on an equal footing with educational achievement.
Imagine telling the All Blacks they must prioritise the Treaty, inclusion and safety alongside winning. All three are praiseworthy objectives. The All Blacks might even advance them if they selected players based on diversity and inclusion rather than performance, and avoided every tackle or scrum. However, placing those additional objectives on an equal footing with winning would almost guarantee losing.
The same goes for schools. As much as we might want to use schools to right historic wrongs and make the world fair for children with different needs, once these become boards’ primary areas of focus, educational standards will inevitably be squeezed.
The government is probably right to divest boards of some control over enrolments. We await clarity over what will happen to property. However, if this legislative change to boards’ purpose is enacted, educational standards will be the casualty.
The Tomorrow’s Schools review may no longer be proposing to burn down New Zealand’s devolved schooling system, but it will still torpedo schooling if this change is allowed to proceed.