Time to speak up on ideas from school taskforce

Briar Lipson
The New Zealand Herald
14 January, 2019

The Tomorrow's Schools Independent Taskforce sees competition and self-governance as bad, collaboration and ministry management as good. It is seductive stuff, if a little Orwellian.

But competition and collaboration are not mutually exclusive. And if current performance is anything to go by, yet more bureaucratic management will only make things worse.

According to the ministry's own data, out of 2400-plus state schools, only 154 required some form of statutory intervention in the three years to January 2017. That means 15 out of 16 school boards performed satisfactorily, as judged by the ministry and ERO. This hardly seems to call for a dramatic restructure.

Yet this is exactly what the minister's independent taskforce is recommending. It wants to dismantle competition, end parental choice, turn boards of trustees into impotent advisers and have ministry offshoots manage every state school.

There are three possible explanations. The first is that the taskforce, and/or the minister, is philosophically opposed to choice and competition. Second, the taskforce believes "one in 16" could be reduced to zero if only the state directly managed every school. Aside from the fact there is no evidence that this is so, it surely makes more sense for successful schools to remain in the safe hands of their local trustees, leaving state agencies free to focus on struggling schools.

The final, and most likely, explanation for the taskforce's recommendations is that its members are suffering from the streetlight effect - an observational bias that occurs when researchers only search for something where it's easiest to look.

But their mistake is plain to see.

Early in their 148-page report, they accurately describe the symptoms of New Zealand education's malaise. The performance of our schools has slipped. The gap between disadvantaged and otherwise students has grown. The quality of schools is highly variable and particular types of schools (small schools, isolated schools and those serving lower socio-economic communities) are more likely to face challenges than others.

It would be time well spent if it prefaced an accurate diagnosis.

But boards of trustees and competition seem unlikely to be the problem, as the "15/16" schools attest. Rather, trustees are our unpaid warrior army - 19,000 strong, diverse, representative, and for the most part doing a good job.

Successive Governments, of both hues, have failed to implement meaningful educational measurement. Teacher unions tend to resist such measurement.

Some of the most ambitious high school boards have replaced NCEA with Cambridge or IB exams for many students. This way, at least they and the students find out where they stand compared with students elsewhere. By comparison, NCEA masks such vast variation in students' actual achievement as to be virtually meaningless. In primaries, National Standards have now been abandoned.

It is disadvantaged children who most need their schools to be effectively managed. They have the most to lose when their schools adopt ideological fads like modern learning environments, whole-language approaches to reading, and a curriculum that promotes competencies over knowledge.

So often it has been our ministry imposing these fads on our schools.

Encouragingly, there is growing agreement among Kiwi academics and teachers that powerful knowledge must be put back at the heart of the school curriculum, for the sake of educational equity. And yet the taskforce ignores this.

It is now seeking feedback on its recommendations. Trustees, teachers, parents and grandparents, now is your time to speak up. It will soon be too late.

Stay in the loop: Subscribe to updates