Why ‘Tomorrow’s Schools’ has far from run its course

Briar Lipson
Insights Newsletter
23 February, 2018

Imagine buying a house, or choosing a spouse without knowing anything about them. You wouldn’t do it. It’s too big a commitment, too pivotal to future flourishing and happiness. You wouldn’t make such a decision before scrutinizing all the information you could muster.
For many New Zealand parents, choosing the right schools for their children is an equally important decision. And yet we expect them to do it in the almost dark.
This week Education Minister Hipkins announced a fundamental review of 1989’s Tomorrow’s Schools policy. He says it is needed because the policy has resulted in competition for students rather than improved education outcomes, and so its benefits have run their course.
The Minister is right that schools compete for students rather than improved results. This is how markets work. Just like shops, airlines, and drug companies, schools compete for customers, with improved outcomes usually the fortuitous by-product.
So why then, if shops, airlines and medicines have improved so much in the last 30 years, can we not say the same for our schools?
The answer lies in Chapter 1 of your economics textbook: to function effectively, markets require adequate information.
We all make reasonably well-informed choices about which shops, flights and (via trusted doctors and pharmacists) drug companies we buy from. However, unfortunately, the available information on primary and secondary school outcomes is woefully inadequate.
It need not and should not be so. And yet in New Zealand, we make a huge song and dance about assessment, to the detriment of all involved, especially our disadvantaged children.
In our upcoming report ‘Spoiled by Choice: How NCEA hampers education, and what it needs to succeed’ we analyse NCEA’s history, evolution and impact. Born out of discontent with the former university-dominated system, NCEA was not designed to provide information. Rather it was designed to provide flexibility so that all students could leave school with a qualification. This has advantages, but NCEA’s flexibility has also been bought at unquantified cost to students’ learning, teachers’ workloads and the information available to end-users.
These end-users include the parents, trustees, teachers and school leaders supposedly empowered by Tomorrow’s Schools to drive up educational outcomes. Until we have a government prepared to provide them with the information they need to be able to do this, we should not wonder why the benefits of Tomorrow’s Schools appear to have ‘run their course’. 

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