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Tomorrow’s schools today

Stuart Middleton
New Zealand Education Review
Vol. 14 No.4, 6 February 2009, p.16
APN Educational Media (NZ) Ltd.

There are currently 28 schools in New Zealand where a commissioner has replaced the Board of Trustees for one reason or another. This is roughly 1% of schools so that puts the issue into perspective.

In 1998 it was the 10th anniversary of the Picot Report into the administration of education in New Zealand that led to Tomorrow’s Schools and the administrative system that we currently have. A conference was held that marked this end of the first decade and my contribution was a paper that I called Planting Cabbages and Expecting Cauliflowers : The Reforms and Multicultural Schools.

We mark the 20th birthday of the Tomorrow’s Schools approach with two high profile instances of school Boards being dismissed to be replaced by a Commissioner.

In the paper I wrote ten years ago, I focussed on the impact on the multicultural schools in my patch in Manukau and argued that the reforms had not in themselves produced administrative weaknesses but had made explicit weaknesses that had always been there masked by various elements of the previous system which I will come to shortly.

The Picot Report (Administering for Excellence) wrote about the problems faced by the administration of education in New Zealand. It was a report that spoke in generalities and at a macro level. It did not speak about our schools in any detail.

Where it did speak of “South Auckland” its comments were at best polite and at worst mealy-mouthed. Take for example, the comments on failure. Cutely called a form of “consumer disaffection”, the report (p36) referred to the 26% of pupils who leave school with no qualification of any kind. “We are told,” the report states “[that] these students leave school thoroughly disenchanted with a school environment they have merely endured, rather than enjoyed.”

20 years later and the rhetoric booms out a similar message. Where’s the action?

Curiously in other specific references to South Auckland the Picot Report created a new area called Southern Auckland. Perhaps this was a tactic to soften the negative impact of the media’s use of “South Auckland”! Whatever the reason it was noted that “half of the 26 secondary schools in Southern Auckland had more than 25 percent of the students leaving with no qualifications” and that “seven schools had more than 50% leaving with no qualifications.”

In stentorian tone the report thundered that “This clustering of failure is certain to lead to personal, social, and economic catastrophe. It cannot be allowed to continue!

20 years later……. where’s the action?

Back in 1988 the report failed to mention such factors as the generally benevolent attitude of the Department of Education at a regional level which as a “near-centre” appeared to be more capable of understanding the situation than was the “remote-centre” (i.e. the national office). But there were other issues too: the way new schools were planned, difficulties with staffing secondary schools, the growth of communities that put challenges into a small number of schools that most of the rest of the country had little or no understanding of, the lack of capacity in some communities to support the schools with cash, the growth of formulaic approaches to resourcing, and so on. There were winners and losers in the imnplementation. For instance, the creation of the level playing field saw the very schools that needed benevolent staffing levels lose significant numbers of teachers. (It had been a favourite Department of Education regional office response to offer a bit of additional staffing to solve any issue but now the formula was written on a tablet of stone.)

The worst element of the reforms might have been the placing of the burden of governance onto community members with little experience of it and with little support to do it. Would the business community risk such an approach?

Now this issue is confused by the reaction to such a suggestion which righteously argues that local communities should have a voice, that the local community should be involved in the governance of their own schools and that governance should emerge from the streets and houses served by the school. Well of course all that should happen. But the distance between a group brought together to do this in some communities and the central administration is not only measured in terms of the kilometres to Wellington but also in terms of huge distances in experience, understanding, values and aspirations between these communities and a central administration.

The reform in New Zealand turned each school into a school district in USA terms and therein is a possible solution.

It might well be time to consider establishing some form of Local School District governance provision to work with a cluster of schools at a governance level and with authority to back up and support the school-based groups. Such groups would be appointed rather than elected and would ensure the balance of skill and experience that good governance demands. Each school would continue to elect its “governance group” that would contribute to the process and would be a special reflection of the precise community served by each school. But they would not serve alone – rather they would be backed up by skill sets and experience that local election processes might not necessarily produce.

Such Local School District Boards would be governance groups not administrative groups (albeit that one role of governance is to ensure sound administration of resources, processes and outcomes). A Local School District Board serving state early childhood, primary and secondary institutions in a defined area that has a community of interest would enhance the work of the local Boards of Trustees. It w also stop fractious behaviour and outside interference of the kind that has disrupted Boards in some instances.

How many decades should pass before the template put in place by Picot, Lange et. al. is modified? Will we simply continue to smugly believe that one size really does fit all?

T S Eliot in Choruses from The Rock tells us that the “end of all our exploring will be to arrive at the beginning and to know the place for the first time.” Covey said much the same – “the end is where you start from.” Do we know and understand where to start from in all this?

The implementation of the Tomorrow’s Schools reforms was flawed – schools are not generally free to purchase services and some are less free than others, Community Education Forums were not established, education service centres were not put in place, some schools will never be able to buy in additional resources, the contract between “the school and the state” is a very lop-sided arrangement.

It would be a brave assertion to claim that those reforms of the state sector in the 1980’s got it all right in one hit. And nowhere is this more open to question than in the governance of education.

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