A question of fillings

Stuart Middleton
New Zealand Education Review
Vol. 14 No.14, 17 April 2009, p.16
APN Educational Media (NZ) Ltd.
Wellington

Reforms and cucumber sandwiches are all about the bit in the middle.

A cucumber sandwich without the cucumber in the middle tends to leave those eating them feeling that somehow this all might have been better. But you can’t blame the sandwich – someone did this.

It is often the same with reforms. It is not that the reform is wrong or has faults but rather what people have done to them. You see, the issue is not what reforms do to people but what people do to reforms and this is where the bit in the middle is important.

The Tomorrow’s Schools Reforms as they have come to be called were based on a radical change that saw on the one hand, schools and on the other, and in a direct relationship to it, the crown (for that read government). This seemed a huge and distant relationship to manage. But there were bits in the middle that were designed to make it work. Education Service Centres would be established that would focus on the needs of a smaller cluster of schools and help them manage that relationship.

Community Education Forums would be established that would allow wider communities to have their say, to express views about the bigger educational issues and maintain a place in education that was beyond the gates of the school their children went to.

But both of these bits in the middle were abandoned – the critical mechanisms for gluing the schools to the government were never put there.

Then there is the case of the qualifications reforms.  Changes proposed on the basis of a Qualification Framework that would provide a common currency of qualification recognition and value regardless of the institution or level. Each qualification in New Zealand would be mediated by its place on the framework which would explain to employers, caregivers, and grandparents just where a qualification was in terms of level and scale.

But it took so long for the framework to get traction that when it seemed finally to emerge everyone had moved on to other things and qualifications in New Zealand, rather than being seen as a tidy and methodical set, continue to be questioned and challenged. Again that bit in the middle.

A more recent example of the middle phenomenon is the demolition of the stakeholder engagement section of the Tertiary Education Commission. Perhaps some of the rhetoric that surrounded this group was a bit out of synch with reality but there was, in the dual role approach of the members of the team, some valuable functions which we have yet to be assured will not simply disappear. For instance, among these tasks was the frontline concern for Pasifika in the Auckland region. Auckland is by far the largest concentration of Pacific students in tertiary education in the world and it made sense to have someone with a designated concern for Pasifika to be there on the ground in the region. It is a question of voice.

But no, the bit in the middle must go.

Finally there is that Royal Commission on the Governance of Auckland. First look seemed to be positive – the Government in Wellington, six Councils in the region and then Community Boards for the local communities. So guess what the first casualties were – the bit in the middle!

The abandonment of the concept of local councils leaves us ripe for a replay of the Tomorrow’s School business where for over 15 years, low decile communities and their schools struggled to get the fair deal that seemed to come as of right to more middle class areas. Communitiy Boards – perhaps as many as thirty – are unlikely to have an equal voice or even speak the same language both metaphorically and actually.

Despite the cries over the decision to do away with Councils, no-one is proposing a return to the borough councils of old. Just as no-one cried out in defence of the Education Boards. Or the myriad qualification and accreditation bodies that once existed. People welcome change but would it not be a good thing to make change comprehensive and complete. And why ask Picot and his group, Hawke and his group, Salmon and his group to think it all through and then set out to build only part of the plan.

At the head of the Whanganui River, at Maungapurua, is a very splendid bridge built in the 1930’s when it looked as if the community of farmers in that region would grow. But it didn’t and they walked off the land. The contractor pointed out that this bridge might not served the purpose for which it was intended anyway as it is in a fiendishly difficult location. Would it be OK if he didn’t go ahead?

No, the wisdom of the bureaucrat prevailed, the contract had been signed and the bridge must be built. It was. And to this day there is no road that leads to the bridge and no road that leads away from it. Nothing wrong with the bridge, but even the bit in the middle is no good on its own.

New Zealand as a country seems to feel that implementing some of the recommendations or proposals that seek to bring about a reform is as good as going the whole hog so to speak. But often when this happens we are left coping with reform that offers upheaval but little of the anticipated improvements. I used to think of this as a peculiar ailment of education but perhaps it is more a part of our general national psyche – we are a nation of tinkerers.

We are also quite properly cautious. After all, we wouldn’t want to throw out the baby with the bathwater. Never mind that in failing to attend to structural reform (the gaps in Tomorrow’s Schools, the qualification framework, the truncated implementation of the Royal Commission and so on0 we end up tossing out the bath and then struggle with both the baby and the bathwater.

Never mind, pass the cucumber sandwiches. Oh all right then – a piece of bread will be OK.

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