Tomorrow’s missed opportunities

Stuart Middleton
New Zealand Education Review
 Vol 14 No.40, October 16, 2009, p16
APN Educational Media (NZ) Ltd
Wellington 

“Let us reform our schools, and we shall find little reform needed in our prisons.”

–       John Ruskin 1862

If we could bring to our desire to reform education the same levels of passion that are brought to reform in other areas there would be very different result from the confused outcomes of major reforms in education such as that promoted by the Tomorrow’s Schools policy of the Lange Labour Government.

Imagine if the Tomorrow’s Schools reforms had been run by the Sensible Sentencing movement. The school leaving age would be 23, there would be a demand for a school on every corner and education would mean education!

Imagine of Rodney Hide’s passion for the reform of Auckland governance had been applied – sectors would disappear and the reforms would be managed by a very small and powerful group.

But they are not and education reforms inevitably end up being a bit like a pot of alphabet soup that is taken off the stove and waits too long to be brought to the table, lukewarm with the key words settled to the bottom. In trying to tackle too large a target, they miss the many closer and smaller and manageable changes that would make a difference.

Michael Fullan was clear back in the 1980’s that “educational change is no substitute for social and political reform.” This echoes the theme pursued by Aaron Wildavsky who wondered why would you expect curriculum reform to succeed when poltical reform has failed? And so the motives behind a change are often not clearly understood nor are the effects of any particular programme of reform kept in perspective.

David Lange was resigned to the fact that he has “seen so much attributed to Tomorrow’s Schools that I have long since given up trying to correct it.”  But what was Tomorrow’s Schools?

Essentially it was a brief policy statement that took a more detailed report on the administration of education and spelt out some key policy initiatives on which subsequent legislation would be based. But in between the report and the policy was the intensive consultation that inevitably softened the impact of the reforms. And then the government changed and key elements were again softened and some entirely removed.

The commitment of Tomorrow’s Schools to the notion of supporting the local school through zoning was challenged and has been knocked around by both those within education who profited from such a changes and politicians reflecting both sides of the debate. The increased controls over the uses of funding gave birth to a call for “give us the money in a bag and we’ll do a better job!”

But what was to be sorely missed over the twenty years since, was the removal of the commitments to local communities in the Tomorrow’s Schools landscape of the Education Service Centres and the Community Education Forums. No one idea however reforming is either a panacea or a silver bullet. But each little part of the larger reform helps and is there for a reason – leaving pieces out for whatever reason usually diminishes the overall impact of a reform.

The Education Service Centres as proposed would have been a useful link between the local Boards of Trustees and the inevitably remote central body of the Ministry of Education which replaced the old Department of Education. The old Dept. Was surely criticised by the report Administering for Excellence which begat Tomorrow’s Schools, but in a curious way it had a local connection which was respected and embraced as one would an old cardigan – useless at keeping you warm, patchy, but comfortable nevertheless. We had to watch some painful local failures in the mid-1990’s before there was a response – schooling improvement initiatives and suchlike. The cost of the transition from the department to local initiatives and the pain of that hiatus were disproportionately borne by local communities in disadvantaged areas.

The Community Education Forums were simply aborted. On paper they seemed like a good idea as they would have operated to allow the views of the communities to be heard and perhaps for a better discussion of options than has taken place. But we were never to find out.

Another aspect of the Tomorrow’s Schools reforms that is often not remembered is that they were only a reform of the administration of education and were surrounded by other reform packages – curriculum, qualifications and post-compulsory education and training (PCET). The disconnection between each of these was not helped by the lack of an overall plan which saw synergies established and some aims established at a higher level.

Questions should have been asked throughout that reforming decade about the kind of overall administration that education needed to manage a curriculum of the kind being proposed and how would it be assessed? How would qualifications be managed and what was the role and connection of post-compulsory education and training. Instead all four areas (administration, qualifications, curriculum and PCET) had a life of their own. As if to prove the inherent propensity of institutions and organisation towards centrifugal force they each spun off in different directions.

Education in New Zealand has been herding its seagulls ever since.

Last week in the UK, Ruth Porter noted that the “Conservatives [in the UK] are rightly pointing to Sweden as an example of what Britain must do if it is to create a fairer education system, where even those from difficult backgrounds are given opportunities to succeed, but the case of New Zealand has much we can learn from.” (Ruth Porter recently returned to the UK after five years with a “public policy think tank” in New Zealand we are told.)

She goes on to argue that the many good things achieved by the Tomorrow’s Schools package were ultimately diminished by what she sees as a failure “to inspire innovation”. She concludes that if “diversity within the system had been heralded as a positive step, things could have turned out differently.”

True but I wonder if we mean the same thing by “diversity”? Doing your own thing or celebrating the demographic change that still calls out for significant reforms in education. And a decision- do be build a strong education system or more prisons?

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