Skip to content

Talk-ED: When yesterday was tomorrow and what do we do today?

Stuart Middleton
23 July 2012


I wonder if “tomorrow’s Schools” has become “Yesterday’s Schools”?

Back in 1989 when there was that big shake-up in the administration of the education system in the schooling sector, the government of the day was driven by some imperatives that were clear.

Treasury had led the thinking that education (like health) had become dominated by those working within it – “provider capture” was the way it was put – and that the system had become excessively bureaucratic. The report of a review group led by businessman Brian Picot confirmed this.

On to the scene came Caldwell and Spinks with their theories of the “self-managing school” and New Zealand implemented a system for the administration of education that was radical and unique. Well, almost implemented it. Several components never survived for one reason or another not made very clear at the time.

At the heart of this approach lay the Board of Trustees in each and every school that had a direct connection to central government. In effect, each and every school in New Zealand became the equivalent of a school district in the USA. Visitors from the US are still a little awestruck that such a bold step could have been taken and they wonder why!

The two components that never survived were the Community Education Forum and the Education Service Centre. These were intended to give a community a voice about education in that district and to have a little broader view of its administration than simply the single unit of the school.

It is now timely for a review of the organisation of school administration?

At a time when it seems as if District Health Boards are being asked to work closely together if not consider amalgamation, at a time when polytechnics are being directed to work together and amalgamate, at a time when polytechnic councils have been downsized to be slimmer and smaller, can we justify a system that requires over 2,500 boards involving nearly 19,000 trustees to run our school system?

Do they really “run” our schools? Or have we put in place a system that removes real power from schools and their communities?

Certainly the local board of each school can strut their stuff with the trappings of uniforms, web sites and physical facilities. Certainly the local boards can take on the appearance of keeping provider capture at bay. But do they really have an impact on learning? The evidence would suggest that the education system is performing at much the same level as it was in 1988 prior to the reforms. The shake-up in education administration has not led to a system that performs at a higher level.

And can we say that we still have a national system of education that delivers with equality to all students? This was the once proud boast for New Zealand.

The reforms led to more competition between schools and contributed to the real estate agents’ fervour about what constitutes a “good school”. This is not dampened in any way by school boards that are complicit in both arguing against “league tables” and boasting about their position on them (but only if it seems high enough). The guarantee that every primary school in New Zealand is good for young ones and that a parent can send their little one to any school with confidence is seemingly challenged. And that is tragically sad.

The emasculation of the community voice through the reform of education administration needs serious attention because it will be communities that will bring about improvements in school performance not bits of communities or artificial communities based on who can get to and into which school.

Perhaps we need to consider that there is a happy medium position somewhere between the individual school and the centre of government that reflects a district and enables that district to work together to lift educational performance, to ensure equity of provision in the schools and to provide a mechanism for governments to fund education on the basis of equitable outcomes and not by formulaic inputs.

The education districts could be based on the local/community boards of large regional councils (such as Auckland) where they exist, or on geographical cohesive units (in the case of a regional city), or on what seems a sensible arrangement in rural areas (I think of the cluster of schools in the Reporoa Valley for instance).

These districts need not become cumbersome from an administrative point of view but could work to produce solutions for the district rather than have the fragmentation of districts that results from focus of the school boards on one school and the focus of the central government on all schools – the two lens of micro-micro and macro-macro lack a granularity that keeps the greater good both in focus and in perspective.

Back in 1999 I wrote a paper that argued that the advent of Tomorrow’s Schools had not increased inequities in our system but had rather made them more explicit. I am not now sure that I was right.

What harm can come out of a review?


Published inEducation

Be First to Comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *