Free Press, 10 December 2018

Tue, 11 Dec, 2018

We wish it was government waste

We had hoped that the Government’s million-and-one reviews might just be wasting a quarter of a billion dollars for no outcome. The Tomorrow’s Schools review report shows the reviews could be much worse if acted on. The Tomorrow’s Schools report amounts to an assault on community-governed schools. To quote: “education hubs would assume all the legal responsibilities and liabilities currently held by school boards…”

David Lange’s legacy

Lange is often painted as the handbrake on Rogernomics, but as Education Minister he gave us Tomorrow’s Schools. Lange made each school self-governing, and Milton Friedman said at the time "in New Zealand, every school is a charter school." The rot set in when bulk funding was removed, school zones reduced competition, teacher union contracts made teaching a closed shop, and the Ministry of Education grew from 900 bureaucrats to 2,600.

What the report proposes

Central to the report is the creation of ‘education hubs.’ Each hub will have about 150 schools, the latter effectively becoming branch offices of the hub. The hub will employ the teachers and principals, manage the property, and student suspensions and exclusions. Boards will be required to make plans, but the hubs will have the resources and the legal rights and responsibilities.

What are the hubs?

The Hubs will be Crown entities governed by ministerial appointees. They’ll be staffed, presumably, by the same people who currently inhabit Ministry of Education regional offices. We have been constitutionally in charge of Ministry of Education staffers. Like all mediocre organisations there are diamonds in the rough, but altogether the Ministry of Education is the problem in education.

So what will be different?

At present when Ministry staff try to intervene in schools they are frequently told ‘bugger off, we are self-governing.’ The main reason is that the Ministry has little to offer most schools except frustration. Nothing in the report tells us that the hubs will have anything better to offer schools than the Ministry of Education regional offices have now, what will be different is the change in power balance. When the hubs offer help, it’ll be an offer schools can’t refuse.

So who’d bother?

New Zealand has a great tradition of communities mucking in to make schools better. People sit on Boards of Trustees and Parent Teacher Associations, organise school fairs, join old pupils’ associations, and go to working bees to build their kids’ schools. We wonder if communities will be so keen to invest in schools where some distant bureaucracy has all the legal rights and responsibilities for their kids’ school (along with 150 others).

But why?

In fairness to the reviewers, they are trying to solve a fundamental problem with Tomorrow’s Schools. Strong communities do well with community-governed schools, but how do disadvantaged communities get skills on their boards? How do small schools compete, and how do innovative practices spread? The logic of the review is that if boards are made largely irrelevant, all schools will be made the same.

There’s got to be a better way

Incredibly, the Government has just cancelled a policy that allowed educators to have rich career pathways within networks of schools. Those schools could grow and share knowledge within those networks. This policy allowed schools to change up their governance arrangements and bring in expertise from outside their immediate community. It was a policy that excelled at helping disadvantaged Maori and Pacific students, but allowed existing schools to carry on in their own way.

Charter schools

Yes indeed. Every problem the Tomorrow’s Schools review is supposed to solve was already solved by ACT’s charter schools. For instance, cooperative networks of schools; two operators had more than one school and a third was about to open its second when the Government changed, one of them aimed to have six schools. Unfortunately, charter schools were axed because the teacher unions don’t like them and the Labour Party needs somebody to deliver flyers at election time. One thing that’s for sure is that the real rot in education will keep on calling the shots.

A union manifesto

The new proposal is that “every teacher is guaranteed a job.” In a time of teacher shortage that might not mean much, but in time it will mean the hubs have to find a place to put teacher nobody wants. It is already difficult enough for principals and boards of trustees to remove bad teachers, when those teachers are employed by the hub rather than the school it will be nearly impossible. Free Press predicts these ideas will further erode the reputation of the teaching profession.

Visceral values

There is a species of crab that, when boiling in a pot, will cooperate to stop any other escaping. That is the philosophy behind this review. If the model does not work for all schools then it cannot work for any. All must be dragged to the same level. The thought of empowering the underperformers is foreign to this Government, they only know control. For that reason, the Tomorrow’s Schools review will be a political tinderbox.