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Review of the Tomorrow’s Schools Model

Review of the Tomorrow’s Schools Model

Very Important People Supporting (VIPS) – Equity in Education is an online group of students, parents, educators, and specialists advocating for a fairer inclusive education system for students with additional learning needs. Despite our diverse backgrounds, we have consistently experienced the significant unfairness created by New Zealand’s Tomorrow’s Schools self-governing school system. We ask, for the benefit of all New Zealanders, that this model is formally reviewed.

Nowhere else in the developed world is a governing board of volunteer parent ‘trustees’ given the full legal responsibility of school management without an appropriate ‘check or balance’ of their conduct by an external body. When combined with severely limited government funding, ‘modern learning environments’, narrow initial teacher education, and the emphasis of academic success through ‘National Standards’, many schools are steered towards the exclusion of some students (and their families), rather than meeting the rights to safe inclusive education that are enshrined in international conventions and domestic legislation.

Lack of Oversight

When issues arise, the Ministry of Education fails to enforce a student’s rights, despite having overall responsibility for the sector, administering all funding, and issuing extensive ‘guidelines’. School boards are specifically excluded from monitoring by the State Services Commission.

The Education Review Office, whose role is to ‘evaluate and report on the education and care of students in schools and early childhood services’, refuses to investigate parent complaints. Reviews seldom include any communication with the actual service users, but instead assessment of key legal obligations are met through the board’s ‘Self-Review’ and ‘Board Assurance Statement’. This means inclusiveness and student wellbeing is never independently measured, scrutinised or addressed.

The Ombudsman may review board processes but can only make recommendations. In cases of discrimination, a school board can simply refuse to participate in the free mediation offered by the Human Rights Commission. Worksafe New Zealand refers parents of harmed students back to the Ministry of Education. This is an endless cycle of no accountability, to the detriment of our children’s welfare.
At present, the only way school board decisions can be reviewed is through expensive court action, with access to legal aid specifically denied. The end result is a significant power imbalance between school management and the families they represent. Challenging a decision involves taking to court your parent peers, a formidable course of action that can cause rifts in a community. Most parents just quietly go elsewhere, sometimes have to approach multiple schools to find a safe supportive environment.

Negative Experiences

Our parents, students, staff and specialists have shared their numerous bad school experiences in our online forum: https://goo.gl/GK43QH. Significant common themes include:

- insufficient in-class or specialist support being available

- little to no appropriate staff training

- students being turned away at enrolment by the principal

- staff ignoring specialist advice

- students excluded from education outside the classroom

- students are mistreated, including bullying, seclusion and restraint

- parent complainants are treated with contempt by both the staff and board

- board investigations ‘whitewashing’ any incidents

- breaches of privacy

- subsequent retaliation for making a complaint

- hiding of evidence and stonewalling

- ostracisation of students and their families

- prioritising staff over students

- not recognising conflicts of interest

- boards failing to advocate for additional support to meet student needs.

Parents describe feeling exhausted, distressed, socially ostracised and disillusioned through the consistent lack of education and health support. In a survey of our members, approximately 50% of respondents felt they had been bullied out of a school. The few supportive inclusive schools, are the result of passionate, hardworking teaching staff and parent trustees, who are rewarded by being overloaded with more enrolments, without any recognition or additional funding to meet their community’s needs.

We have repeatedly tried to bring our plight to the attention of the current government to no avail. Both Education Ministers and the Disability Commissioner have refused to hear our concerns, despite numerous similar adverse experiences being submitted to the Education Select Committee at the recent ‘Inquiry into the identification and support for students with the significant challenges of dyslexia, dyspraxia, and autism spectrum disorders’ and updates to the Education Act. Students with additional learning needs continue to face overwhelming barriers to inclusion and success, which causes ongoing distress to and financial strain on their families.

Other Evidence

We are not alone, critical submissions and reports on the Tomorrow’s Schools model have also been produced by the Human Rights Commission, Post Primary Teachers Association, New Zealand Principals Federation, Cognition Education Research Trust, Education Review, Inclusive Education Action Group, YouthLaw, and education researchers and commentators.

There have been significant examples in the media where school self-governance has contributed to the mistreatment of our students, including the use of physical restraint and seclusion, inappropriate relationships with staff, stand-downs, exclusions, and sexual abuse. Boards have sometimes not been properly monitoring what is occurring in their schools, and then failed to act in good faith when concerns are raised. They then attract significant sympathy because they are simply parent volunteers, entrusted with a responsibility beyond their skill level.

One in 16 New Zealand schools have required statutory intervention, including nearly 85% of decile one schools. We now have a recognised deepening socio-economic divide in education, and are world-leading in school bullying and youth suicide. It is time deeper questions are asked of our school management system.

Proposed Changes

The National Party’s plans of further in-school testing, funding based on a risk index, Communities of Online Learning, Communities of Learning and achievement challenges, and changes to learning support delivery will potentially only add further layers of bureaucracy and motivation for schools to exclude. The real “lipstick on a pig”, they do not address the lack of funding, equity, continuity and accountability in the underlying system, or the overwhelming workload and responsibility placed on teachers.

The proposed Ministry of Education parent disputes resolution process is also inadequate. The Ministry is in no way independent, it will still not have any authority to enforce decisions, and fails to recognise the stress and effects the complaint process has on students and their families, and the subsequent retaliatory fallout that ensues from bringing a complaint against your parent peers. The system needs to be improved so that student rights are recognised and there is less cause for complaints to arise in the first place. Any dispute resolution needs to be conducted by an independent body with the power to intervene.

Suggestions

We therefore implore all political parties to consider the following:

- a full review of the Tomorrow’s Schools model

- a full survey of all students actual additional learning needs, including behavioural, mental wellbeing, and academic support

- an improved monitoring system which actually engages with the users of the education service

- Ministry of Education guidelines become enforceable policies which are consistent across all schools

- an independent complaint resolution service that provides advocacy and advice to parents including from the early stages (like the Health and Disability Commission)

- clear promulgation and enforcement of student rights in education (like existing patient rights)

Conclusion

There is overwhelming evidence that, for many of us, the current system is failing our children. Unless a full and frank review of the underlying system is conducted, and actual additional student learning needs are identified and acknowledged, then a large number of students will continue to fall through the cracks. Every child has the right to access safe and supported education to the best of their ability at their local school, and teachers have the right to feel safe and supported in their classroom, but we currently have no way of upholding those rights.

Our education system is currently world-leading for all the wrong reasons. We need strong leadership to push for a positive change in education that will benefit all students. Please listen to the consistent, united voice of the education sector and take action so we can have a better fairer future for all.

The VIPS – Equity in Education Team

vips4equity@gmail.com

www.facebook.com/groups/vips4equity


ENDS


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