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Tomorrow's School Review - little to lose and much to gain

As the sun set on the school year in 2018, the Tomorrow’s School Independent Taskforce published their report and recommendations. The taskforce looked to review the education system at large, with a particular focus on the ways in which are schools are governed, led and resourced. The report is a weighty tome, coming in at 144 pages and presenting “a package” that identified eight key issues and 32 recommendations with a focus on “developing a system that promotes equity and excellence and ensures that every learner achieves educational success”.

The report is as courageous as it is polarizing and whilst the report and recommendations are detailed, they can, in their relative brevity, leave enough space to enable some to presume the worst. The recent months have seen many responses which represent a diverse range of voices and views - the loudest of which seem to be those driven by ideological positions and a desire to continue to reap the benefits of one’s “luck” and protecting the advantages that come with a well-resourced school and a well-heeled community.

The report focuses on eight key issues: governance and the fact that the Board of Trustees self-governing model is not working consistently well across the country; schooling provision and the idea that the nature, type, provision, and accessibility of meaningful schooling for all New Zealanders is inadequate; competition and choice with unhealthy competition between schools having significantly increased as a result of the self-governing school model; disability and learning support arguing that students with learning support requirements should have the same access to schooling as other students; teaching, noting the quality of teaching is the major ‘in school’ influence on student success but our teacher workforce strategies are currently left wanting; school leadership which is central to school improvement; school resourcing which is currently inadequate; and central education agencies such as ERO, Ministry of Education and NZQA who struggle to be as effective as they might be.



The report addresses concerns about equity and the ever increasing gap between the haves and the have-nots and what is ultimately the winners and the losers in our current education system. It attempts to address achievement rates that have plateaued and increasing concerns about principal, teacher and student wellbeing. This is not a report for the faint hearted. Ultimately, this is a report that seeks to address the very real needs of many of our schools and communities, without causing too much to change for those winning at the game of life...and school.

Recommendations one, two and three talk about the roles of boards of trustees (BOTs) to be reoriented so that their core responsibilities are to provide input into, and retain final approval of: the appointment of the principal, the school’s strategic and annual plan; be responsible for managing and reporting on locally raised funds; provide advice to the principal on matters related to: student wellbeing, belonging, student success and achievement; localised curriculum and assessment practices; property, finances, health and safety and any other matters. The clincher, however, is that school and BOTs will work with the new cog in the educational machine - a local Education Hub.

The Education Hub is presented as an opportunity to create local support that is to be untethered from the layers of bureaucracy that is so often prevalent in the Ministry of Education. The hubs have the potential to play a pivotal role in creating what could be a new more efficient educational ecosystem which will hopefully be given the freedom to respond to schools and the communities as needed. It is important to remember that for every well-heeled, well resourced school in a major city, there are literally hundreds of small schools and school leaders who struggle to resource and run their schools whilst also fulfilling, often single-handedly, the responsibilities around property, business, ground keeping and if you’re lucky still have time for that rather important job of teaching and learning. These same communities and schools often struggle to appoint board members with a range of useful skills, in fact they often struggle to appoint board members at all.

Our educational landscape is far from a level playing field and quite frankly the idea of hubs being on hand to support governance responsibilities around business and property and also provide professional development and teacher support is a gift to any principal who wishes to be a leader of learning, even it might mean we may need to relinquish the notion of being an entirely self-governing school. Some have been quick to paint this as a complete handing over of governance to hubs and ultimately a loss of much cherished control. The report actually explains that this will not be the case. It will, however, be an opportunity for schools and BOTs to access much needed localised support.

Other areas of concern have focused on the suggestion that Education Hubs would provide principals with ongoing employment (rather than the school) and that hubs would work with the BOT (who would retain final say) to appoint principals to a particular school on a five year contract, stating “this would allow Education Hubs to provide opportunities for principals to gain experience in a variety of school settings and to contribute where their expertise is most needed across the community of schools.” It is understandable why this might rattle cages, with principals quite rightly enjoying the security of their current (permanent) contracts, in roles they have fought hard to win. But it is important to note that this is a concern that has already been addressed by Bali Haque (Chair of the Tomorrow’s Schools Independent Taskforce) when he recently reassured a group of secondary school principals stating that this would simply represent an opportunity for a review and a conversation every five years, not, as many have portrayed it, as an opportunity to yank principals out of one school and plop them in another at will. It does, however, represent the challenge of a review and a report being presented without the important detail that may allay what are very real and valid concerns.

On the whole, it is important to see this review for what it is. It is a courageous yet ultimately carefully thought through “package of recommendations” which seeks to provide support where it is needed whilst leaving enough space and flexibility for those already succeeding to continue to do so. Yes, there are recommendations that may prove uncomfortable for some and downright challenging for those who struggle to see themselves as a mere cog within a much larger machine. This is not a report which panders to the winners in the current context, it is report that seeks to support those who genuinely need it whilst protecting much of what is great about our education system - schools that are encouraged to reflect the needs and flavour of their community, developing a localised curriculum and simply enhancing it by providing more responsive localised support.

The only real concern is we are not brave enough nor selfless enough to support changes that might benefit our entire educational system for fear of relinquishing perceived notions of control. Of course no report is perfect, and with 32 recommendations to consider the devil will be in the detail and the proof will be in the pudding. There is always the risk of unintended consequences (as there was with the Picot Report in 1988) and there is the very real risk of some of the richness of these recommendations being lost in implementation and any plans being so slow to roll out that little, if any, gain is seen or felt for years to come. But on reflection, even when we consider all of these factors, the Tomorrow’s School Report creates a vision for tomorrow where there is little to lose and much to gain.

Read the full report here to form your own opinions: https://conversation.education.govt.nz/assets/TSR/Tomorrows-Schools-Review-Report-13Dec2018.PDF

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