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Speech N Smith - School Trustees Conference

Embargoed until delivery May be subject to change at delivery


Address to

New Zealand School Trustees Association Annual Conference

Convention Centre, Christchurch Friday 23 July 1999, 10.30am

Today I am here to give a vote of confidence in parents' governance of schools and I'm also here to give you confidence in my Government's vision for schools. I want to acknowledge the good work of your President Owen Edgerton, and your General Manager Ray Newport, and most of all to you, the trustees of our schools who toil week in week out to give this country's children the best education possible.

Some people think that being Minister of Education is a dog of a job. They're wrong. Each time I visit a school I walk out the gate brimming with pride at all the effort and the energy that trustees, teachers and principals are putting into the school.

A few weeks ago I attended the re-union of Victory School in Nelson. A dear old guy with a walking stick tapped me on the shoulder and introduced himself as the School's Principal back in the 1950's. He was amused by the fact that he was a Principal before I was born, and started to give me a rendition on education policy. I was expecting the tired old rhetoric about 'being better in my day'! I got the opposite. This guy did a rave about the progress in the school over the last decade. He said he had never seen so many people in the staffroom, and they were bright and committed. He said he loved the way that parents were involved in the running of the school. He was envious of the Principal who could get on and make so many of his own decisions without some Education Board bureaucrat second guessing him. He said he couldn't believe the flash new admin area and the fact that it didn't look the same as every other school and when he saw the pupils working at their computers and the kapa haka group and the musical performance of the children he said "my goodness we've come along way under Tomorrow's Schools".

He's right, and the story of Victory School is repeated a thousand times over around New Zealand. I haven't become all starry eyed. There are schools that are not matching up. They can't be ignored and I want to talk today about initiatives to improve them. But they are a very small minority. The vast majority of our schools today are better managed, more inclusive, better staffed and delivering better education than they ever have.

Many a politician would love to claim the credit for this success. They would be kidding themselves. The accolades belong to the 35,000 New Zealanders who, during the last decade, have let their names go forward and served on their school's board of trustees. To paraphrase Winston Churchill, we have given them the tools and they have done the job.

You have probably noted the debate over the last couple of months about excessive payouts to board members and the review of crown entities. What you probably don't know is that school boards are crown entities too. While the public squirms about some government boards milking the system, the reality is that we milk huge energy and commitment from trustees way beyond the very limited payments school board members receive. Today is an opportunity to acknowledge and thank you for that unpaid work.

At the heart of the philosophy behind Tomorrow's Schools are the words flexibility and choice. I was amused by a quote from one teacher union die-hard who said that the f and c swearwords in the 1990s were flexibility and choice. There are still those who challenge the role of parents in the governance of schools and who want to return to the centralised command and control of yesteryear. Don't be shy of telling the successes of your schools because there are those who would take back that flexibility and choice tomorrow if given half a chance.

Education will always be about getting the very best for children from a limited budget. In this respect, Tomorrow's Schools has been a stunning success. Schools control operational budgets of over $830 million every year. Boards spend this money each year with great care. They shop hard for the best deal. I haven't noted too many boards chartering whisper jets. Board members are closer to the chalk face and recognise that a dollar wasted is a child's education compromised.

While I am pleased to be a cheerleader for what you have achieved over the last decade, we can't sit on our laurels. The knowledge economy of the new century will put more demands than ever on our school system.

Our education policy has got to be forward looking, and continuously focused on how we can drive standards higher.

This year you will have heard me talking about the literacy and numeracy initiative and information technology in schools. These are our two flagships this year. The way the sector, teachers and boards have picked up these challenges have enabled us to get early runs on the board.

Other important programmes include Special Education 2000, on which I made an important announcement last week, and social workers in schools - we will soon be announcing the schools that will get this additional resource.

In the pipeline we have important work on the teacher education green paper, assessment and school qualifications, all of which we will conclude this year.

The teacher education issue is critical. The quality of our education system is only as good as the person standing in front of the classroom. This work will improve both in-service and pre-service training and lay a very sound foundation for the profession in the new century.

But they are this year's issues. Today I want to give you the longer term picture. There are four big challenges in the school sector for whoever is privileged to be Minister of Education in the new century.

The first big challenge concerns school property. Unlike schools' operations grants, which schools themselves totally manage, or staff salaries that schools have a choice to manage, school property is managed in the old style centralised system. It has been described by one of my senior managers as 'akin to a soviet shoe box factory'. It also has parallels with an annual lottery, and schools have no capacity to plan long term. This is a real weakness. We expect schools to plan the way in which they spend their ops grants and their staffing for the long term. But this is deficient without the third leg. It is like a two legged stool. We have done our best to make a bad system work and have made some honest efforts to increase the flexibility. But the system is in need of fundamental reform. Schools should have the choice to manage their own property and to be able to incorporate it into their school's planning.

The challenge will be to develop a flexible system that fairly funds schools to self manage their property for modernisation and roll growth. My hope is to have a pilot on offer by year's end.

The second big challenge is operational funding. I have already stated I have great confidence in the way boards have managed their funding, but I also believe it is timely for an overall review of the operations grant. Like Tomorrow's Schools, it is ten years old. The initial funding formula was more based on historical funding than on need. I don't want to raise expectations that a big dollop of extra funding is in the offering, but rather the debate is about the distribution of that funding.

One Nelson school wanted recognition of their extra grass cutting costs because the sun shines so much. As the chief grass cutter in the household I can vouch that they are probably right, but we will never satisfy every nuance and difference in every community. The challenge will be to make the funding formula more transparent, and for it to more closely reflect the costs that schools actually face. We need to look at whether the funding for our schools in poorer communities is correctly targeted. We need to develop a better system for assisting schools in rural and remote communities who undeniably have extra costs in toll calls, and access to technology and professional development. The bottom line in this work has got to be ensuring that every child in New Zealand, regardless of family wealth, ethnicity or geography gets an equal shot at a good education.

The third big challenge is finding better systems to deal with school failure. In the first instance though, let's put this issue in context. I remember well the wise words of former Prime Minister and Education Minister David Lange that 'bad examples make for bad law'. His point was that no matter how good a structure may be designed, there will always be examples for whom it doesn't work. So it is with Tomorrow's Schools. In 10 years of Tomorrow's Schools, there have been 38 boards resign and 12 dismissed. In percentage terms, this represents half of one percent, or one in two hundred. If the Black Caps or All Blacks had a record like that the entire team would be knighted!

The financial data also shows a pretty good record. The Parliamentary report on NZ Schools tabled a few weeks ago, showed that less than 5% of schools had ongoing deficits. This says that 95% of schools are managing their finances effectively. Reports show that schools had a combined surplus of $34.5 million, and during the eight years covered by the report, schools had built up cash assets of over $200 million. I'm not arguing this shows that schools have got too much money or too little money because frankly I don't think it shows either. What it does show is that schools on the whole have been prudent and careful managers of the taxpayers money they have been entrusted with.

Just because the board hasn't been sacked, or the school hasn't gone broke doesn't necessarily mean that the school is providing our children with a good education. Quality education is hard to measure but it is information we need to know. The Education Review Office has this task and by and large does it well. ERO sets tough standards but you should be proud that over 90% of you meet them. There are those who want to scrap ERO but they are mistaken. You've heard the saying 'don't shoot the messenger'.

While the number of schools that are failing is small, that does not mean we should be complacent about it. A failing school robs its pupils of the education they deserve. We need to do better at addressing and supporting schools that are in trouble. There are not enough options for dealing with failing boards or failing teachers. There needs to be amendments to the powers of the Teacher Registration Board and to the Education Act with respect to boards. The Ministry of Education needs to be more proactive in dealing with schools in trouble. In the past they've been too hands off. The School Support Projects in Northland, East Coast and Otara are examples of the Ministry showing positive leadership. We are also going to have to invest more on the skills front for both boards and principals. We need to be thinking about the sort of training and support that will help make schools hum.

The fourth big issue is the Education Act and its associated regulations. As I work my way through education issues I struggle with a plethora of red tape that would strangle an elephant. Parts of the Act are older than I am, some of the prescriptive regulations read like 'the annual general meeting of each board of trustees shall not be held prior to the fourth full moon of the year during which the dog howls, but before the seventh full moon following lent'.

When I sit the Education Act and Regulations on my desk, they stand taller than my eighteen month old daughter Hazel. I can't find much in the Act or the regulations about the educational development of my daughter into a mature, contributing New Zealander over the next twenty years. Sadly lacking are words like learning, quality, standards and children.

One of the key priorities for the new century has to be a complete overhaul of the Act. I intend to set the ball rolling on the one October 10th anniversary of Tomorrow's Schools by releasing a discussion document. It will ask questions about whether a 'one size fits all' approach is the right one. We need to give better recognition to the differences between a thousand pupil secondary college and a small single teacher school in the back-country. We need to be more open minded about governance structures, and in rural areas give greater flexibility to the idea of a board serving several schools. Some people feel threatened by this review: they should not. It is not driven by some ideological agenda. It is driven by a desire to make the rules work for children, rather than children working for the rules.

Can I conclude this address by telling you what I think I need to do to deliver excellence in education for this country. The first is to maximise the resources I put in your hands and the second is to maximise the flexibility that you have in meeting your pupils needs.

You've seen a track record from this Government consistent with this approach. The most important resource is teachers. We have five thousand more than a decade ago and with those teachers has come improved pupil teacher ratios. And we are paying these teachers more than we ever have. In real terms, primary and secondary teachers, whether new graduates or top of the scale, are receiving higher pay. In the eighties real salaries for our teachers declined. I'm a strong believer that if you want to have good teachers you have to pay good money.

Operations grants have also increased in real terms from $689 in 1990 to $806 in 1999 per pupil. The IT grant is on top of this.

On school property, we have also made some great progress. Today we announce the results of that annual Lotto I spoke of earlier. While I don't like the system, we have not put school development on hold while we find a long term answer. Today I am announcing a billion dollar commitment to school property over the next three years and the specific projects in the $371 million programme this year. Information packs are available at the hand-outs desk on the specific 9400 projects for each school. Tenders will be called for these works over the coming weeks. A further $324 million is provided for next year and $351 million in the following year. This commitment shows National is serious about giving teachers and pupils a standard of school to match our high educational expectation. We want classy classrooms, carpet on the floor, space for computers, and proper resource areas. We want schools with modern libraries, safe playing grounds and administration areas that reflect the demands of Tomorrow's Schools.

Funding is part of this equation but so to is a new property code. The 1970s primary code is grossly out of date and next month we will introduce a new property guide for primary schools.

Finally, may I leave you with this message.

Schools are the foundation of a knowledge economy. The foundation of our nation depends on how well we build that foundation.

Be positive, be passionate, be committed. There is a lot at stake.

© Scoop Media

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