Taskforce report has the future success of all schools and students at its heart

I am heartened with the direction taken by the Tomorrow’s Schools Independent Taskforce. The members recommend system and structural changes which will require far greater ‘working together’ and will ultimately make our schooling futures stronger.

My concerns have long centred around children and teachers in schools serving low-income communities, and how some children’s school-enabled life chances have diminished at the same time as others living in wealthier communities have reaped educational rewards. We have some schools, generally in financially poorer communities, which are inadequately maintained, unhealthy to learn in, and curriculum-wise are under-resourced. It is hard to attract teachers and leaders to such schools. Competition and choice in education have benefited those with the ‘right’ cultural and economic capital, those who understand the education system, and with their financial and networking resources are able to work it to their own children’s advantage. One consequence is that New Zealand’s measured gap in school achievement between financially wealthy communities and low income communities remains one of the widest in those surveyed under UNESCO’s PISA studies. At the same time as schooling standards for some have declined, their living standards have also deteriorated. Children have been attending school while hungry, poorly housed and in poor health. In brief, three decades of competition and choice-based policies have privileged some and failed far too many. The Taskforce review is welcome and well overdue.

I was a Board of Trustees member; the staff representative (teacher) elected in the first election in 1989. I went on to a career in Teacher Education and lecturing at University. Much of my research and focus has been, and is, on the inequities which emerged as Tomorrow’s Schools (TS) policies were embedded. My Doctorate was researched in a school I once taught and governed in, Takiwa school (pseudonym), a Decile 1 area school in Tai Tokerau. In the mid-to-late 1990s there was some optimism regarding what TS permitted and enabled. In Takiwa, a group of what I describe as entrepreneurs (teachers and parents) went to the BOT with a plan to have a school within a school, where children would be taught in vertically grouped classes, using Playcentre as a model for pedagogy. For three years the resulting ‘Kiwi’ classes provided an education which truly met the needs of an opting-in cohort of children, from a low-income rural community. A combination of conditions (including TS) and motivations allowed democratic and participatory voice. It was an inspirational innovation which only concluded when its champions departed the community. Those were halcyon days before the TS policies showed how troublesome, and inequitable, they could be. Takiwa school, like many other Decile 1-3 schools, has struggled in the intervening years.  

Teachers’ hearts rarely leave a school and a community they have happily taught in, even after a physical departure. I am no exception. As I reflected as an academic on education policy and practice, Takiwa School and its community remained a key referral point. In the last 15 or so years, post the Kiwi initiative, Takiwa School has struggled. Driving past often showed very tired buildings, badly in need of maintenance and a paint. The roll has dropped dramatically even though it provides the only secondary schooling within a 50km radius – both primary and secondary students are currently bussed or driven to other schools. The falling roll means that primary school classes are limited in number, and of necessity they are vertically grouped. The subjects offered at secondary level are restricted because student numbers for some subjects are too low to employ a specialist teacher. The school houses are still there but many show signs of neglect. Principals have come and gone on a far too regular basis, some are ‘relievers’ and some have had limited previous leadership experience. It is difficult for the school to attract experienced teachers, as choosing to apply for a teaching position also involves making a lifestyle choice. Professional learning and development (PLD) in isolated areas is often hard to locate and expensive to access, hence teachers can be professionally shortchanged and disadvantaged. At the same time dedicated professionals and BOTs have done their very best to provide a high standard of schooling; this community undoubtedly cares about its children and their education.

If the recommendations come to fruition, how might schools in low-income communities, like Takiwa, benefit from the changes signaled? While far from being an exhaustive list, here are some possibilities:  An Education Hub will support BOTs and take away some of the more onerous aspects of their work, such as property maintenance. There will be greater stability in school leadership, with the Hub being responsible for Principal appointments. Leadership advisors will support the Principal, who will be in the role for up to five years. The BOT will not be the employer of staff, thus diluting potential tensions and conflicts of interest which can emerge in isolated communities such as Takiwa. Mana whenua representation will be compulsory (Takiwa has always met this requirement, in a natural way through the election process). School rolls will likely stabilise as limits will be placed on other schools recruiting out-of-zone students. A Learning Support Coordinator will be appointed in each school, and specialist staff for children with special needs will be more easily accessible through the Education Hub. Staff PLD will be more readily available and accessible. Equity resourcing will mean school’s operational, staffing and property formulas will increase.

All in all, this feels to me like an indicator for positive change in Decile 1-3 schools. The report therefore is more than welcome, as is the emerging debate. I hope we move quickly beyond the ‘dancing Cossack-like’ put-downs in recent media releases to genuine and considered dialogue, using the report as an essential and welcome springboard. Yes, it appears that there will be greater equity (read fairness) in the schooling system. There are, however, strong signals that there will be significant levels of ongoing autonomy. This document does not point to a return to what we had before TS, it rather tries to genuinely find a way forward which consciously precludes the chances of their being losers in New Zealand’s education system. Our country cannot afford a choice-based and competitive education system which consistently fails children according to their economic circumstances – all children must have every opportunity to succeed and all need to be educated to their potential. Kia ora.

Feedback on the recommendations is possible before 7 April 2019.

A registered primary school teacher, Dr Vicki Carpenter has taught and/or held leadership positions in Porirua, Manurewa, Tekapo, Karetu, Moerewa, and the Hokianga. More recently, Vicki lectured at the University of Auckland in initial and postgraduate teacher education. With a strong interest in Freirean pedagogy, Vicki’s research centres on schooling in low SES (urban and rural) communities, teacher education, and sexual orientation issues in teacher education.  

Currently Vicki is a second term elected Board member and Deputy Chairperson of the New Zealand Council for Educational Research, and Chairperson of its Audit and Risk sub-committee. She is a monitor of Teacher Education programmes for the Education Council.

She is co-editor of Twelve thousand hours: Education and poverty in Aotearoa, New Zealand (2014, Dunmore), and has co-edited five other education texts. Vicki has published and co-published a wide range of articles and chapters. Social justice and issues surrounding equity are central themes in her research and writings.