A glimmer of hope for our schools

A small glimmer of hope for our schools passed almost unnoticed last week in a comment to Radio New Zealand by Minister of Education Steve Maharey.

Maharey was agreeing with an educational academic that it was time for a review of Tomorrow’s Schools. He said the government would “have a look” after the school Board of Trustee elections next year. He said while Labour supported the BOT model it could perhaps be improved. This is an understatement of mammoth proportion.

Tomorrow’s Schools came in as education policy in 1989 after a government-appointed taskforce led by supermarket businessman Brian Picot recommended a radical change to the way we run our schools. The Picot Report as it was called became the blueprint for Tomorrow’s Schools and inevitably the model had an unequivocal business focus.

Although it was never presented to the public in such a bald fashion, the model the Labour government adopted was based on schools competing for students – just like supermarkets compete for customers or baked bean manufacturers compete for market share. The idea was that the “best” schools would attract the most students and the “worst” schools where student numbers dropped would close like a failed business.

Picot’s model was sold as giving schools more autonomy to respond to local needs, make their own decisions and give a better education (“meet the learning needs of their local children”) without interference from “educational bureaucrats” which it was claimed were stifling education and holding back our schools and our children.

The new dawn of Tomorrow’s Schools we were told would bring parents to the heart of their children’s education. They would have a real say in the running the schools while schools themselves would adapt to local concerns and priorities. Parents would have more power and more choice with schools as liberated zones for innovation and creativity under the control of their communities.

At the time I was teaching at a school in a low income community and our Maori principal returned from a government briefing with a bright fire in his eyes as he described the unleashed potential the new model would create for our school. At last, he told us, we would be able to make plans for the school together with the community and respond to local needs. We would be freed from the heavy hand of bureaucracy.

Within just 2 years however the tale of Tomorrows Schools became a tale of disparity and educational failure.

Across the country schools in high-income communities flourished. They had highly skilled BOTs – plenty of accountants, lawyers and such like – who managed the new system well. Schools in low income communities struggled. All the goodwill in the world from their parents could never hope to make up for the lack of critical skills needed to oversee the management of a complex school community.

When the support structures were stripped away from these schools with the abolishing of Education Boards they were left to sink or swim. Many sank but it wasn’t the government which got the blame but the BOTs made up of hardworking, well meaning parents.

The Education Review Office reinforced the market model and mercilessly slayed struggling schools instead of condemning the appalling conditions in which their demoralised staff, unskilled BOT, crumbling buildings and decrepit classrooms were expected to operate.  The whole structure was a cruel hoax whereby the educational equivalent of Labour’s economic reforms of the 1980’s were introduced into our public schools.

National accelerated the damage in the 1990’s and once again the brunt of the reforms were worn by those schools and communities already hugely disadvantaged.

Is it any surprise that while students in our high and middle-income communities compete with the best anywhere in the world New Zealand has a long tail of underachievement from schools in our low-income communities? The Tomorrow’s Schools debacle is the reason. Many parents lost their most important choice – a high quality school in their local neighbourhood.

Since the mid 1990’s some small concessions have been introduced to put additional resources into schools in low-income communities but it amounts to little compared to the quantum of damage inflicted. Even today a typical decile 10 school in a high income community has 25% more income per student than a decile one school where the learning needs are much greater. The extra resources for schools in low income communities is swamped by school “donations” and the fees from foreign fee-paying student at other schools.

Under Tomorrow’s Schools the quality of education is increasingly dependent of the ability of parents to pay fees instead of being provided by the government at the same high quality to all children irrespective of their parents’ income.

Tomorrow’s schools doesn’t need the tinkering Maharey suggests. It needs a complete overhaul.