Bryce Edwards: The Case against major school reform

Bryce Edwards: The Case against major school reform

Debate has now kicked off over the Government’s most radical reforms to date – the overhaul of the way our schools are run. With the release of the “Tomorrow’s Schools Independent Taskforce” proposals for change, there is now a polarised and highly-ideological battle involving important values that will inform the future of education in this country. Today I’ll round up opposition so far to the proposed reforms and tomorrow’s column will look at the case in favour of the reforms.

I wrote about this ideological battle in a column on Wednesday, in which I outlined the clear left-right divide on how education should be organised – see: The sound of ideologies clashing. This points out that the status quo results from the fact that “David Lange’s 1988 Tomorrow’s Schools reforms saw traditional rightwing values of competition, choice, and performance win the day.”

In contrast, the Government’s new taskforce report is putting forward “a very leftwing proposal for reforming how New Zealand runs its school system, based on values of collectivism, cooperation, and equality.” In the end, therefore, even though there is “much less black and white than many on the left and right might suggest”, the likely success of failure of the new proposals to get public support will depend simply on “on whether the leftwing or rightwing values resonate more. It’s a simple left or right choice.”

The details of the proposed reforms are well covered by Simon Collins who draws attention to the polarised nature of the debate: “Battle lines are drawn over a proposed radical shake-up of the education system which has brought excited praise from liberals but condemnation as ‘Stalinist’ from more traditional schools” – see his news report, ‘Stalinist’ or ‘exciting’: Battle begins over radical school reforms.

Summing up the proposals, Collins says: “The taskforce would reverse key changes made in the last big reforms known as ‘Tomorrow’s Schools’ in 1989, when regional education boards were abolished and every school was given control of its operations budget and staff appointments.” Collins reports that conservative forces have tended to condemn the proposals, with more liberal institutions being supportive.

Another useful account of the details can be found in Derek Cheng’s Tomorrow’s Schools Review: All you need to know about the proposed education shake-up.

The most fervent critique of the proposals so far, comes from Matthew Hooton, who says: “No one should doubt the proposed radicalism” of the reforms, which are so extreme they go to show the new “regime has a further, much more sinister character” than was previously apparent – see: Education plan seeks far-left reform.

Hooton views the debate over the future of schooling as very much a left-right battle: “The main ideological divide in education is about comfort with difference. Perhaps surprisingly, the political right tends to be more encouraging than the left of innovation in schools.”

Hooton says that on the other hand, “the left’s main educational value is equality. That includes trying to help disadvantaged communities but it also requires tackling perceived privilege and achieving greater standardisation.”

According to Hooton, ironically it’s the current system that has produced a less entrenched private schooling system: “The only winners from last week’s education proposals will be private schools and children with parents able to afford them. Before David Lange’s Tomorrow’s Schools in 1989, private schools were in such demand that children were put on waiting lists the day they were born. Thirty years later, private school enrolments have fallen from 4.1 per cent of all students to just 3.4 per cent and they now resort to advertising. The reasons are complex, but one is Lange’s vision of freeing state schools to better reflect the values and priorities of their communities.”

Therefore, Hooton emphasises the benefits of devolution in the current model, which would be put at risk by the changes: “Sometimes this involves fairly trivial matters, like new school uniforms. More importantly, it has been about schools adopting different pedagogies and programmes that meet the needs of their particular communities and students, without first needing to apply to some centralised district board.”

Hooton also challenges the independence of the so-called “Independent” review, pointing out that its chair is also “the chairman of the New Plymouth Labour Party”. An Otago Daily Times editorial questions this too: “Parenthetically, it can be noted the ‘independent’ claim for the taskforce is – as is often the case with inquiries – hardly convincing. Taskforce chairman Bali Haque wrote a book criticising the secondary school system, and he has also been on the PPTA executive and president of the Secondary Principals’ Association.”

Although not against the proposals per se, the Otago Daily Times raises strong questions about them – see: ‘Stalinist’ or ‘exciting’ education change. The editorial makes it clear that the proposals are a big deal, and relate to a large ideological gulf: “Should the review’s recommendations be carried out, they would represent an upheaval of major magnitude, larger some say than even the radical changes from 1989’s Tomorrow’s Schools. Little wonder, then, that those supporting ‘parental choice’ and those wanting a ‘fairer’ system could be a long way apart.”

The editorial has a long list of questions which is worth listing at length: “Will schools and teachers be less inclined to strive for the very best in a less competitive environment? Will connections with communities be weakened and voluntary support lessened? Will parents and pupils have fewer choices and will the diversity of schools’ flavours be reduced? Will school boards become just advisory bodies without real power? Supposedly, they and principals would have more time and energy to concentrate on pupil achievement. But are not the likes of the appointment of the principal and even board nitty-gritty fundamental to pupil success? What about the bureaucracies created by the hubs? Why could not their roles and their advice be provided by a strengthened ministry? Could collaboration rather than competition be fostered in other ways?”

Some education sector groups and individuals have come out in opposition to the reforms. For example, RNZ reports that “Auckland Grammar headmaster Tim O’Connor says proposed reforms to the education system are a direct and serious attack on state education” – see: Headmaster slams radical proposals for schools.

O’Connor is reported as believing “the proposed changes would set education back 30 years. He said parents would be disempowered if functions of school boards were moved to education hubs”. He is quoted as saying too much power will be taken away from parents: “So they lose all governance responsibilities; they have nothing to do with school finances; they have nothing to do with school property…. Effectively what they [the taskforce] need to be honest about is they’re not a board of trustees; they’re an advisory group at best”.

Similarly, this news report says, “Briar Lipson from the think tank, the New Zealand Initiative, is concerned that reducing competition between schools will reduce incentives for them to lift their performance.”

Another elite school principal, Brent Lewis of Avondale College, is quoted by Simon Collins as labelling the proposals as “Stalinist” due to their apparent attempts to regain bureaucratic and centralised control – see: Big schools vow to resist ‘Stalinist’ school bureaucracy. He’s reported as believing that “schools needed to be nimble to respond to social and economic changes”, and that “bureaucracies are almost the antithesis of that”.

Lewis also believes the proposals will be deeply unpopular with parents: “If we apply this model, we will force large numbers of people to go to schools they don’t want to go to…. The political cost of that will be extremely high. You can do many things in New Zealand, but if you mess with people’s children and their life opportunities, then good luck to you”.

The same article reports that the Principals Federation is uncomfortable with the “proposal to rotate principals around schools with only five-year terms in each school”. And Act Party leader David Seymour is quoted opposing the reforms: “This is an intrusion on the autonomy of schools and will undermine communities’ ability to develop their own property by removing it and placing it in the hands of a remote bureaucracy”.

Similarly, National Party blogger David Farrar opposes the proposals on the basis that they would take away power and choice of families: “this is basically to force kids to attend their local school no matter how shitty or crappy it is. No more choice. You will go to the school the Government tells you to attend and like it. This will send house prices even higher in areas with desirable schools” – see: Govt taskforce proposes stripping school boards of all meaningful roles.

Coming from a different perspective, principal of Te Wharekura o Manurewa, Maahia Nathan, says the proposals “will not benefit Māori students in mainstream schools” – see Mānia Clarke’s Wharekura principal critical of education review.

Nathan says, “The core of the mainstream education system is still there. Nothing has really changed… the pieces on the board game have been moved around, but it’s still the same.”

Finally, the Government’s taskforce is now seeking feedback on the proposals – you can get more information on this and the report here: Tomorrow’s Schools Review.