Centralism attacks Tomorrow’s Schools

Published in Insights, The New Zealand Initiative’s newsletter, 14 December 2018

Few countries centralise government power as much as New Zealand. In most areas of public life, Wellington calls the shots, makes the rules, and holds the purse strings.

Yet, at least in one area of public policy, New Zealand is much devolved: education. Since the rollout of Tomorrow’s Schools in 1989, our schools have enjoyed relative autonomy and self-governance.

That may end if the Government implements recommendations from the Tomorrow’s Schools Review taskforce.

The taskforce’s starting point is a sobering stock-take of New Zealand’s education performance. It states that our performance in international education rankings has declined. It notes the large gaps between students from different socioeconomic and ethnic backgrounds. It reminds us that school attendance varies between schools of different deciles.

All these issues are real and deeply concerning.

The problem with the taskforce’s report is not the description of the deplorable status quo but its recommendations.

The taskforce proposes to take powers away from schools’ boards of trustees. It wants to shift them to regional ‘education hubs’ and reduce competition between schools. It also wants to move principals between schools and allow them to run multiple schools at once.

How such measures would fix the identified problems is unclear.

Over the past six years, the Initiative has identified serious issues in our education system and believes bold reform is needed to fix them. We have also made recommendations to improve assessment practices and the curriculum.

New Zealand needs to make teaching a more attractive career. We must develop better ways to measure, monitor and manage school performance. We must create an assessment regime that holds all students, regardless of background, to high expectations.

We must also encourage schools to ignore Ministry advice where it is not backed by robust evidence. For example, the Ministry’s Numeracy Project, its predilection for ‘innovative’ learning environments, and its support of Reading Recovery.

The Initiative will present further proposals next year using the Integrated Data Infrastructure. IDI is giving us new tools to more accurately measure school performance and evaluate education policies.

New Zealand’s decentralised education system has issues. But they are caused by those elements of our system still controlled by the centre: teacher career paths, NCEA, funding and the curriculum.

Yes, New Zealand needs education reform. But reform does not equal greater central control. Instead, reforms should better empower parents, boards and principals.

Sadly, the taskforce recommends the opposite.