Dramatic change to education system looming

Updated

Education Minister Chris Hipkins has announced a sector-wide review. Photo: Lynn Grieveson

Education officials will be in for a hectic year after the announcement of sweeping reforms that will stretch from early childhood to the tertiary sector. Shane Cowlishaw reports.

Potential changes to the education system could see boards of trustees scrapped, more money pumped into infrastructure and a pivot away from assessment-based learning.

Alongside work on solving the teacher shortage and reforming the school property system, it will review the policy that underpins the current education sector.

In 1989, then-Education Minister David Lange announced the introduction of a new education system dubbed ‘Tomorrow’s Schools’ that completely changed the way New Zealand schools were governed.

It gave schools more independence by introducing its own form of governance in boards of trustees, making them responsible for the schools financial and administrative duties.

But after three decades and numerous tweaks, the new Government believes Tomorrow’s Schools has made schools too competitive and focused on increasing their rolls. 

The current review, part of a coalition agreement with New Zealand First to create a 30-year education approach free from meddling by successive governments, is designed to have a similar impact to Lange’s reforms and is the most comprehensive changes proposed since then.

Education Minister Chris Hipkins, who has spent years as opposition education spokesperson criticising the National government, has backed up his calls for broad reform with a huge piece of work.

A Cabinet paper on the proposal states that there will be two Education Amendment Bills introduced this year, one shortly that will make simple changes and another later on to tackle more complex issues.

A new Education Act will also be developed by 2020.

Several pieces of work will be undertaken in the first year of the three-year plan, including:

  • Developing a plan for Early Childhood Education (ECE) reform and a review of home-based ECE.
  • A review of Tomorrow’s Schools
  • Developing a future-focused Education Workforce Strategy
  • An action plan for teaching children with special needs
  • A reform of school property
  • A shake-up of institutes of technology and polytechnics
  • Improving education research
  • An NCEA review
  • Work to improve Maori and Pasifika achievement.

Two education summits will also be held in May in Christchurch and Auckland with an aim to involve all education stakeholders in the changes.

Hipkins said there would be more funding for school infrastructure but was cagey when asked if boards of trustees would go.

He said Communities of Learning (where neighbouring schools share some resources and teachers), introduced under the previous government, had been introduced to reduce competitiveness, but in some ways had undermined boards so more clarity was needed about who made decisions.

While there would be some quick wins, such as improvements in learning support for children in need, other changes would take time.

“Education does take a while to turn the ship around if you like, I think parents will start to notice a difference within a short space of time though.”

“Creaks” that have turned into “fault lines”

Education experts spoken to about the announcement were positive in their assessment, praising the reform programme’s wide-ranging scope and inclusiveness.

Cathy Wylie, chief researcher at the New Zealand Council for Education Research, said surveys they undertook every three years had shown a creeping malaise in the profession and a sense that the policy settings were off.

“I think [the reforms] are pretty comprehensive and it is tackling core issues that needed to be tackled. We’ve had a system that has developed quite a few creaks and stresses and I think you needed something coherent.

“They’re quite deep creaks, maybe I should talk about fault lines.”

Wylie believed there was an over-focus on measurement, assessment and accountability, which had led to a distrust between schools and the Ministry of Education.

Victoria University’s dean of education David Crabbe was also largely positive about the announcement, which he believed was overdue.

“The bigger picture is every system needs some sort of overhaul every now and again.

"You start with a system and you keep tweaking it and tweaking it and tweaking it and eventually, it gets to the point where people no longer has an eye on how the little bits are working together to make one big system.”

He agreed the education sector was leaning too far towards rigid accountability, rather than the flexibility needed for a creative system. But he was disappointed the plan did not include any work on improving the teaching of second languages.

“It’s always been there as a goal. People agree it’s good in principle but nothing is ever done about it. I think as a nation we’re impoverished by not having a wide competence in international languages.”

No faith in Minister

National was quick to criticise the plan.

Paul Goldsmith, the former Tertiary Education Minister, said the Government had spent so much on its fees-free policy that it would struggle to find any money to make significant changes, while the party’s education spokesperson Nikki Kaye said she had little faith that Hipkins would get the job done.

“The Minister so far has demonstrated he has been pretty rushed and ideological and not that good at implementing things, we’ve seen that with National Standards and partnership schools.

“I think what we wouldn’t be doing is leaving it as open as the Minister has and creating a whole lot of summits and taskforces without a whole lot of clarity and detail about where the changes need to occur.”

The state of school’s infrastructure has been a growing concern for the sector and it remains to be seen whether the Government will be able to find the money to significantly increase funding in the area.

Kaye defended the previous Government’s work on infrastructure, claiming National had “inherited a mess” from the previous Labour government and had improved the situation by introducing a condition assessment of property.

“The reality is we inherited a school property system where no-one had any clue what the condition assessments were of buildings.

“We put the systems in place, we spent more than them, over $5b, so if there are changes to be made around that we don’t have to wait three years.”