Education Minister Hekia Parata is overseeing the biggest revamp of New Zealand's education system in nearly 30 years - with some of the reforms highly controversial and sparking protest. Political reporter Nicholas Jones looks at what the changes will mean for students, parents and schools.

Starting school

Schools will be able to choose to have new entrants start in groups at set times of the year under the Education Act changes.

New Zealand's current system is to allow children to start on their 5th birthday, and require consistent attendance only from the age of 6.

Under the new cohort option, students would be able to start school from the beginning of the term closest to their fifth birthday - however, parents would not be made to enrol their child until the age of 6, as is presently the case.

• READ MORE: First day, and kids are speechless

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The earliest children could start is up to eight weeks before they turn 5.

Another change is to make it compulsory for new entrants to keep attending school after their first day. Currently, children don't have to attend until they are 6, even if they have started school.

That change is designed to address the problem of children starting school aged 5 and then attending sporadically until their next birthday.
(Education Amendment change)

Online schooling could worsen that problem. But a key driver behind National's education reforms is giving parents choice. Photo / 123RF
Online schooling could worsen that problem. But a key driver behind National's education reforms is giving parents choice. Photo / 123RF

Online learning

The law will be changed to allow all school-age children to enrol in an accredited online learning provider instead of attending school.

Any registered school, tertiary provider such as a polytechnic or an approved private company or organisation will be able to apply to be a "community of online learning" (COOL).

More than 4000 secondary students already travel out of West Auckland and a net 3000 from South Auckland each day for schooling, a situation that leaves some local schools struggling to attract enrolments.

Online schooling could worsen that problem. But a key driver behind National's education reforms is giving parents choice.

Each COOL will determine whether students will need to physically attend for all or some of the school day. Such detail would be provided before the Education Minister signs-off accreditation.

The existing correspondence school, Te Aho o Te Kura Pounamu, will become the first accredited online provider.

The innovation of Kiwi companies like Xero was cited by Parata in making a case for allowing private companies to apply to be COOLs.

In the United States, there has been strong growth in the number of online charter schools, which are publicly-funded but privately-run.

Education unions and opposition parties here say the experience of online schooling in the US is woeful.
(Education Amendment change)

Hekia Parata has indicated the
Hekia Parata has indicated the "global budget" idea will be scrapped. Photo / Mark Mitchell

Taking more control from schools

The Government will be given beefed-up powers to step-in in the cases of schools with persistent student underachievement or other issues.

Currently a commissioner or statutory manager can be placed in complete or partial control of a school's management.

The new legislation will give four new options to intervene which could be used earlier - what officials are calling a "graduated response".

These include a case conference, specialist audit, performance notice and a statutory appointee to the school's board.

Another change gives the Education Minister the power to combine school boards "if that would provide an effective route to resolving ongoing issues".

The ministry will also be given new power to put in place an enrolment scheme - a zone - when a school refuses or is slow to do so.

Zones are used to avoid overcrowding at a school - a problem that will become more common as Auckland's population intensifies.

There have been two schools in recent years that have not wanted to put a zone in. (Education Amendment change)

Currently, when approving school charters the ministry is only allowed to check whether the charter contains required information. Photo / 123RF
Currently, when approving school charters the ministry is only allowed to check whether the charter contains required information. Photo / 123RF

Influencing school strategy

Schools will no longer have to write a charter. That will be replaced by two new documents - a four-year strategic plan and an annual implementation plan.

The four-year plan will outline how the school will achieve its own objectives - such as raising boys' writing results - but also how it will meet the government's "strategic directions".

Currently, when approving school charters the ministry is only allowed to check whether the charter contains required information.

The new legislation will give the ministry more power - it will be able to review strategic plans for quality, not just tick-box process requirements. The current power to require changes will be retained.

Labour's education spokesman Chris Hipkins said he viewed that as allowing the government to set targets for schools.

He said it was "the final nail in the coffin" of the autonomy granted to school boards by the Tomorrow's Schools reforms of 1989.
(Education Amendment change)

The education amendment legislation will give the government the power to request information on proprietors' financial position. Photo / 123RF
The education amendment legislation will give the government the power to request information on proprietors' financial position. Photo / 123RF

State integrated schools

More than 88,000 students are enrolled in New Zealand's 332 state integrated schools, which get the same funding for staffing and operations as state schools, but the school land and property are owned and maintained by proprietors.

The education amendment legislation will give the government the power to request information on proprietors' financial position.

Such a request would have to be complied with, and would be made in situations such as if there are concerns about their financial position, a proprietor is applying to integrate a school, or asking for more taxpayer money.

Legislation cover state integrated schools will also be brought under the Education Act.
(Education Amendment change)

Under legislation before Parliament, a new
Under legislation before Parliament, a new "competence authority" would be set-up to consider complaints about teacher competence.

Incompetent teachers

Complaints about a teacher's competence are considered by the Education Council - the professional organisation for teachers.

Successful complaints can lead to the cancellation of a teacher's registration or practising certificate.

Under legislation before Parliament, a new "competence authority" would be set-up to consider complaints about teacher competence, with more power to take action if a complaint is successful.

(Education Amendment change)

This month classrooms have been disrupted as NZEI and PPTA members meet to oppose one of the proposals to give schools a
This month classrooms have been disrupted as NZEI and PPTA members meet to oppose one of the proposals to give schools a "global budget". Photo / 123RF

Return of bulk funding?

The National Government is revamping how schools are funded - a change that will affect every early education and school student in the country.

Seven broad funding ideas have been floated, and any replacement system will be in place by 2019 at the earliest.

This month classrooms have been disrupted as NZEI and PPTA members meet to oppose one of the proposals to give schools a "global budget".

It would include cash instalments for school expenses and a credit system for salaries.

Principals would determine the split between cash and credit, with the flexibility to make adjustments during the year.

Currently, the ministry tells schools how many teachers they can employ based on the roll, with associated salaries paid centrally. Schools can employ more teachers but need to use locally-raised funds.

Education unions attacked the proposal as a return to the controversial bulk funding model that was introduced on a voluntary basis in the 1990s and scrapped in 2000.

The unions argued that the global budget would force principals and boards to make tradeoffs between paying for experienced teachers and other spending and resources.

Parata's view is that principals can be trusted to make spending decisions.

All the same, she has indicated the global budget idea will be scrapped, after an 18-member education sector advisory group gave it the thumbs down.
(Funding review)

School operations grants, which greatly affect resources and day-to-day operations, are normally increased each year to keep pace with inflation.
School operations grants, which greatly affect resources and day-to-day operations, are normally increased each year to keep pace with inflation.

Targeting funding to children 'at risk'

Six of seven other funding proposals will continue to be worked on.

One of the most significant is to target additional funding to students "at risk" of educational underachievement.

Parata has said she wants to replace the decile system, which assigns more money to schools that have the highest proportion of students from low socio-economic communities.

There is widespread support for scrapping deciles. Principals in middle decile schools complain they do not get enough money, despite having students from poor backgrounds along with those from better-off families.

And the mention of school deciles on real estate advertisements shows the funding system has mistakenly become a proxy for school quality in the eyes of many parents.

Any replacement for the decile system won't be in place until 2019 at the earliest. But the government will test the "at risk" model next year.

School operations grants, which greatly affect resources and day-to-day operations, are normally increased each year to keep pace with inflation.

That will not happen next year. Each school will get the same as it got last year but the money that would normally help cover inflation, $12.3 million, will be split between schools that have some of the 133,171 students judged to be at risk - schools will get about $92 for each such student.
(Funding review)

Officials have identified one potential fix as spending more money on support for pre-schoolers. Photo / 123RF
Officials have identified one potential fix as spending more money on support for pre-schoolers. Photo / 123RF

Special education

High-level changes to special education at school are on the way as the government struggles to meet growing demand as the school-age population grows and there is better identification of needs.

Officials have identified one potential fix as spending more money on support for pre-schoolers.

That is because evidence shows the benefits of early intervention. If funding was weighted to the early years, there would be less demand as a cohort moved through the schooling system, a recent Cabinet paper reasoned.

Labour and the Green Party have warned that early intervention should not come at the cost of reducing support for school-age children with special needs.

After some backlash, the ministry assured parents that older children would continue to get the needed support, but they expected early intervention to lead to lower demand for services over time.

Initial work in the special education "update" will also focus on how help is provided for speech disorders like oral language delay.

Jacinda Duffy with her 5year-old son James. Photo / Brett Phibbs
Jacinda Duffy with her 5year-old son James. Photo / Brett Phibbs

'It's going to take a big culture change'

James Duffy started at Canterbury's Swannanoa School after he turned 5 last month and was excited to join his two older brothers there.

"He was happy and ready to start. In saying that, after about a week he decided that he would rather stay in bed," his mum, Jacinda Duffy, said.

Government legislation that cleared its first hurdle this week will allow schools to decide to have new entrants start in cohorts during the year.

Duffy said she could see the merit in such a change, particularly from a teacher perspective.

"[But] it might be a bit messy for a bit while all the kids settle down. There are always kids that cry and don't want to start school."

There would be split opinion between parents and it wouldn't be easy for some schools to decide whether to move to cohort enrolment, she said.

"It is going to take a big culture change. Especially for the children - it is a big deal when they turn 5 that they start school. It would be pretty disappointing if they turn 5 and don't get to start school."

Children starting school without the ability to speak in sentences has sparked a government investigation.

Key:

(Education Amendment): Changes introduced under legislation that passed its first reading this week. It will now go to select committee for public submissions. Legislation with any amendments is expected to come into force next year.
(Funding review): Seven broad funding ideas have been released for consultation. Any changes will be in place by 2019 at the earliest.

The battle for education

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Tomorrow

: Who is Education Minister Hekia Parata and what is motivating a raft of changes to New Zealand's schooling system.