The start of another school year. For the great majority of students this means getting a good classroom or subject teacher, and making steady progress towards their personal educational goals.

For too many students, though, the school principal is still recruiting, or trying to persuade a specialist teacher to postpone their retirement, come out of retirement, work part-time or, in desperation, to "cherry pick" the classes they want to teach.

Some of these students will get a fully certified teacher, just not an expert in the subject they are teaching. Or someone with only a Limited Authority to Teach but who has specialist subject knowledge. Or a former "tradie" now studying teaching online while also learning how to teach on the job.


Often the least qualified and least experienced teachers end up in classrooms and schools that most need our absolutely best teachers.

This pattern also occurs in almost every overseas schooling system that adopts a competitive market approach to teacher supply and quality.

In teacher education, we talk about boom and bust cycles. Between 2011 and 2017, the number of trainees nationally dropped by around 30 per cent. Across 2018 and 2019, we have seen a very slight increase. Fingers crossed. Boom years for us are often bust years for school principals. Supply rarely matches demand.

It's complicated. When the economy is strong, teacher education numbers drop. When there is teacher oversupply, or when the media reports negative stories about teaching, or when living costs far outstrip starting salaries, or when the compliance workload becomes excessive, teacher education numbers drop.

In this bust cycle, all our university faculties of education severely retrenched their staffing. Hundreds of teaching, curriculum and subject expert teacher educators left the system.

The same in continuing teacher education. The regional advisory services in the universities had their government contracts cancelled, made contestable and the few contracts that remain awarded mostly to private providers who may have no relationships with local schools. Hundreds of in-service teacher educators left the system.

Much the same with our development of leaders of learning. We have come to believe over the last 30 years that a No 8 wire combination of natural talent, personal ambition, on the job learning and encouragement from a group of elected parents will grow the complex leadership skills and resilience required across 2500 individual schools.

We leave budding leaders to grow themselves – sink or swim. Many talented educational leaders do not seek promotion, while many in leadership positions leave prematurely, burnt out or disenchanted about their future options.


All this has occurred under the "self-managing" system that we call Tomorrow's Schools. Tomorrow's Schools was a radical ideological experiment for our country. Thirty years on, we have real insights about the strengths and weaknesses of self-management. We also have 30 years' worth of insights from other schooling systems that took different approaches, where students and teachers are now faring better than ours.

Our children and grandchildren deserve a lot better from schooling. There are growing concerns at the declining performance of our students in national and international assessments, at their wellbeing and resilience and at the unequal outcomes for children from diverse backgrounds.

We wonder why, but some of the reasons really are common sense. You cannot leave the quality of teaching and learning to chance. The various parts of the system have to align and work together efficiently for all children to succeed.

Ensuring every child can lead their best possible life means planning to give them their best possible teacher. It means a long-term national workforce strategy that trains, develops and supports teachers to meet the diverse educational, psycho-social and cultural aspirations of all students, irrespective of household circumstances.

Right now, we have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to address systemic barriers to student success. The Independent Taskforce to Review Tomorrow's Schools recently published its report, "Our Schooling Futures: Stronger Together – Whiria Ngā Kura Tūātinitini". We believe that its more than 30 recommendations will transform our schooling system, and that we will be stronger together as a consequence.

Whatever changes are finally made, we know from successful systems overseas that the country must try to arrive at a lasting national consensus on the purposes, design, governance and management of our schooling futures. How? Accept the individual responsibility to read the report and the civic responsibility to participate in the countrywide consultation on its recommendations.

We are the present guardians of our state and state integrated schooling system. We want our children and grandchildren to be able to look back and thank us for having done the right thing.

John O'Neill is a member of the Independent Taskforce to review Tomorrow's Schools. He is also Professor of Teacher Education and Head of the Institute of Education at Massey University.