Our schools face an overhaul - David Fisher finds out what passes for public consultation.

Bali Haque's got the electricity of a preacher. He's an education evangelist with a fire in his eyes.

"We have a world class education system," says the academic-principal-teacher leading the Tomorrow's Schools Independent Taskforce.

He's on the road, from the south of the country to the north and back again, telling people why this "world class education system" needs to become something completely different.

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The reason?

"In this country, we have a really significant issue with equity," he says.

Haque is speaking in the Kerikeri High School library, the Far North's centre of relatively comfortable affluence where citizens know all about equity. They are well aware they enjoy a life different from the abject poverty which eats at the heart of almost all Far North towns.

The gap between poor and rich has grown to a chasm. School is one place where foundations are laid to bridge that gap.

"The gap between best performing and least-well performing is large. And it is stubborn."

And there's the problem. The 1989 promise of former Prime Minister David Lange's
Tomorrow's Schools has not been realised. Our 2500 parent-led schools have developed a host of different answers to the question every child poses, which is: Who is the best person you can be?

He tells the 30 people in the audience: "We are good at innovation but have a problem with scaling up, or sustaining innovation."

And so, if we are to have an education revolution - this biggest school shake up in 30 years - then it needs to happen in a way which lasts.

Tomorrow's School Independent Taskforce chairman Bali Haque at Kerikeri High School. Photo / David Fisher
Tomorrow's School Independent Taskforce chairman Bali Haque at Kerikeri High School. Photo / David Fisher

"It's our view one of the reasons we have this stubborn gap is the system we are working in."

Having listed his Five Great Truths, Haque is off and painting a picture with words of a new system of schooling.

These meetings are happening across New Zealand this month and next. By the time they have finished, Haque and the other four people on the Taskforce will have given or heard this talk 33 times, from New Plymouth on Valentine's Day to Palmerston North on March 27.

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There are around 800,000 children in our primary-through-secondary education system. If Haque gets his way, these changes will have a dramatic effect on how they are educated, and how their children will be educated.

Haque hasn't just redesigned our school system. He's drafting a fresh blueprint for our future.

And yet, there are just 30 people in the Kerikeri High School library. Of those, 25 people are teachers or Board of Trustee members. Only five - including this reporter - are parents of children at school.

For such a monumental upheaval, is this really consultation?

Like a rocketship

The Bali Haque Exposition has a format. He lays out his Five Great Truths and then shifts to the report produced by the Taskforce: "Our Schooling Futures: Stronger Together."

It's a 21-page summary of the findings of the taskforce, which got under way in April and has been like a rocketship-on-rails ever since.

Those few who turned up at the Kerikeri High School library selected the English version of the document from tables at the entrance. There was also cake with chocolate icing and sandwiches cut into triangles.

It's a good library; a place which invites imagination and learning. Haque stands before a huge world map, alongside fellow taskforce member, Professor Mere Berryman from Waikato University, and gets "public consultation" under way.

There's few enough people that it is possible for each to stand and introduce themselves to others. Almost all come from the immediate surrounding area. There's a few from Kaeo, 20 minutes to the north, who live in a community sharing more in common with the rest of the Northland than Kerikeri does - a lack of jobs, social issues which impact on kids, crime and drug problems.

Tomorrow's School Independent Taskforce chairman Bali Haque with fellow taskforce member Professor Mere Berryman at Kerikeri High School. Photo / David Fisher
Tomorrow's School Independent Taskforce chairman Bali Haque with fellow taskforce member Professor Mere Berryman at Kerikeri High School. Photo / David Fisher

Kaikohe is the flipside of the Kerikeri golden coin. It's a town which ticks almost every troubling box our society offers. Two people have made the drive to the meeting. One of those, who lives further out than Kaikohe, later tells the meeting she is "lucky" to be there. It's not uncommon for people to hitchhike from Kaikohe to Kerikeri and back again because they simply cannot afford petrol.

There is no one from Te Hapua, New Zealand's northernmost town which boasts a proud primary school yet puts its kids each day on a bus for a four-hour round trip to Kaitaia for secondary school.

Education is very different across the Far North and it's hard to see how the taskforce will hear those stories in Kerikeri this evening.

Haque begins to talk and explains that the taskforce recognises these differences. This is at the core of the reform, he says, with education management being decentralised from Wellington to regional hubs.

Those hubs, with their local knowledge and constant connection with the school in their area, will take on many of the tasks currently managed by boards of trustees.
Employment issues, for example, and property management - these would be tasks for the hub.

"We're not creating any bureaucracy," he says. The hubs, instead, would unpick the knots restraining schools from realising their students' potential.

How many? Well, Haque says he doesn't like numbers but they had to pick one to give people something to work with. Twenty was that number, which maths suggests would have 125 schools in each hub although he expects the system to evolve differently in each area according to its needs.

Here in the Far North, it can take three hours to drive from Kawakawa to Te Hapua. "In some areas in Northland, the hub may have spokes," he says. It doesn't have to mean a big shiny building in Whangārei - it could be satellite buildings dotted across the district if that is what education needs.

Board changes

The vision he paints is one in which Boards of Trustees would lose autonomy and influence, although would retain an advisory role. This insulates schools against the huge variability which has emerged in the system, where some communities enjoy boards drawn from engaged communities with professional and other skills while others struggle to find some people - any people, the right people - to stand for election.

When the board system works, it's great. When it doesn't, it can be damaging for the school, its children and a nightmare for a principal.

Tomorrow's School Independent Taskforce chairman Bali Haque with fellow taskforce member Professor Mere Berryman at Kerikeri High School. Photo / David Fisher
Tomorrow's School Independent Taskforce chairman Bali Haque with fellow taskforce member Professor Mere Berryman at Kerikeri High School. Photo / David Fisher

We have an "atomised" education system, says Haque, "being delivered through 2500 autonomous Crown agencies," - the schools.

"You can't run a national education system on the basis of 'some boards can and some boards can't'."

On he moves through the eight areas - governance, the types of schools provided, promoting collaboration rather than the existing competition between schools, improving disability and learning support, developing frameworks to improve teaching and professional development.

It's around this point someone raises a hand and asks if he's nearly finished. They have questions.

Nearly done, he says, and goes on. He talks of changes which will improve and support school leadership, scrapping the decile system for one which targets extra funding in areas of high need, wiping away the blizzard of acronyms in Wellington which oversee education.

That takes the meeting, which started at 7pm, through to 8.10pm, at which point he and Berryman suggest people form into clusters to discuss what they have heard and develop some questions. There's 15 minutes set aside for this. For such a massive change, this is public consultation at a breakneck speed.

Group think

Huddles form and questions sprout. Why would having hubs be different from regional Ministry of Education offices? How do you remove political meddling from education when the hubs will - on current design - be run by people appointed by the Minister of Education?

And what of teacher independence? If the hubs are the employers, does that mean teachers are employed directly by the state and lose their freedom to challenge and advocate? Why strip almost everything from boards and leave them with curriculum decisions when that's the stuff principals are actually really good at?

They're good questions - Haque is charming and told each person with a question exactly that.

It's hard, though, not to think the questions might be different if the groups were formed of parents rather than educators and board members.

Haque has answers to many of the questions. Some of those answers can be found in documentation produced by the taskforce. Some seem to come from Haque's ever-searching, lively mind.

It's these times which appear to illustrate the lightning pace at which the taskforce has moved. Maybe 40 hubs, they say at one point, which is a significant difference for communities and schools trying to work out how much contact they will have. Will boards remain Crown entities? This matters too, because there are disagreements in every relationship and communities need to know what standing they have if they choose to dig in their heels.

Asked about engagement and the speed with which this is happening, Haque says he takes the point and Berryman adds: "Put that in your feedback."

Those who came out to hear Tomorrow's School Independent Taskforce chairman Bali Haque. Photo / David Fisher
Those who came out to hear Tomorrow's School Independent Taskforce chairman Bali Haque. Photo / David Fisher

"If you're talking three-to-five years (for this to take effect)," says Haque, "then there's time."

The wiggle room significantly indefinite for such a massive project. National's education spokeswoman Nikki Kaye has highlighted other gaps in information - there's no detail on how much this is going to cost.

Kaye has her own roadshow under way . She is holding more meetings than the taskforce (although, again, none further north than Kerikeri) and has worked hard to contribute what she can to its work. For an "Opposition" spokeswoman, she's quickly gained a reputation for being highly constructive.

No doubt change is needed, she says, but it's happening so quickly. "It's the biggest reform in 30 years. It will fundamentally change the way our schools are managed."

These meetings are not the only form of consultation and feedback. The taskforce met with 200 groups with direct interest while forming its report. The public, if they want to have a say, can make submissions online, if they know what's going on.

It has also spent money to raise awareness and invite public and education sector involvement - a total of $74,983 was spent advertising the 33 public meetings in print, radio and online.

And yet, when the meeting was done, it didn't take long for people to file out into the night because, simply, there weren't many people to file out into the night.

Public consultation ends on April 7. Education Minister Chris Hipkins, in a Cabinet paper last year, said he expected to have an update from the taskforce by April 30.

Last year, Hipkins stressed to Cabinet the importance of "public consultation". It was this, he said, what he would bring to Cabinet before "decisions on a Government response" to the taskforce recommendations.

He wouldn't be interviewed about the timeframe, but said through a spokesman he was happy with the level of consultation.

The Bali Haque Roadshow set off for Whangārei, and then further south. They will soon be in a town near you. If you have children, you need to go to these meetings. Not just for their sake but for the children they will have.

Haque and his cohort of revolutionaries will change education for generations.

And if you do go to a meeting, you will hear him say: "Education reform in New Zealand we don't do well."

The education road show

North Auckland:

February 27, 7pm–9pm at Rangitoto College.

East Auckland: February 28, 4pm and 7pm at Bailey Road School.

Queenstown: March 4, 7pm at the Crowne Plaza.

Hamilton: March 5, 7pm, location yet to be confirmed.

Taupō: March 6, 7pm, Taupo-nui-a-Tia College.

Gisborne: March 6, 7pm, location yet to be confirmed.

Napier/Hastings: March 7, 7pm, William Colenso College.

Wellington: March 11, 7pm, location yet to be confirmed.

Porirua: March 12, 7pm, location yet to be confirmed.

Lower Hutt: March 13, 7pm, location yet to be confirmed.

Masterton: March 14, 7pm, location yet to be confirmed.

Rotorua: March 18, 7pm, location yet to be confirmed.

Tauranga: March 19, 7pm, Tauranga Boys' College.

South Auckland: March 20, 4pm and 7pm, Papatoetoe High School.

West Auckland: March 21, 4pm and 7pm, The Trusts Arena.

Central Auckland: March 21, 7pm, Freemans Bay School.

Nelson: March 25, 7pm, location yet to be confirmed.

Greymouth: March 26, 5.30pm, location yet to be confirmed.

Whanganui: March 26, 7pm, location yet to be confirmed.

Palmerston North: March 27, 7pm, location yet to be confirmed.