Things are looking good for the future of education in New Zealand.

After 30 years of suffering the unintended consequences of the Tomorrow's Schools initiatives, fresh recommendations will have a positive impact on education in our country.

The fundamental problem with Tomorrow's Schools is that it created a dog-eat-dog environment, encouraging schools to look after themselves, sometimes at the expense of other schools in their neighbourhood. Competition has delivered winner schools at the expense of less fortunate schools down the road.


After considerable consultation, an independent taskforce reported its findings to the Minister of Education in November last year, making recommendations about eight key issues including governance, competition between schools, and resourcing.

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One of the recommendations is the creation of 20 new regional education boards, or "hubs" which would "assume all the legal responsibilities and liabilities currently held by school boards of trustees".

Each hub would oversee 125 schools on average, so all 126 of Hawke's Bay's schools would be included in a single hub.

This initiative alone would have a radical impact on the quality of education in NZ, swinging the pendulum from the current competitive model to one of mutual strengthening through collaboration.

Rather than seeing themselves as independent entities, hell-bent on doing the best for themselves regardless of the consequences for neighbouring schools, each board would be required to consider the impact of its decisions on its local community of schools.

New Zealand needs a multi-lateral approach to education because schools are so very much at the heart of the health and wealth of every community. In Finland, arguably the most successful education system in the world, pupils attend their nearest school because the quality of education is as high there as it is anywhere.

There's no criss-crossing of students across each district as we have in New Zealand, by-passing local schools to go to others perceived as being better. The level of trust in the nearest school evident in Finland happens by good design of the sort being proposed in this review.

Also under review is the decile system, which regularly raises the ire of principals. Talk about a misunderstood and confusing funding system. The problem is that parents have mistakenly believed that decile equates to quality. But what a challenge.

To be successful, any replacement needs to provide extra funding where it is needed most, without any connotations which might be mistaken for a judgment on the quality of the school's educational delivery. Watch this space with interest.

The review goes even further to right the wrongs of our current system.

One particularly positive move is that the responsibilities Education Hubs would take from boards are of the non-educational type: financial control, property, principals' appointments, and student suspensions.

Taking such tasks off boards of trustees will allow them and principals to sharpen their focus on educational leadership.

Furthermore, it has to be said that one of the inequities of the current system is the variability between boards of trustees, where some consist of people with considerable management experience and others do not.

Moving some responsibilities from boards to hubs has the potential to create greater consistency in the quality of decisions made in each school.

All the international research tells us that students thrive best when principals are free to focus primarily on educational leadership, so moving some board functions to Education Hubs will be of great assistance.

For those worried that the proposed reforms will be a step back to the days of sluggishly overbearing centralised administration, I am reminded of Shakespeare's reference to "pettifogging bureaucracy".

There is nothing new about the ability for bureaucrats to subvert a good system with bad process.

However, with quality leadership, and good change management processes, there's no reason why this new system can't successfully push against a new tide of administrivia, while putting the needs of students and their communities ahead of the ambitions of individual schools.

* Stephen Hensman is the principal of Taradale High School in Napier. He is also currently the chair of the Hawke's Bay Secondary School Principals' Association and a member of the New Zealand Secondary Principals' Council.