Getting the Government's Investing in Educational Success programme running in relatively quick order was never going to be easy. The concept was bound to be opposed by some teachers, while the establishment of "communities of schools" by those who saw its merits was always going to take time. It is, therefore, encouraging that 11 such communities, with a total roll of 38,000 pupils, have signed up to begin working with the model from the start of next year. That represents a good outcome given the idea of paying the best teachers and principals more to lift achievement across a group of schools was first mentioned in the Prime Minister's State of the Nation speech in January.
Its genesis, of course, goes back further. It lies in a sharp drop in this country's 15-year-old pupils' position in mathematics, reading and science in the 2013 Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) rankings. This led the Government to seek the insights of the highly influential OECD survey's designer, Andreas Schleicher. His key finding is that top-performing countries ensure their most talented school leaders and staff are in the most needy schools. The Government's means of achieving this involves spending $359 million over four years, some of which will pay the best principals and teachers more to spend time in other schools, and some of which will be used by struggling schools to attract these mentors.
The use of Dr Schleicher's ideas presented a difficulty for the teacher unions. How could they oppose the prescription of such an acknowledged educational expert? Sensibly, the secondary teachers' union, the Post Primary Teachers Association, decided to support the programme. So, too, did the Secondary Principals Association. While some PPTA members may have had qualms about this being performance pay in another guise, most clearly saw that it offered a strong incentive for good candidates to enter the teaching profession and remain there.
Regrettably, however, the primary teachers' union, the NZEI, has remained opposed to the programme. Unconvincingly, it maintains the Government's money would be better spent helping struggling schools cope with children impaired by poverty and neglect. That overlooks the increasing awareness of the importance of excellent teaching and school leadership. This was underlined by a Herald-Digipoll survey in mid-year which found more than 60 per cent of those polled wanted money spent on trying to improve teaching standards, rather than cutting class sizes. The latter was the centrepiece of the Labour Party's education policy.
The Education Minister, Hekia Parata, says 71 expressions of interest have so far been received for the programme. Given the NZEI's stance, it is encouraging, also, that she was able to note the first tranche of school hubs, to be announced later this week, would include primary, intermediate, secondary and area schools. They were, she added, all over the country and covered all deciles. The latter is especially important if the scheme is to work as designed, with pupils from every socio-economic background challenged by excellent teaching.
One proviso must be mentioned. It will be important the skills of the expert principals and teachers are not stretched so thinly that they lose the ability to effect change in low-performing schools and devote sufficient time to their own. There will, by necessity, be an element of experimentation before best practice emerges. But that is a relatively minor concern. Most important is the enthusiastic uptake for a programme that will reward good teachers and benefit both children, especially those in poor socio-economic areas, and the standing of this country's education system.