COMMENT:

The first day of a new school year is always wonderful. A refreshing mix of the familiar and the new. Familiar faces and places unseen for six weeks. Friends are a little older and seem new, the classrooms and grounds look newly cleaned and uncluttered.

New classes, new classmates, new teachers. A whole new year of challenges and possibilities both familiar and new. It's just a pity we have to start this year with a debate about education, but we do.

It's a long time since I read anything quite as chilling as this: "Those schools that don't need it also have obligations to other schools in the system, and they need to contribute their expertise to other schools. They need to be part of the system."

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The speaker was Bali Haque, head of the taskforce that has reviewed Tomorrow's Schools. "It" is the system the taskforce has proposed, essentially reversing the self government given to state schools 30 years ago and putting them all back under the control of ministry-appointed district education boards, called "hubs" to give them a contemporary veneer.

Tyranny doesn't always arrive in jackboots. It can be imposed by the nicest of people with the best of intentions using the gentle language of social equity and the power of taxation.

For schools that are doing well, have competent boards and wish to continue as they are, the taskforce suggests the district hub will delegate decisions back to them but this, understandably, has not placated them. They would be having to ensure that anything they wanted to do would be in line with the policies and priorities of a national monolith.

That is exactly what the taskforce intends. It wants every school to consider the impact of its decisions on other schools. Conceivably any decision that could make the school more distinctive in the public eye could harm other schools.

Would they be able to continue offering international examinations? Would they be allowed to maintain their own standards of discipline? Suspensions would be subject to the hub's approval, fees permitted to be charged as "donations" would be capped. Principals would be appointed by the hub for five year terms. School boards would have a veto but the hub would do the selection.

Will a majority of New Zealanders go along with this? There is a strong egalitarian instinct in our national fibre but it is grounded in fairness not repression. We are happy to pay taxes to help those who need it but it's my impression most of us don't think you help the weak by holding back the strong.

Tomorrow's Schools envisaged strong schools helping the weak through the empowerment of parents. Once schools were answerable to parents, who could vote with their children's feet as well as board elections, all schools would need to emulate those parents preferred.

And the first part happened. There has been a tidal movement of children in Auckland to schools in areas better off than their own. Educationists call this "white flight". Others call it upward mobility. But the second part hasn't happened. With few exceptions, schools left behind have not been able to rebrand and improve their appeal.

The taskforce blames poor information for parental choices. Some of the schools with declining rolls have had excellent ERO reports. The taskforce has talked to lots of principals and boards and educational interest groups but I don't think it has talked to many parents. Its report is open for discussion until April so here is some honest parental feedback.

When my kids were young, our nearest primary and intermediate schools were in a state housing area with visible problems. We sent ours to schools a little further away. I wasn't concerned about the quality of education in the nearest schools, I was concerned about its pupils.

I feared playground bullying, classroom disruption, behavioural problems, swearing at teachers, drugs, theft, absenteeism, uninterested parents, households that couldn't, or wouldn't, afford the cost of extra-curricula activities.

This fear was based on no information except the reputation of the neighbourhood, its visible state and the frequent nocturnal throb of the police helicopter overhead. Tell me that was prejudice if you wish but also tell me what school your kids went to.

I wish all the kids in that neighbourhood could be given a ticket to schools in better areas.

The taskforce reports "international research shows a balanced socio-economic mix in schools is better for student learning". In that case, why not help all poor kids escape their environment.

The notion that we live in "communities" that need a local school is a sociological mirage. We live in cities and we have diverse social and occupational networks the span the urban region. If education was to follow our decisions rather than fight them, everyone might be better off.