COMMENT:

The members of the Independent Task Force to Review Tomorrow's Schools were given a hospital pass by the Government. They were asked to do the impossible.

They were asked to review compulsory schooling in Aotearoa New Zealand with a focus on achieving a system that promotes equity and excellence for all children and young people ... (and to give) active expression to Te Tiriti o Waitangi.

What is of concern is the assumption that changing the structure of the education system will somehow promote equity and excellence. This has in fact been the focus of many policies and projects since the 1960s.

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However, equity of outcomes did not occur under the old Education Board model (which is essentially what is being promoted in this report) and remains so under the current Tomorrow's Schools model. So why look back to something that did not work for solutions for today?

It is simply that there are no clear links between administrative systems and improvements in Māori students' achievement, which is what is needed to promote equity.

Something else is needed other than this pendulum-swinging process of governance reform from political left to the right, then back again.

The problem is that there is no clear overarching educational theory in this report that can guide how educators should operate so as to promote equity, let alone give expression to Te Tiriti.

However, the report does suggest that relationships are important.

As columnist Deborah Hill-Cone observed in the Herald last October, as social creatures we are wired to connect, and our very well-being and mental health rely upon our developing positive and effective relationships, something few Māori students report experiencing in our schools.

However, this report does not give a clear steer as to what is meant by relationships. It can just mean singing Kumbaya and holding hands or feeding hungry students.

Whereas, positive relationships are fundamental to teachers and leaders being able to do their job as educators, a major part of which is to reduce educational disparities thereby promoting equity.

What is needed is an explicit theory of positive relationships that promotes care and commitment, high expectations, and improved and sustained educational outcomes.

What makes up such a foundational theory of relationships? Research has shown that developing schools and classrooms as if they were (extended) families provides educators with settings where Māori students' belonging, participation and individual learning is supported and developed.

This sense of family-ness, for example, promotes a relationship-based education that has much to offer teachers and school leaders currently trying to support those marginalised from the benefits of education.

However, family-like relationships are not enough in themselves to promote improved learning.

Classrooms also need to be places of interaction and dialogue where students of different cultures can bring who they are, what they know and above all, how they understand and make sense of the world to the conversations that generate learning.

The progress that learners are making can then be monitored and practices modified appropriately.

In this way, further progress is ensured and sustained so that learners are able to take responsibility for their own learning; the foundations for further and ongoing learning.

Research has shown it is this type of approach that improves educational outcomes for Māori students, not changing the ways that schools are organised.

It also gives active expression to Te Tiriti o Waitangi because it promotes the idea of partners in education (Article 1), acknowledging Māori students' distinctive differences (Article 2), in ways that promotes benefits for Māori and all students (Article 3).

A relationship-based approach means that teachers and other school leaders can focus on improving learning.

That Māori students are not provided with this type of education is the root cause of the lack of equity in our system, not the type of administration.

Learning is the essential core of education (including learning of knowledge), and is where educational disparities must necessarily first be addressed.

The danger of education reform focussing on administration and governance is that the focus on promoting equity will get lost in the hurly-burly of everyday activities and administration.

Governance issues need to be subsumed within a wider educational reform that poses reducing educational disparities as its primary focus.

This is not only important for individual learners, it is also vital for the health of democracy that all its citizens are able to be responsible, critical thinkers and questioners of power.

Russell Bishop is Emeritus Professor of Māori Education at the University of Waikato.