COMMENT:

'You're a racist", a woman school teacher accused me after I spoke at a public meeting debating the recommendations of the taskforce on Tomorrow's Schools.

She also loudly proclaimed she did not like the values of Auckland Grammar. You can attack me but not my old school.

What the Government's taskforce is recommending is an attack on Auckland Grammar and your local high school.

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David Seymour MP, who organised the public meeting, asked me as a member of the Government that introduced Tomorrow's Schools to explain why we thought it best to let parents through elected boards of trustees to run their local school. I said, "No. I am retired". Then I read the report that night and said, "Yes".

The taskforce wants unelected technocrats in "regional education hubs" to take over most of the administration of schools. It is unworkable.

These hubs sound like the old education boards who the OECD charitably described as rigid. The taskforce believes it will be better for Māori and Pacific pupils. I doubt it.

Newton Central was in my electorate. In 1976 it was 96 per cent Māori and Pacific and had the distinction of having the most pupils appearing in the Children's Court. A new headmaster thought the issues were cultural. He set up a civics class.

The class was a huge success. Soon Newton Central had fewer pupils in front of the court than Remuera Intermediate.

The technocrats at the Education Board went nuts. How dare the school start a civics class? They ordered it halted. To enforce the order they removed the classroom.

Bureaucrats are not bad people. A modern secondary school is a big business with more than 300 staff. It is impossible to administer 125 schools without setting up rigid, one-size-fits-all rules.

I agreed with the taskforce that too many Māori and Pacific pupils are failing. It is a tragedy for them and the country. I pointed out that we do have a model of schools where Māori and Pacific pupils have exceeded the national average in NCEA. The report never mentions this successful model.

The Government has a report from one of the country's top consultancies that says this model works even for Māori and Pacific pupils from underprivileged backgrounds who were failing in mainstream schools. I am referring to the Martin Jenkins report, published a year ago, on "partnership" or "charter" schools.

Partnership schools are Tomorrow's Schools on steroids. Boards have even more authority and it works. There is no evidence in the taskforce report that more bureaucracy will result in Māori achievement.

Professor Gary Hawke, who also spoke, pointed out it is not research-based to cite as your proof unnamed people the taskforce spoke to. (Either the taskforce did not speak to any partnership school trustee or they ignored what they heard). The professor also pointed out there is no clear division between the role of the hubs and that of school boards. He predicts this will lead to ongoing confusion.

I disputed the claim that bureaucrats will do a better job. I have been a trustee. The buildings we took over from the ministry had not been well maintained, half had building-code violations and 10 per cent had serious safety issues. We did a much better job, as do most boards.

The taskforce says 13 per cent of our schools, mostly small, rural and isolated, are failing. They say that when the school is failing often so is the principal. It was an observation I strongly agreed with. Martin Jenkins says one reason partnership schools succeed is because the principal and teachers are on performance contracts. Those who did not perform were moved on.

The taskforce says New Zealand is slipping down the international education comparison tests. Actually Tomorrow's Schools for 30 years have done well. We went up in science in the latest test. The taskforce could have easily taken the same statistics to say 87 per cent of our schools are succeeding. The taskforce chairman repeatedly claims we must change our whole education administration to fix the minority of schools that are failing. No sensible person destroys what is working well to fix what is failing. They keep what is working and fix what is not.

Richard Prebble was an Associate Minister of Finance, 1984-88, and later leader of the Act Party.