With the 30th anniversary of Tomorrow's Schools Reforms rapidly approaching, a review is both necessary and desirable. On the back of the Picot report, David Lange, former Prime Minister, wrote in 1998:
"The Government is certain that the reform it proposes will result in more immediate delivery of resources to schools, more parental and community involvement and greater teacher responsibility. It will lead to improved learning opportunities for this country. The reformed administration will be sufficiently flexible and responsive to meet the particular needs of Māori education."
Most would concede the results over the decades have been variable. Self-management, greater diversity of schooling options and entrepreneurship have been positive outcomes.
The free market model has however led to unhealthy competition, duplication of resources and winner and loser schools, which is never acceptable with our most precious taonga, children.
The greatest casualties under these reforms have been Māori and Pacific learners as well as those requiring learning support.
The Government's taskforce charged with conducting this independent review will require the wisdom of Solomon to resolve competing tensions and issues. These include:
1. Every learner should attend their local school and be assured of a high quality education. Parents however, have a right to choose a school that best meets the needs of their child, particularly with the diversity of schools, including state, integrated, kura and single sex.
2. Parental and local community involvement in the governance of a school provides depth of experience and skills in decision-making. However, school governance has become so complex and time consuming that for many schools they lack a sufficient pool of willing and able parents to take on this critical role.
3. The "self-help" model has incentivised many schools to engage in entrepreneurial activities raising funds to provide "state of the art" facilities and learning resources. In other schools, the quality of education has been seriously compromised because they have no alternative funding options.
4. Competition between schools has allowed some to grow rapidly and attract high performing academic and sporting students. Others have faced declining rolls and an erosion of parent and public confidence. Regrettably, enrolment schemes and decile rather than ERO reports have become the chosen indicators many parents use to assess the quality of a school.
There is an appetite from many within the school sector for change. The number of schools with statutory interventions, one to two year ERO reports, track records of under-achievement and a lack of resources, is strong enough evidence that reform is needed. Most principals have known nothing else in their careers but the "Tomorrow's Schools regime", which is now entrenched in their management style. Real estate agents and homeowners have a vested interest in enrolment schemes.
Reform will not come easy. The taskforce should perhaps return to David Lange's original aspirations for the Tomorrow's Schools reform as these at least we can all agree on.
Former president of the Secondary Principals Association of NZ