The future of Tomorrow’s Schools in the balance

In 1989 a task force was created to examine how New Zealand’s school should look and function. Tomorrow’s Schools was based on the idea that public sector policy and operations should be separated. Regional education boards were abolished. An Education Review office was established as was a New Zealand Qualifications Authority to administer qualifications at school level. Schools were allowed to write their own charters.

30 years later it is time to look at how the system is (or is not)getting on with the task of delivering good educational outcomes.

Tracey Martin, New Zealand First spokeswoman for Education, believes that Tomorrow’s Schools was a world class system when it was established. Perhaps, but what was world class in 1989 is not necessarily world class in 2019. And indeed the report called Our Schooling Futures, which is out now for public consultation, points to significant shortfalls in practice standards, resourcing, conduct and and leadership.

I applaud the move by Minister of Education Chris Hipkins to address the numerous issues confronting New Zealand schools. Most of them are ones that have been identified in the Our Schooling Futures report. I would also question whether the National Certificate for Educational Achievement is fit for purpose on the basis – my experience in the 1990’s when Unit Standards were experimental was that “no, it is not fit for purpose”. There was, scaling aside, nothing wrong with the old system of School Certificate, Sixth Form Certificate and University Bursary. I got the marks I did in that system because then I was a believer of minimal study getting me over the line.

By contrast Unit Standards confused me, gave misleading impressions of whether I was doing enough and got marked inconsistently by teachers that I am not sure actually knew how to administer them. It showed in my course results. The ones that I failed had a component of Unit Standards, and the ones that I passed did not.

Of school governance, having an Education Review Office and New Zealand Qualifications Authority, I believe Mrs Martin is correct. That splitting up of these roles and the installation of School Boards of Trustees was a correct move.

The bigger concerns for me are about the students themselves – one half of why education exists in the first place. If they cannot read off paper, write and count then I believe they will struggle in later stages of school. There is also evidence that this has benefits in terms of retention of information and conceptual understanding. Certainly in this world there is a need to teach students how to use computers and computer software, but anyone who has worked with children will know that sitting around in a group reading a picture book to young children and showing them the pictures, understand the mental stimulation this gives them.

Whilst I do not advocate a return to corporal punishment, I think some firmer boundaries need to be set than those that exist. One is ask all students to surrender their cellphones at the start of each teaching session and not let the students have them back until the next break. It is a simple to implement policy.

But the biggest concern of mine overall is the sheer workload that teachers have to deal with. Whilst I do not agreement with Mrs Martin on the subject of adding/subtracting from the workload, I think that there is a demonstrable need to look at why by 1999 teachers were working an estimated 51 hours a week and Principals doing nearly 60. I understand that this has risen further since.

Perhaps out of all of this I am reminded of a principle that was drummed into me as a student when trying to explain/do things: K.I.S.S. (Keep It Simple Stupid). Perhaps teaching staff and administrators need to K.I.S.S.


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