May the Taskforce be with you!

May 23, 2018

Beyond the Education Summits

 “The primary purpose of the review of Tomorrow’s Schools will be to consider if the governance, management and administration of the schooling system is fit for purpose to ensure that every learner achieves educational success.” Tomorrow’s Schools Review

In the wake of Education Minister Chris Hipkins appointing a high-level taskforce of five educators to lead the review of the school governance structure that has been in place since the 1980s, Katie Fitzpatrick offered some food for thought in an Education Central piece on 2 May headlined Tomorrow’s Schools being reviewed by yesterday’s experts.

She concedes that each of the appointees is respected within the education community and, as a group, they appear to be reasonably diverse. “However, a closer look reveals that they are all representatives of educational institutions, most of which are partially or entirely funded by the Ministry of Education or the Government in some way… they largely represent existing sectoral interests…”

Taskforce Members

The Taskforce chairman is Bali Haque, an independent consultant who has worked for NZQA, NZ Principals’ Association and PPTA.  Members are Dr Cathy Wylie, NZ Council for Educational Research; Professor Mere Berryman, Waikato University and Te Kotahitanga; Professor John O’Neill, Massey University and NZ Association for Research in Education; and Barbara Ala’alatoa, chair of the Education Council.

Katie Fitzpatrick goes onto say that “The review is about repurposing schools for the 21st century and it requires, by definition, new and innovative thinking. As a person ‘inside the tent’ … I think it is imperative to have outside input into a systemic review such as this. Representation is also needed from other sectors with youth interests at heart.”

I couldn’t agree more. The challenge is to get a dynamic balance between those inside the tent and those outside– and between the mature experience of those who lived through and learnt from earlier system changes and the fresh ideas of those who didn’t.

But while there certainly needs to be a good mix of ages, experience and ideas in people contributing to and advising the Taskforce, not to have educators with mana and experience leading it would be to show a lack of trust in a sector which needs to be highly trusted not tightly trussed.

Advisory Panel Members

At the first Education Summit on 5-6 May the Minister of Education announced that he had also appointed “a diverse group of knowledgeable and passionate New Zealanders” on a cross-sector Advisory Panel to help the Taskforce and the Government guide the reform of the education system.

The Advisory Panel, led by Children’s Commissioner Judge Andrew Becroft, will ease some concerns about the range of input. It includes former National education minister Sir Lockwood Smith, former Labour minister Marian Hobbs, Victoria University professor Rawinia Higgins, Pacific health consultant Debbie Ryan, Auckland University of Technology professor Welby Ings, playwright Etta Bollinger, and the chief executive of the Centre for Gifted Education, Deborah Walker.

Trial by fire

No shrinking violets, the members of the Advisory Panel will provide cross-sector perspectives in advising the Taskforce on the strengths and challenges of the current system, the changes required to ensure equity and excellence for all children and young people, how they would work in practice and with what impact.

It is also prepared to get fired up if necessary. Panel Chair Judge Becroft says the challenge of providing a world-leading education system is an issue for the whole community and will need the perspectives of all of us, including the voices of children and young people.

“As an advisory group, we are tasked with ensuring all of these voices and perspectives are heard and acted upon, across the full spectrum of the work that government is doing in education….In that sense, the group is both guardian of these voices, and a watchdog in the best sense. We intend to hold their feet to the fire to ensure that the future of education in New Zealand reflects what people are sharing.”

During 2018 this group will provide a high level overview and help connect strands coming out of the education conversation and summits with the development and delivery of the Government’s strategic education work plan, which includes the reviews of Tomorrow’s Schools and NCEA.

The latter has a separate group of innovative advisers to help review the NCEA process; Jeremy Baker- Chair, Barbara Cavanagh, Pauline Waiti, Michelle Dickinson (“Nanogirl”), Jonathan Gee, Arizona Leger, Charles Darr, plus an NCEA youth advisory group of students . Again there is a good balance of experience and youth and different perspectives.

Given these counterweights, having well regarded representatives of public education institutions at the top Taskforce table might avoid some of the uneasy compromises which led to the changes three decades ago which are now under the spotlight.

Picot Task Force

It is instructive to look at the genesis of many of the changes now under review. The Picot task force was set up by the Lange Labour Government in July 1987 to review the school system and draw some new lines in the sand.

Chaired by businessman Brian Picot its members were Peter Ramsay, an associate professor of education at the University of Waikato, Margaret Rosemergy, a senior lecturer at the Wellington College of Education, Whetumarama Wereta, a social researcher at the Department of Maori Affairs and Colin Wise, another businessman.

They were assisted by staff from the Treasury and the State Services Commission, with the Department of Education sidelined advice-wise but squarely in the cross hairs of the reforming sights of the then Treasury’s Billy the Kid sharpshooters.

There were only two, not particularly high profile, educators in key review positions. This was not the case with the Education Development Conference working parties of the previous decade, in which Prof. Phillip Lawrence, University of Canterbury played a key role, nor is it the case with the make up of the current taskforce.

So those selected for the 2018 Tomorrow’s Schools Review Taskforce appear to have somewhat more collective and diverse knowledge of things educational than their Picot predecessors.

The governance philosophy of the 1980s was based on the tenet that management skills were interchangeable Lego-like between industries. When it came to dealing with groups like teachers and doctors  it was thought necessary to avoid “professional capture” and ignore engaging properly with professionally credible people. Change had to be engineered speedily to head off defensive reaction.

Administrative Focus

The 1987 mandate was to review management structures and cost-effectiveness, but it did not include curriculum, teaching or effectiveness. Over nine months the commission received input from over 700 people or organizations. The Picot Report Administering for Excellence: Effective Administration in Education was released in May 1988.

For slow learners administration was mentioned twice in five words in the title, which still sends a shiver up the spine of those who are wary about too much horse-scaring change management and administrative oversight at the expense of professional leadership which directly enhances teaching and learning.

The report was highly critical of the Department of Education, which it labelled as inefficient and unresponsive. How many education bureaucrats did it take to replace a light bulb in a school? From memory 18 or so, but that may have been a suburban myth.

The Picot report recommended a system where each school would be largely independent, governed by a board consisting mainly of parents, although subject to review and inspection by specialized government agencies. The Labour Government accepted many of the recommendations in their response Tomorrow’s Schools, finally drafted by two officials from the Treasury and the SSC but no educationalists. It became the basis for educational reform in New Zealand starting in 1989 though some key elements in the report were never implemented.

Blaming an inefficient centralised bureaucracy for slipping school standards, the government disestablished the Department of Education, replacing it with a slimmer Ministry of Education and moving the governance of state schools to their individual school communities.

The Department of Education was replaced with six new siloed bodies, the Ministry of Education, the Education Review Office (ERO), the New Zealand Qualifications Authority (NZQA), the Tertiary Education Commission, Careers NZ and the New Zealand Teachers’ Council.

Curriculum reform tinkering occurred in the 1990s, followed by more comprehensive and innovative reform a decade later to update what was being taught in schools in and for the 21st century.

The pendulum had swung radically as pendulums do when given a good shove. Schools scrambled to find property management, financial and HR expertise among their staff or board, particularly in lower decile catchments and struggled with professional development and learning culture change.

To balance their books many schools, particularly at the secondary level, became engaged in what some considered unseemly domestic and international competition for students.

2018 Terms of Reference

The 2018 Taskforce, like 30 years ago, is tasked with looking at “the changes needed to governance, management and administration to better support all learners throughout their schooling” .

Per its terms of reference  it is expected to consult widely with all stakeholders, including representatives of teachers, principals, boards of trustees, the LGBTQIA+ community, parents of children with learning support needs, employers and young people.

The term “Tomorrow’s Schools” still has some surprising currency three decades later, at a time when, according to the OECD, “Skills are the new world currency”. New Zealand’s state schools have hardly been “tomorrow’s schools” for a long time. There is a pent up need for a review of the administrative weight, formerly regionalised or centralised, placed on schools.

No one wants to go back to the constricting confines of the old Department of Education. Its occupation of the reputed biggest wooden building in the Southern Hemisphere made too emphatic a bureaucratic statement.

But while distributed leadership is crucial and empowering in domains such as professional development and curriculum application, when it comes to things like physical infrastructure, HR, health and safety, more regional collaboration and national co-ordination is long overdue and would take pressure off principals and boards.

In the face of a growing quantity and quality crisis a vital national priority like teacher recruitment is still largely devolved to autonomous tertiary teacher education providers.

Senior leadership teams in schools need to be able to focus more on professional development and support, the keys to a quality learning environment. There have been some  promising collaborative initiatives in recent years like the establishment of Communities of Learning involving local primary and secondary schools and sometimes early childhood centres.

Despite  scepticism in some quarters this is a welcome development to encourage knowledge and resource sharing, grow professionalism and develop education leadership. This is also a key strand of Education Leaders Forum 2018: Valuing Educators- Revaluing Education to be held in August.

CoLs give educators the opportunity to model the soft skills like collaboration, knowledge sharing, problem solving, creativity and innovation which are increasingly required in the modern earning environments to which their learners gravitate.

More input and feedback

“The essence of feedback is that the effect of an action is fed back to alter that action.” Edward de Bono

What is needed downstream of the two recent Education Summits, book-ended by The Education Conversation -Kōrero Mātauranga which closes on 31 May, are on-going live and online opportunities for continuing dialogue and feedback on pending reforms.

This could involve using distributed education facilities throughout the country plus interactive platforms like Zoom for focussed live and virtual meetings on key topics.

As well as wider involvement it would provide platforms for special interest groups and experts to pick up in depth on the threads that have evolved so far. It would build in a feedback loop that would go a long way to improving the productive outcome of the education conversation by helping to focus the minds of those on the Taskforce and the Advisory Panel.

To have only a “tick the box” online questionnaire and two invited Summit audiences involved for two days providing input and feedback would be a missed opportunity in terms of continuing real dialogue and feedback.

As always in education discussions there needs to be an adjustment for the Dunning-Kruger effect and its Socratic corollary: “The less you know about something, the more you think you know; the more you know about something, the less you think you know”.

Piloting the next stage of the ambitious millennial education reform juggernaut should not yet become a Han Solo effort. In order to escape the gravitational pull of old systems and outdated mindsets, the energy required to fuel lift-off needs to come from the continued involvement of those affected by or interested in the outcomes of the reform process.

The bandwidth of knowledge is trust. May the Task Force be with us all!

[ https://educationcentral.co.nz/what-do-you-think-about-tomorrows-schools/ 12/6/18-Have your say.]

Lyall Lukey   Convener, Education Leaders Forum 2018

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