Does the education system really need another major
overhaul? David McKenzie, of Dunedin, urges a more cautious
Dr Cathy Wylie (ODT, 27.12.12) calls for yet another
radical reform of the education system in New Zealand.
Her views are important because Dr Wylie is a person who
possesses an almost unrivalled knowledge of how schools
throughout this country actually work.
She concludes that the reforms of the 1980s, which identified
the self-managing school as the central unit of
administration, need now to be modified by adding regional
authorities, which would also be represented at the senior
level in the Ministry of Education.
In this way, Dr Wylie argues, schools which are now isolated
from one another (and each competing with one another, in
fact) would be encouraged to co-operate in building and
sharing knowledge about teaching and learning.
She notes that, in a given year, 20% of the schools are not
at present managing well. In large part I sympathise with Dr
Wylie's analysis, but I am not persuaded that the reforms
which she urges are the right way to proceed.
The model of the self-managing school which was introduced by
the Picot reforms is, as Dr Wylie notes, pretty much unique
in the world.
But it grew out of a long tradition of ''localism'' in New
Zealand education and I fear that if boards of trustees were
now to have their powers seriously eroded, fewer people would
want to devote their time and energy to this kind of work.
One way forward could be for the Government to encourage
those boards of trustees which are willing, to amalgamate and
look after several schools.
This is possible under present legislation and has plenty of
Many Dunedin people will remember, for example, a time when
several leading secondary schools in the city were governed
by a single board. Clearly, Dr Wylie also has serious doubts
about the way in which school principals are appointed. I
agree with her that it is timely to review these procedures,
which should be professionally robust and avoid extreme
But a word of warning from our education history.
Any reform which effectively gives appointment powers to an
outside authority is most likely to accelerate a flood of
departing members from boards of trustees who want something
more to do than run the chocolate wheel at school fairs.
Here, as in so many things, it is a fine line which must be
Dr Wylie's major burden of complaint is that the decision in
the 1980s to create a Ministry of Education that would not
work alongside schools has created a vacuum in professional
leadership which now desperately needs to be filled.
I believe that she is right.
But my preference would be to use the ministry's present
regional offices to do all the things that she considers
Of course, a government of the day does not have to heed the
advice of its officials, but at least advice which draws upon
knowledge of what is happening in the respective regions
stands a better chance of being convincing than does advice
based upon poring over spreadsheets of national test data
which, not to put too fine a point on it, are presently of
very dubious value.
For most of the 20th century, the former Department of
Education built up a successful and progressive system of
education through its professional leadership.
I see no obvious reason why this tradition could not now be
called upon once more.
- David McKenzie is a former associate professor of
education at the University of Otago.