'Stalinist' or 'exciting' education change

The responses "Stalinist'' and "exciting'' were quickly picked up in discussion about the Tomorrow's School Review released last week. These extremes give a hint of things to come.

Should the review's recommendations be carried out, they would represent an upheaval of major magnitude, larger some say than even the radical changes from 1989's Tomorrow's Schools.

Little wonder, then, that those supporting "parental choice'' and those wanting a "fairer'' system could be a long way apart. This is a practical and ideological gulf that needs to be bridged.

The "independent'' taskforce laid out emphatically its criticisms of today's schools. Performance in some subjects had levelled off and in others deteriorated, the system failed the poor and Maori and Pacific pupils, principals were under too much stress and isolated, enrolment schemes were manipulated and shamelessly unfair and boards of trustees had too much responsibility.

Parenthetically, it can be noted the "independent'' claim for the taskforce is - as is often the case with inquiries - hardly convincing. Taskforce chairman Bali Haque wrote a book criticising the secondary school system, and he has also been on the PPTA executive and president of the Secondary Principals' Association. No-one, however, could deny his broad secondary education expertise.

Proposed are 20 education hubs, each overseeing about 125 schools. They would look after the likes of property management, health and safety issues, IT advice and HR, although some functions could be delegated back. The hubs would also appoint principals, although boards could have vetoes.

Hubs would also have responsibility for suspensions and expulsions and parent complaints.

The taskforce also recommends an end to intermediates, favouring year 7 to year 10 schools. Donations would be limited as would out-of-zone enrolments. The decile system would be scrapped for an equity index to boost funding for schools in poorer areas. Professional support would also be stepped up and principals could be in charge of more than one school.

Reviews often have little issue identifying problems. The huge challenge is in constructing options that can be put into practice without too many drawbacks of their own.

In the debate on the future of schools it will be important to recognise what these might be. Will schools and teachers be less inclined to strive for the very best in a less competitive environment? Will connections with communities be weakened and voluntary support lessened? Will parents and pupils have fewer choices and will the diversity of schools' flavours be reduced? Will school boards become just advisory bodies without real power?

Supposedly, they and principals would have more time and energy to concentrate on pupil achievement. But are not the likes of the appointment of the principal and even board nitty-gritty fundamental to pupil success?

What about the bureaucracies created by the hubs? Why could not their roles and their advice be provided by a strengthened ministry? Could collaboration rather than competition be fostered in other ways?

The taskforce diagnoses legitimate and serious shortcomings. Change will be needed. The taskforce argues for a revolution which overturns Tomorrow's Schools. It argues against just adapting and tweaking the present system. But upheaval on this scale is enormously difficult to achieve in the face of a well-embedded structure and school ties to communities and their history. Is there a way to achieve some of the best of both education worlds? Can school autonomy and character be maintained while ameliorating the present disadvantages? What about all the schools - there are many - thriving under the present system?

National's reaction to the taskforce review was measured, and there could be some common ground. Ideally, some sort of consensus can be achieved so changes last.

The taskforce seeks responses to its recommendation by April 7 next year. There is much to debate.



Junior College, in the final years of childhood, is an improvement on intermediate prep for Secondary.

What dinosaur would say 'Stalinist'? Whoever he was.

Society is far different today than it was in 1989. Back then the WWW was an infant, Paper was still the most dominant form of correspondence, and bank branches were busier.

These ideas will effectively kill off school brands, history and traditions. The likes of Kings, Otago Boys, Otago Girls etc will become senior colleges, it sounds like uniforms will go and seems to be a purely ideological exercise to make schools identical.