The Education Act update that’s touring the country at the moment, with Ministry officials doing a sterling job of talking to as many teachers as possible, got me thinking about some big questions about our system, and not only the ones in the glossy documents.
What strikes me is that there does seem to be a widely shared understanding (thanks Cathy Wylie, and others) that our fragmented and competitive system needs to change. As the document says
“The law should also make it easier for schools … to work together more…”
And further through,
“It may also be useful to let groups of schools and kura work together when they are planning and reporting. This will help a community plan more cohesively, share expertise and reduce administration.”
This sounds great. But there’s one big problem.
If we’ve got a system where schools are set up to compete, i.e. Tomorrow’s Schools, then ‘allowing’ them to collaborate more is not going to solve this. For schools that are ‘winning’ under the current model, (the ones that the news media refer to as ‘top schools’) bulging at the seams and collecting millions of dollars in locally raised funds, what’s the incentive for them to collaborate? And if they’re not going to opt in, what’s the chance of area strategies for education working?
The changes underway specifically exclude ‘self-management of schools and kura’, which is the basis of Tomorrow’s Schools. So it looks very unlikely that there’s going to be any way to make the ‘winning’ schools behave more collaboratively, and current practises from the Auckland Grammars, Kings High School and the rest will no doubt continue.
This leads to a point that the Minister made recently in this speech. She discussed her experience of, and dislike for streaming, along with the (pretty compelling) evidence against it from the Best Evidence Synthesis. It won’t be a surprise that most of the ‘winning’ schools under our competitive system disagree and stream students intensively – with Auckland Grammar of course being the lead exponent. Despite what the Minister, and the evidence, say – there’s no ruling, or even any guidance on this practice from the Ministry- it’s up to each school to decide. Again, voluntarism rules – or is it being afraid to tread on toes?
One more piece of the puzzle is the decile funding system. At present schools with the most students from the poorest 10% of the population get around 15-20% more funding than those with the least (not counting the large sums that schools which serve wealthy communities can raise themselves). The purpose of this is to compensate for the additional educational challenges that these students face. However, there is increasingly convincing evidence emerging from around the world that to offer the same educational opportunities to children from very poor or struggling homes would cost around double what it would cost to educate privileged children. And despite this, people like John Morris, former principal of Auckland Grammar, still claim that low decile schools are awash with cash when schools like his are struggling.
I think what these examples point to is that we’ve got a system which protects the autonomy, and the resourcing of a few big ‘successful’ schools, flying in the face of the evidence and at the expense of the rest. So where does the power lie?
Well, clearly a lot with the Minister, but maybe not as much as we sometimes think, as the example above shows. She alluded to this in the same speech, when she discussed Shanghai and Beijing’s ‘equity and excellence’ gap being the lowest in the OECD- and she wistfully reflected that she doesn’t have the same ‘levers available’ that they do there.
So maybe it’s the principals of these ‘top’ schools who hold the power (as we all know a strong principal can lead their Board by the collar), with a Ministry that would like to create a more cohesive system unwilling to even propose taking a more hands on leadership role. But it’s not just them.
It’s also, and perhaps most importantly, the parents at these schools that hold the power. And they’re almost certainly the same ones that Max Rashbrooke identified in his work on wealth inequality in New Zealand – the wealthiest 10% who own more than half the assets of the country. Their choice to attend these schools, pour resources into them, and fight for them (with advocates like Matthew Hooton) is the flip side of the ‘struggling schools’ story. As Rashbrooke writes, a seesaw doesn’t make sense if you only look at one end of it. And education policy that continues to allow ‘top’ schools to deny the evidence, deny resourcing to schools that need it more, and protect their autonomy when it’s hurting the rest looks like a see saw that’s well out of kilter to me.