My submission calls on politicians to show leadership and stop using the education system for short-term political ends and focus on the central role it plays in building a civil society.
Groucho Marx defined politics as “the art of looking for trouble, finding it everywhere, diagnosing it incorrectly and applying the wrong remedies”.
Regrettably, this Bill meets all elements of that definition.
Submission on the Education (Update) Amendment Bill
I have been engaged with education for over forty years, as a secondary teacher, a parent, a member of a board of trustees (three years as board chair) and as a policy advisor for a teacher union. In that time, I have seen many pieces of legislation introduced without proper care for the impact on schools and students and without the extensive consultation needed to avoid a crash landing. This Bill continues that practice. It does not establish “a strategic direction that allows a focus on children and young people and their educational outcomes” as optimistically promised in the general policy statement but simply adds more competition and incoherence to a system that is already ad hoc, piecemeal and highly-stressed.
The changes proposed in this Bill are not associated with improved educational outcomes and no evidence is provided for the claim that there will be real, as opposed to ideological, gains in respect of “efficiency, effectiveness and accountability”.
2. Preamble: What would a top performing education system look like?
- Top performing education systems share the following features:
- Access to high quality early childhood education especially in poor communities;
- Well-resourced comprehensive schools that don’t stratify students (either within schools or by schools);
- Equitable resourcing with a special focus on socio-economically disadvantaged areas;
- Sufficient trained and qualified teachers;
- Teacher access to relevant professional development, appraisal and support;
- Sufficient trained and qualified principals;
- Support for principals, especially when they are new to the position;
- Collaborative, high-trust relationships between schools and between central agencies and schools;
- Parental involvement;
- Widespread use of technology as a pedagogical tool to build better learning relationships not as a mass cost saver;
- Valuing of coherency over fragmentation.
Testing the proposed changes proposed in the Education (Update) Amendment Bill against these factors confirms that New Zealand is drifting further and further away from models of schooling that are associated with success. The only one New Zealand would get a pass mark on would be parental involvement (Boards of Trustees) and that is being actively undermined by charter schools and now, COOLs.
3. When is an update not an update?
I want to comment on two major elements of this Bill; the establishment of COOLs and the reconstitution of integrated schools as public schools and how those two initiatives fit into the context and operation of the school network. It is something of a sleight of hand to include these two items under the benign title of “Update”. In fact, they presage very significant change and deserved to have been introduced and consulted on separately. Their late and inappropriate appearance in an “update” Bill speaks to a covert agenda.
4.1 It’s not about learning
New Zealand schools already use online learning to expand options for students but they do it in the context of a learning relationship which includes face-to-face support within a wide range of other collaborative school experiences such as drama productions, sporting activities and cultural pursuits. The COOLs proposal shears the emotional content from the learning relationship and reduces it to a content transaction. It is a factory model designed to enable private, probably international, companies to make maximum profits from our children at the lowest possible cost.
4.2 Consultation, research and planning is completely optional
If the intention had been otherwise, there would have been full consultation (including an assessment of the strengths and weaknesses of current NZ online programmes) careful consideration of the research and risks, a long time-scale for the introduction and an implementation plan. Instead this proposal was added to the Bill at the last minute with only a very lightweight regulation impact statement.
4.3 Privatisation is NOT associated with better learning
The haste and the underhand approach suggests that the drivers for this proposal are cost cutting and privatisation not providing the best education for New Zealand kids. The appearance of this proposal at the same time as the failed bulk funding model resurfaces is not coincidental, either. Unless schools can cash up their staffing, they will not have funding to purchase COOL courses. The intention is clearly to screw down school staffing so that small rural secondary schools, in particular, find themselves unable to staff a range of curriculum options for students. They will then be compelled to adopt full online provision regardless of whether this is in the student’s best interests or not. Long term, this can only mean the end of senior secondary provision in many small rural communities. There does not seem to have been any honest attempt to apprise rural parents of this information or to consider the implications for rural communities which have already lost their hospitals, police stations and banks.
4.4 “Rigorous” Accreditation?
It has been suggested that the sections on accreditation in the Bill (35T – 35 ZE) will protect children and the public from the abuses associated with overseas online learning providers. This is nothing but a triumph of hope over experience. The frauds that may be perpetuated by these organisations are not easily discoverable and it beggars belief that the Ministry of Education with its low staff numbers will have any prospect of undertaking the sort of scrutiny that would be required. Moreover, accreditation (or removal of accreditation) will be subject to intense political interest as we have seen in the case of charter schools. Te Pumanawa o te Wairua in Whangaruru began failing a few months after it opened but the Ministry denied the existence of problems for over a year. It took two years to close the school at a cost to the taxpayer was $3.2 million. Similarly, the MPI fish dumping scandal, the visa fraud at private Indian tertiary providers and, most recently, the use of isolation rooms in schools, all reveal an understaffed, beleaguered and politically-cowed public service who are not in a position to provide the level of monitoring that this proposal demands. The promise of “rigorous” accreditation is a sop with no practical application whatsoever.
4.5 Funding – a zero sum game
The most egregious aspect of the introduction of COOLs is one that will operate outside the scope of the legislation. Every student that leaves a face-to-face school to enrol in a COOL takes funding and staffing with them. This means the educational experience for every student that remains in the school will be impoverished. In secondary schools, the loss of even a few students means the loss of subjects from the timetable, reductions in the provision of pastoral care and fewer sporting and cultural options. In order to provide an illusion of choice for a few, the educational potential of all other students is being compromised. Education should not be a zero sum game.
4.6 Fine words but no fair go
In this context, the Bill’s goal in s.1A(3)(a), of the National Educational and Learning Priorities that, “the system must focus on helping each child and young person to attain educational achievement to the best of his/her potential” is contradictory. The system has no intention of ensuring all students get a fair go because for that to happen all New Zealand students would need to be able to attend an equally well-resourced and supported school. That is manifestly not the intention here. The COOLs are being set up to deliberately create an oversupply of places so that schools are forced to compete for students in order to retain sufficient funding and staffing to be able to provide educational opportunities for their students.
4.7 Students pay the price for underfunding
While it is sometimes argued that such market “discipline” will force schools to become more effective, the reality is that students suffer when schools go into roll decline. Moreover, intense competition for students undermines collaboration and fuels mistrust adding to the fragmentation and incoherency that is already such an undesirable feature of the New Zealand system.
4.8 Investing in Educational Success (IES) – so last year
There is no better example of how hopelessly ad hoc and politicised educational decision-making is than the fate of the government’s 2014 flagship programme, Investing in Educational Success (IES). Schools have only just begun getting to grips with the challenge of collaborating after years of competing and instead of being supported in this challenging venture, they have been thrown a curve ball in the shape of competition from COOLs. Add to this the recent bulk funding proposals which will also increase competition and it becomes clear that policies are being developed on the hoof with no thought to consistency and practicality. Taxpayers will rightly be concerned that the $359 million allocated to IES collaboration is probably going to be wasted.
5. Political Leadership
5.1 We have the solution; now to invent the problem
Groucho Marx defined politics as “the art of looking for trouble, finding it everywhere, diagnosing it incorrectly and applying the wrong remedies”. Regrettably, this Bill meets all elements of that definition.
5.2 What does it mean to have compulsory education?
Nowhere does the Bill show any appreciation of the social contract between the State and citizens that is compulsory education. Parents do not send their children to school by choice; since 1877, the State has mandated that children must attend school. This is backed up by s.24 of the 1989 Education Act which authorises punishments for parents who fail to enrol their children in a school. There was nothing whimsical about the 1877 decision. It arose from a long campaign to provide educational opportunities to all children, not just those who happened to have wealthy parents. It was understood that an informed and educated citizenry was an essential part of nation building and that education was a right not a privilege.
It is unconscionable for the State to coerce parents into sending their children to school then take no responsibility for the quality of provision available. The mantra of “parental choice” has become a catch-all phrase that enables politicians to shift responsibility for the provision of a well-resourced and supported national network of schools to parents. Governments authorise the creation of many more schools than are actually needed, and then expect parents to shop round and find one that is suitable and which might accept their child.
5.3 Is it ok to have winner and loser schools in a compulsory system?
The result is the creation of an unequal network of winner and loser schools. Popular schools raise additional money through “donations” and foreign fee-paying students which enables them to provide facilities and services far superior to those of schools in poorer areas. This, in turn, creates an oversupply of “customers” enabling schools to select those students who will bring them most credit.
5.4 Winning formula – control student intake and charge fees.
Integrated schools have been particularly well-placed to take advantage of this market for two reasons: firstly, they have been allowed to charge fees/donations and while this is arguably against the law, there has been no political will to hold them to account; and secondly, the maximum roll device which was supposed protect local public schools from predation has been used to control student intake. The result of this has been well-documented; New Zealand schools have polarised along ethnic and socio-economic lines.
5.5 The lie that lies at the heart of parental choice
The political response has been to hide behind the illusion of parental choice. Schools from poor communities are blamed for not being as effective as their well-funded cousins in the wealthy areas and the implication is made that parents and communities elsewhere are racist. In reality the stratified education system we have is a very deliberate political device. It has not arisen by accident but has been systematically and cynically created to enable our political leaders to abrogate responsibility for funding and support for an effective network of local schools. There is no better example of the complete failure of political leadership of education than the minister of education’s sophistry in claiming that charter schools and COOLs are simply adding to the options available to parents. She would be more aware than most that adding more schools to the network diminishes funding to others and thus overall quality and, as well, shifts costs to parents.
5.6 More school sites = less money for teaching and learning
No business would survive if it opened new branches in areas where customer numbers are in decline yet that is the way the New Zealand education system operates. No rational relationship exists between the opening of new schools and student numbers in any particular area. Whanganui Collegiate was famously integrated even though there were already 1500 surplus places in surrounding schools and tiny charter schools are being regularly set up in communities that are already over-supplied with schools. The result is a network of small, fragile, struggling schools that do not have sufficient student numbers to provide a broad range of options for students.
5.7 COOLs will damage schools
While the market theory is that successful schools should survive while unsuccessful schools go to the wall, the reality is that schools struggle on with the odds stacked against them, trying to do the best job they can. Meanwhile cohorts of students passing through the school are denied the opportunities a compulsory education system should provide. COOLs will do nothing but exacerbate this problem.
5.8 Schools as pork barrels
There is a whiff of pork barrel politics about this process. Politicians enjoy the photo opportunities and electoral kudos that are generated by opening new schools but understandably go to great lengths to avoid the political opprobrium associated with school closure. Consequently, the taxpayer is picking up the tab for multiple, small school sites and for extra staffing despite the economies of scale offered by a single, large institution. A school of 1200 students rather than 4 sites of 300 students each, would allow more investment in the critical part of education - teaching and learning. Except for the case of isolated rural schools which are small by necessity (not through choice) scarce educational dollars should not be being dissipated across small, non-viable sites.
5.9 Let’s spend the money on teaching and learning
Fewer more robust schools would enable class ratios of 1:15 for all schools (not just charter schools) ensure that effective use was made of the trained and qualified teaching resource (rather than seeking to stretch it out by taking on untrained staff and using online delivery) and would guarantee that all schools were well-equipped and fit for purpose. It would also stop the constant increases in charges to parents which are an inevitable concomitant to any system that wastes money on oversupply of places.
6. Integration of the integrated schools
6.1 Private Schools’ Conditional Integration Act
As noted, integrated schools occupy a very privileged place in the New Zealand education system. Although the original intention of the Private Schools Conditional Integration Act was to save the largely catholic schools that were often serving very poor communities, it has become a device whereby wealthy private schools seek full taxpayer funding while continuing to charge “fees” and to select their students.
6.2 Proselytising privileges
The original poor catholic schools have long gone and for the same reasons; the ability to charge attendance dues and “donations” in the context of roll maxima. The trend has been for catholic schools to become whiter and to move up the deciles. Principals talk about the practice of “priest shopping” which is a means whereby non-practising Catholics get certified for entry to catholic schools. While church attendance is in decline throughout New Zealand, rolls are increasing in integrated schools, suggesting that the taxpayer is paying for proselytising.
6.3 What happened to the “secular” bit?
Consistent with the more pluralistic country New Zealand has become, a much wider range of religions are now represented within the integrated school network. Some of these schools have views on gender roles and creationism, for example, that would not find favour with the majority of New Zealand taxpayers. The concern would not be so much with the teaching of these views but with the fact that taxpayer funding is used for such instruction when the system is supposedly compulsory, secular and free. Many of these schools are also very small and struggle to be viable so they add to the problems of over-supply and wasteful use of scarce educational funding.
6.4 Some parents pay for school transport; some don’t.
Integrated schools are also advantaged by receiving free transport. Parents in urban areas who often have to pay transport costs to send their children to the nearest public schools will wonder about the even-handedness of such a provision.
6.5 Time for a difficult conversation
This discussion signals the need for a more comprehensive review of integrated schooling and its place in the New Zealand education system. At the very least, some consideration needs to be given to the possibility of establishing comprehensive, interfaith schools in which provision is made for appropriate modes of worship within the schools but the actual curriculum is not faith-based. This model would meet the needs of those parents who want access to a particular religious doctrine but in a more tolerant and open-minded environment. Importantly, it would be more cost effective and allow for increased spending on teaching and learning priorities as opposed to property and facilities.
7.1 The crystal ball says…
This Bill sets up a back-to-the-future scenario whereby New Zealand returns to the pre-1877 regime with fee-charging “special character” schools for the children of the rich and a mishmash of uneven state provision, including online delivery, for the rest. This cannot be in the interests of either current or future New Zealanders. The public education system ought not to be a series of disconnected learning factories charged with delivering achievement outputs, as this Bill envisages. Events in Europe and USA remind us of the ugly political and social consequences that may arise when the role of education in creating tolerant and informed citizens is compromised by cost-cutting, privatisation and the promotion of socio-economic, ethnic, religious, cultural and gender division. Local schools are one of the few remaining institutions that actually promote community engagement and cohesion. We should not lightly dispense with them.
7.2 First, do no harm…
The honourable course for the Select Committee is to set aside the elements of this Bill that deal with COOLs and with integrated schools because, as it stands, they will actively and dangerously add to the incoherence and polarisation that currently characterises our system. There has simply not been sufficient consultation and consideration of the implications and the alternatives. The process needs to start over with an honest and comprehensive national discussion about how we can best serve the educational needs of all New Zealand children and what online delivery and faith-based schools might contribute to that. Imposing a top-down “solution” prepared earlier and devoid of any real understanding of the problem, will not do.
7.3 Inquiry-based learning – it works for kids
In the past, changes of the magnitude proposed in this Bill would not have appeared without some form of extensive public enquiry or investigation; that this has not happened indicates a certain contempt for the democratic process. The Select Committee needs to provide the sort of strategic, non-partisan leadership that is so lacking in New Zealand (and the world) at the moment via a review of educational provision in New Zealand. In the absence of any political will to provide such leadership, a royal commission would be the least that the public has a right to expect.