Is there anything good about COOLs?

Tom Haig offers a considered reflection on a heated topic

A number of people have been writing recently about how the reaction to COOLs has been ‘hysterical’ and just the ‘sweeping assumptions’ of the usual Luddites and conspiracy theorists.

While I had a strong reaction, I don’t think it was a knee jerk. There’s a huge amount to read on the changes in the Education (Update) Amendment Bill.  I’m wading my way through it, and have found a lot to like in there. Generally, and  I think in this case, I try to assess new ideas on their merits rather than on who they come from.

So with some more time to reflect, and having read a number of people who are saying let’s look more closely at this, here are some more balanced thoughts.

So what's cool about COOLs

1. Promoting online & blended learning

Learning online is here and provides wonderful opportunities. Ten years ago I was using skype to link my classes up to experts around the world, they were writing blogs and so forth, and the possibilities of technology to enhance learning have increased since then. The examples given by politicians in the speeches in parliament about this, of the Pūtaiao teachers sharing their lessons with kura around the country, of students on Stewart island learning Mandarin, all demonstrate some of these.

Removing the barriers to better (not necessarily the same as more) blended and online learning is something we need to do. It’s good that people in the Ministry are thinking about this.

2. Te Kura possibly needing a change

The legislation and funding of Te Kura reflects a different era, and it’s probably timely to have a look at it. Recognising that online/distance/supplementary learning isn’t just provided by Te Kura now, and how to better support and enable that is also worth doing.

3. Support for the VLNs

The COOLs legislation gives the potential for the VLNs to be funded and supported much better than they are now. The recognition in the RIS that they run on good will is important, and it’s not surprising that some of the support for COOLs has come from this area.

And what's UnCOOL?

1. Process

Announcing major educational change at the point that it’s about to be put into law is appalling. The government didn’t even do that with charter schools. The opportunity for meaningful change through the select committee and committee of the whole house process is minimal –partisan politics dominates far more than good policy making at this point, and frankly most of the people involved are more interested in the optics than getting a good result.

2. Lack of consultation

The leadership of Te Kura, as far as I can tell, were the only people consulted with. This would be fine for technical changes to the legislation that governs them, like what’s happened to NZCER lately, but this has far wider implications that Te Kura. The Minister has her Cross Sector Forum for this very purpose. The consultation on the rest of the changes in the Act was actually meaningful,  they made changes as a result of the input. Why on earth not do the same with this?

3. Poorly researched

There is only one document that the Ministry has released to show the basis for this policy change, which is highly unusual, given there’s usually a bundle of reports, cabinet papers and so forth when there are significant policy developments like this. The research in that one paper is woefully bad.

4. Evidence against full-time online schools

There is a wealth of overseas evidence about blended and full-time online learning.  A lot of it, especially for full-time online schools is poor. This isn’t something that’s hard to find or controversial – a lot of promoters of online education are saying, “Hold on, let’s find out what’s going wrong before we go further down this route.” Did the Minister or Ministry engage with this? Not at all; they conflate full time on-line with blended (which is entirely different and they know it) or ignore it and claim that people raising criticisms are ‘fighting the future’.  

5. Open choice

There are students for whom attending a bricks and mortar school is very difficult, whether for health, location or other reasons. These students need other options, and currently Te Kura offers that. Maybe there could be other schools which could do this too. But opening up full-time online learning to all students as a first choice option goes well beyond this.  Was there any discussion about doing this before this legislation emerged? Not that I saw.

 This legislation sets up online schools in direct competition for students with every other school in the country. Students who may be entirely inappropriate to attend an online school will be able to do so. Yes, we value choice, but it’s a good that’s weighed up against others – this puts choice as the foremost good at the expense of all the others, such as protection for vulnerable people, collaboration, efficient use of resources and so forth.

6. Private providers

This legislation is even broader than the charter school legislation in who can get accredited, and funded. In the UK, which has in many ways gone much further down the education privatisation route than NZ, for-profits are not allowed to run schools directly (though they can be contracted to manage them). There are many good reasons for this.  Further opening up the education ‘market’ (over $6 billion a year in public funding goes to schools) could be lucrative business, and even not-for profit organisations in this space often behave a lot like for-profit corporates. What’s the problem with public provision and boards of trustees governing schools? Neither the Minister nor the Minstry say what it is – except that the policy makers think that private providers may be more innovative. Again, no evidence presented, nor any downsides.

7. Unregistered 'teachers'

The Education Council has explained the problem with this well, so I’ll just link to Graham Stoop’s very good statement.

8. Permissive legislation

This is a bit of an esoteric issue, but it’s actually an important point for how our democracy works. This bill, like a number of recent ones, sets up legislation which is very broad brush and open, and leaves a lot of crucial details (like how these schools are accredited, monitored, evaluated, funded, contracted with… ) to be dealt with in regulation. This isn’t subject to the same level of parliamentary scrutiny, and is basically just written by officials and signed off. The legislation for online schools as a result of this is slimmer than for charter schools or private tertiary establishments, meaning that the responsibility for a lot of the way that they will work is left to bureaucrats rather than MPs who can be held accountable.

9. Contradictory to other policy

Of course the obvious point here is that the competitive market model that these are premised on flies in the face of IES and the new world of collaboration that this is supposed to herald. But even more grating, other bits of the Education (Update) Amendment Bill push in the other direction from COOLs – for example the greater ability of the Ministry of Ed to make schools put on zones. Remember, zones were scrapped to promote choice in the 1990s, with disastrous outcomes, but have been reintroduced and gradually strengthened since. On one hand this legislation is saying, we need to be more active in managing the school network and if that means limiting choice to a certain extent, so be it, and on the other it’s opening up a free for all.

10. Being made up on the spot

It’s also clear that the Minister has been feeling the heat on this and may be backing off from some of the more controversial bits of the policy. See here for example. It's far from an ideal way to make such critical decisions.

Last modified on Tuesday, 11 April 2017 13:14