Sunday, August 15, 2010

Tomorrow's Schools

Each education minister has to relearn a lesson, which their predecessors have already learnt the hard way. You can make education policy in offices in the Capital, but you cannot implement it without the cooperation of teachers. Therefore in some way, the politicians and the teachers have to establish a working relationship.

It was one of David Lange's tragedies that he had insufficient time to attempt that relationship. Education is too large a portfolio to give to the Prime Minister. Twenty-two years ago, however, he launched the ‘Tomorrow’s Schools” education administration reforms. It was my good fortune to be one of his aides at the time. The reforms were based on a premise of trust. Lange kept talking about a covenant. He deliberately used it in a legal sense. The community should be able to know that the school had the necessary resources and teachers to deliver the required education. The State had that responsibility. It was a clear vision - underpinned no doubt by his Methodist upbringing. He saw it as a three-way partnership: school, community and government.

He also wanted to ensure that the changeover disrupted young people’s schooling as little as possible. The process was like refitting a ship while it was sailing. To this end, he appointed four well-known educators and charged them with making sure the refit did not disadvantage students. It seemed to me then, and does now, that this is a good consultative model. It worked well.

Two decades on from the introduction of Tomorrow’s Schools, it is interesting to reflect that of the three partners, the parents and their community, the teaching profession, and Government and its agencies, the boards of trustees are now probably the smoothest running part of that trio. There have been personality and/or ideological hiccups in some schools; but on the whole, the trustees have got on with their job with energy, enthusiasm and competence.

Admittedly, there are schools which have struggled and Government has had to intervene. At first glance, this makes it appear as if the Picot proposal of self-management that led to Tomorrow’s Schools was not a good model. Not seen in that glance is the removal of the safeguards Picot envisaged, such as a Parents Advocacy Council and Community Forums. The removal of such safeguards has seen the imposition of centralist policies – often developed without professional input – and a return to the old stop-go model that Picot condemned.

This brings me to the third group of the partnership, teachers. They feel sidelined. They are engaged in a complex and challenging task, spurring, maintaining, and facilitating learning and the motivation to learn with a diverse group of young people. They have knowledge and expertise. They believe they are engaged in an essential task. Unless they do their job well, the knowledge society demanded by our policy-makers will remain a mirage. Yet this sense of strong marginalisation remains. The administrative reforms envisaged the empowering of the profession as well as the local community through self-managing schools. That has not happened. And unless it happens, many an impasse in the system will remain.

The 1988 education reforms were about the administrative delivery of education. It is worth recalling that Lange claimed they were only the first leg of the double. The second leg was to be curriculum, the what, why and how of teaching and how learning was evaluated. In various ways his successors and their officers have wrestled with this issue.

International studies reveal that our top students do well. They also reveal, as in other countries, a big tail. That is, rightly and necessarily, of concern. But politicians have to accept that education alone cannot solve this problem. The widening poverty gap in society has a huge educational impact. An unhealthy child, a malnourished child, a battered child, an emotionally disturbed child will not learn well. A weekend of booze and drugs is not a good background for educational success. School cannot be divorced from society. Government policies have impact. The educational consequences of decisions made in the Beehive need careful consideration.

The term 'Tomrrow's Schools' has become a ragbag for all sorts of education changes and initiatives. It's time we dropped it and started talking about 'Today's Schools'.

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