13 March 2019
Re: Our Schooling Future: Stronger Together: Whiria Nga Kura Tuatinitini.
An essay in response to a paper from Emeritus Professor Gary R. Hawke to the Report by the Tomorrows Schools Independent Taskforce (Wellington: Ministry of Education, November 2018).
Having a long history in New Zealand public policy-making in education makes a paper from Emeritus Professor Gary R. Hawke worth reading. However, venerable though he is, the professor’s best points about the draft report from the Tomorrow’s Schools Taskforce will escape many in the sector. This is a shame.
I need to declare a connection. Professor Hawke led the paper I completed on public policy and education during my master’s in public policy. The professor was the arbiter for my prize-winning thesis on the intersection between community and education. He wrote the Preface to my book Southern Transformation: Searching for Educational Success in South Auckland, published by Victoria University Press in 2016, in which I called for the intermediary mechanism that the Taskforce now calls a hub. He was particular in his teaching about the way in which policy alternatives must be presented to political decision-makers. He insists: “The core of policy development is through selection of feasible alternatives rather than assertion of a desirable outcome.”
However, knowing where you are going with policy-making is no bad thing. Self-managing schools were supposed to give communities power, to take decision-making about learning closer to the classroom door, to offer Māori opportunities to run their own show. The promise has been poorly fulfilled; and it is perfectly OK to sheet that home to policy design. The mantra that accompanied the Tomorrow’s Schools reforms in the late 1980s (“Good people, bad design”, as the professor reminds us) could be substantiated by ‘evidence’. Firstly, of political experience (David Lange and the tribulations of schools in his Mangere electorate), secondly, the evidence of researchers monitoring the impacts of old-school policy-making in places like South Auckland (Peter Ramsay: ‘Tomorrow May Be Too Late’) , thirdly, the Chicago School ideologies of the day which called for government to get the hell out of everything, and of course, and not least of all, the calls from Maori for tino rangatiratanga and de-colonisation of education. The professor is at pains to point out that policy-making is deeply contextual. So history matters.
However, the very poor evaluative agenda accompanying the original reforms has hampered our understanding of what improvement at scale has already been delivered through the Tomorrow’s Schools model and tweaks of it since. We simply don’t have the before-and-after evidence to say that we are more of this or less of that now that we have a self-managing education system. Causal relationships are notoriously difficult to sheet home. What the literature about social system transformation does tell us, however, is that the debate between structure and process improvement is not helpful (in exactly the same way that drawing the dichotomy between local autonomy and central control are not, as the professor writes.)
Taskforce members have talked to practitioners, and they find that the practice, at least, hasn’t met the expectations for the policy in one significant respect: we have a deeply inequitable education system. However, total system redesign has clearly come off the table. Despite some rhetoric and deliberate misreading surrounding the response to the report, boards of trustees are not disappearing. Nor should they. If there is one thing that has been successful about the Tomorrow’ Schools reforms, it is about learning leaders owning what happens in classrooms. Waiting from some missive from on high has never been a useful strategy for ‘responsive’ teaching. As the Scots knew back in reformation days, the freedom to think for oneself is encouraged and enabled by learning and leadership that is local. Devolution of classroom management and teacher employment – intertwined matters – has certainly given our education system one of the characteristics of top-performing education systems. So, no tinkering with that required.
That hasn’t been enough, though, to keep New Zealand at the top of international league tables (if that’s a measure worth thinking about), or to make our schools ready for the disruptions now upon us (think Artificial Intelligence and its consequences, climate change, and so on). Waves of schooling improvement haven’t reversed a disturbing trend of increasing disparity in student outcomes across schools and within schools. Self-management has been the policy fixture around which these waves have lapped. But schooling improvement has proven very hard to do alone. The mechanisms for doing it together have been equally challenging.
The Taskforce’s eight-issues analysis of what is wrong with the present model joins other analyses over the years. On the 20th anniversary of Tomorrow’s Schools, the Cognition Institute published a series of essays from “thought leaders”. Variously, the problems then were summarised as system fragmentation; the dominance of managerialism and industrial relationships; variation in local level capacity; lack of policy coordination and oversight; competition versus cooperation; promoting real community involvement; and challenges in ‘real improvement’ in teaching and learning. Another way of expressing the problem is this:
Current opponents seem to think that if they keep saying that the NZ education system is “world class” then the significant portion of the population whose children are failing and having their life choices massively restricted will look the other way. If what we have is world class, then “world class” is not good enough. No one involved in education should be satisfied until we are absolutely world leading – for all groups.
Policy analysis does begin with problem definition. It seems that agreement on the problem depends a great deal on your experience of the system or your politically preferred policy solution: as a board member; a principal; a researcher; a public servant; as Māori; as an industry leader frustrated at entry-level labour market offerings; as a Minister or as a member of the Opposition—oh, and as a student. The sum of expressed dissatisfactions with the Tomorrow’s Schools model (from all except the most privileged) demand new options in policy–making. The Taskforce’s conclusion—that the system has failed to deliver equity—is as good as any other starting point for public policy that must deliver on the Prime Minister’s express desire to ‘invest in wellbeing’.
Like the compound lenses of a fly, the self-managing schools model creates multiple visions which may or may not support government or community objectives. Will the Taskforce’s proposed changes to structures enable the system to develop into the government’s vision? Or will the system continue to express vision through the multiple eyes of 2,500 boards of trustees and their principals—plus 20 hubs?
System settings matter. They shape the conditions that hold educational inequity in place. Despite the professor’s assertions, governance is an issue, and how and where it is exercised matters—not least because schools are crown entities using crown money for public purposes. However, the evidence about quality governance is difficult to sheet home. Around boards of trustees there is no quality assurance. There is no before-and-after measurement, no benchmarking, no scientific method. There is only self-reporting and self-satisfied assertions based on the idea that what you don’t know probably doesn’t matter and if it ain’t broke don’t fix it. Which is less than satisfactory in policy-making terms.
Senge and others show us that changing one part of a system will have consequences for other parts. Being deliberate about that is the art of good policy-making. But before we rush there, we do need to consider alternatives. Well, some have already been explored and found wanting. Mostly, these have centred on process improvements under the banner of schooling improvement initiatives or statutory interventions. The educational c-word has been definitively ruled out, although charter schools remain a policy position that governments could at any time reinstate. Kahui Ako/Communities of Learning are still struggling to deliver the shifts and scale required as processes collide with structures—apart from demonstrating that cloudy policy formulation can occasionally deliver a silver lining. As Professor Hawke rightly points out, process improvements are best made by those engaged in the doing. However, we should not imagine that process improvements alone shift the equity dial.
So, it’s perfectly reasonable for the Taskforce to go looking for something that strikes deeper into the psyche of the model. Like updated software, every once in while a system needs to reassess the relationships among key actors, the distribution of power and potential, the institutional norms and constraints, the attitudes and assumptions that influence decisions. Rethinking what boards do responds to the advice (presented to the previous government and this one) that our system is missing a critical ingredient – connectedness. Doesn’t sound much, then, does it, to craft a policy solution?
Here’s the rub. If hubs are about bossing schools in the old hierarchical fashion, then the Taskforce will have got it wrong. But I don’t think it has. It just hasn’t expressed the processes and desired attitudinal shifts inside a policy story. Hubs should offer more than ‘service provision’. They must be able to respond flexibly, intelligently, sensitively, without bureaucratic constraints but within state sector accountabilities, to the social and cultural disruptions of our age, to the government’s desire for social well-being, with the right resources and the right capacities to make our system world-leading, without schools having to do this all by themselves. In fact, well-led hubs will be enablers and experts that add value to where it matters most: in the classroom, for whanau and children. If its recommendations are to go anywhere, the Taskforce needs to be able to show in rather more detail how the hubs would add value to learning. Its final report should certainly begin with the idea that missing ingredients like catalytic system leadership and shared expertise must be located somewhere; and that the processes around leadership and shared expertise are themselves shaped by the attitudes and cultural norms of system actors.
Which brings us to the ‘new’ in the Taskforce’s report, as distinct from the merely re-organised. Professor Hawke neatly describes the discomforts and evasions associated with evaluation and accountability in relation to educational delivery. While undoubtedly evidence-based, I choose a different hobby-horse. The challenges of education in this country are embedded in the challenges of communities. Notwithstanding the variations in community capacity, reserving and enhancing community ownership of schools is important on a psychological level as well as a philosophical one. The taskforce hasn’t played up enough of its proposal to keep boards in place. Nor has it demonstrated clearly enough how its clever mechanism for supporting boards and principals in their core business can save the day. Well-run hubs will develop a culture that encourages community problem-solving efforts and shapes responsive in-school curriculum design and delivery – in a way that adds to the resources schools and their communities have. Professor Hawke observes that “turning a national curriculum into a local syllabus and thence into teaching plans requires more specialised expertise and less reliance on teachers as a whole than was thought in 1988-89,” and that the practical consequence of this is redeployment of the expertise that floats inequitably around the system already. Indeed, the whole question of resource allocation (apart from funding inadequacy) is something that the Taskforce omits. The bigger omission is any reference to the stream of government work on social investment targeted to the very inequalities that the Taskforce wishes to address. The hubs have greatest meaning when they are not a cost centre but a mechanism for “applying rigorous and evidence-based investment” into educational services.
Hubs as Crown Entities operating under the same arrangements as boards of trustees ought to have an independence of thought and possibilities that Ministry offices do not. It seems a shame to limit them to ‘service delivery’. As a co-governance arrangement alongside boards, hubs can play a broker role for all sorts of social investment; from shaping and sustaining well-resourced connections to tangata whenua or mana whenua to improve Māori student outcomes; to strengthened and purposeful learning pathways into industry and local employment and training. Quality initiatives already operating (such as a high-functioning Kahui Ako) may retain their resources. Others may lose their priority. That’s local-level decision-making that boards of trustees and principals and communities currently don’t have a stake in; and they should.
But we can’t expect that hubs will develop an enabling and inclusive culture without careful preparation of the ground. Responses to the Taskforce proposal have built on fears that the managerial culture of the Ministry of Education may prevail. The Taskforce identifies two separate structural tasks: the re-organisation of government agencies; and the establishment of the new. These processes should in no way be confused. How one goes about creating a new provider dynamic will be different to how one goes about shuffling cards in the central government agency pack. Public policy has learned some lessons already about transitioning and establishing – for example, in the major local government re-organisation arising from the work of the Royal Commission on governance in Auckland. A special-purpose Auckland Transition Agency was established and dissolved by statute, and its specific purpose was to plan and manage everything to ensure that a new Auckland Council was ready to function on and from 1 November 2010. Its whole life was run full-tilt and the change wasn’t perfect, but it neatly managed all the conflicts of interest that are embedded in public sector start-ups.
The trite response that the devil is in the detail holds true here. Co-governance has multiple versions. The Taskforce could usefully explore some of these in its final report, especially in defining constitutions and identifying pivotal personnel during the establishment phase, what they could do and how they could do it. The professor describes the ‘fixation’ on boards of trustees, as though the Taskforce might have avoided the issue of governance altogether. Of course, it is entirely possible that his preferred policy analysis might have led to the conclusion that technology or some other influence would take care of the complaints culture and symptoms of poor accountability within schools and across the sector that he describes. Then again, analysts are told that not listening to stakeholder interests is a recipe for poor policy outcomes. The Taskforce’s brave recommendations are not all going to fly—and I don’t support them all. But my experience in South Auckland does suggest that addressing the system DNA, rather than blaming system actors and victims, might support that search for a Southern Transformation. A transformation supported by the education system, rather than being tripped up by it.
Emeritus Professor Gary Hawke’s status as a hero at the birth of Tomorrow’s Schools is unquestionable. However, I do not apologise for my temerity in addressing this essay as a response to his on the Taskforce’s report. I am an advocate for disruption that addresses educational inequity. I like the way Vladimir Nabokov describes transformation. It might be useful to the Taskforce as a guiding metaphor:
Though wonderful to watch, transformation from larva to pupa or from pupa to butterfly is not a particularly pleasant process for the subject involved. There comes for every caterpillar a difficult moment when he begins to feel pervaded by an odd sense of discomfort. It is a tight feeling—here about the neck and elsewhere, and then an unbearable itch. Of course he has moulted a few times before, but that is nothing in comparison to the tickle and urge that he feels now. He must shed that tight dry skin, or die.
 John Langley (ed) 2009: Tomorrow’s Schools 20 years on…, Cognition Institute. www.cognitioninstitute.org
 The Villa Education Trust