A rebore with the engine running, Harvey McQueen

Reforming Education: The New Zealand Experience 1984-1996
Graham and Susan Butterworth
Dunmore Press, $39.95,
ISBN 0 86469 334 6

The book’s cover shows five scowling youngsters – not a good introduction to an account of the most far-reaching structural change in education that New Zealand has ever seen. This is a blow-by-blow account, worthy and full of detail. The cartoons are marvellous. But something organic is missing. I worked as one of David Lange’s advisers during the Tomorrow’s Schools policy launch, and, as a participant, it seems to me that although the Butterworths endeavour to get the sense of mission and commitment, they miss the excitement. Maybe that is expecting too much of commissioned history but while outsiders can bring a fresh perspective, these two authors fail to come to grips with the complexities of education. The major problem is that they have talked to the generals but not to the troops, and they accept uncritically what they have been told. Nor does their research appear to be thorough. Recent university research and my own account – The Ninth Floor (1991) – are not referred to.

The reforms represented an attempt to move away from a centralised and paternalistic administrative system. They were part of a worldwide trend towards more self-managing schools, and away from the Industrial Revolution factory-type model. The existing education bureaucracy reflected this 19th-century origin, as well as the state paternalism of this century, which was a response to last century’s laissez faire excesses. The architects of the reforms also glimpsed the possibilities and challenges of the so-called Information Revolution.

Part and parcel of this revolution is parents’ growing concern about their children’s education and an increasing adult interest in life-long learning. Increasingly, questions were being asked about how well our system and others stood up to the educator’s rhetoric of meeting the needs of every child. Earlier reports, Atmore and then Currie, had suggested major administrative changes but these calls went unheeded. The system had grown topsy-like since 1887, so an overhaul was timely. As the Butterworths conclude:

Yet whatever else is certain, we are sure of this much, no one we have met would go back to the past, even if they could. Not that the educational past was bad, because it was not. It was decent, diligent and earnest. But its administrative system belonged to a vanishing world, and had become intolerably frustrating for too many people. For better and for worse, we are now living in a new era.

The continuing conflict between local autonomy and centralised action is the real story of the reforms – the interface between autonomy and accountability. Basically it was a top-down attempt to enable more empowerment at the local level – democratic localism laid down by central government. But the implementation of Tomorrow’s Schools has been increasingly captured by officials who work for and to the Minister. We inhabit a small country and not only are politicians tempted to meddle, New Zealanders tend to take their concerns to the top.

A further problem was that empowerment did not come with adequate resourcing. One cause of the 1989 political turmoil was that Roger Douglas wanted to chop education funding. The Butterworths accurately describe the subsequent funding squeeze:

As Minister of Education, [Lockwood] Smith had inherited a system that was just beginning to settle down after the trauma of transition. He took the necessary steps to maintain the momentum of the reform process, but was thwarted to some extent by the fiscal crisis of the early 1990s. Labour had been willing to address the problem by increasing resources, but by 1990 that option had run out. Smith had an obligation to his Cabinet colleagues to reduce and hold expenditure.

They go on to point out the consequences for bulk funding, a cornerstone of the 1988 report of the five-member Picot Committee that recommended sweeping administrative changes in education:

When the reduction in the tertiary sector is coupled with the funding cuts in the early childhood sector, and the government’s refusal to allow even the schools’ operational grants to be adjusted for inflation, it becomes obvious that some very bad signals were being received by the compulsory sector. Its reluctance to accept full self-management on the Picot model is therefore very understandable.

They then conclude: “While this has left us with a partially rather than a systematically reformed education system, it is nonetheless a system that works and has achieved a steady state.

In my view this is incorrect. A steady state has not been achieved. Funding remains a contentious issue at the heart of the reforms. Apart from this ongoing funding friction, what have been the other effects? The first thing that must be said is that the transition to a new system went remarkably well considering the size of the task. Students went on learning and teachers went on teaching while around them different forms of governance were put in place. Lange describes it as “reboring the car with the engine running.” But it was larger than that – more like refitting a gigantic liner while it continued to cruise with thousands of passengers and crew. Nearly ten years after the legislation was enacted, it is easy to forget, especially for primary schools, how momentous the changes were.

Four leading educators, Judith Carter, Marie Clay, Wiremu Kaa and Jack Shallcrass, were charged with ensuring that the introduction of the reforms for the schools was educationally sound, a fact the Butterworths do not mention. These people did their job well. In structural terms it is the sectors on either side of the school system, early childhood and tertiary, that have experienced more difficulty. Maybe the Picot template did not fit as well there; maybe it was not applied properly. Certainly the funding cuts bit more heavily into these two sectors. The emasculation of the Qualifications Authority meant the original vision of a comprehensive framework has not been fulfilled, with further implications for these two sectors. In the competitive jungle that has arisen, questions of quality and accountability take on increasing urgency.

An expressed fear for schools at the time of the reforms was that the new trustees could be a reactionary force. That has not eventuated. Instead a large number of new people have learnt a great deal about the complexities of education and in general they are supportive of what schools attempt to do. But that’s an interesting point: they have been educated about what schools are doing, not new possibilities and directions. There have been some hiccups between teachers and trustees in individual schools, which is not surprising, human nature being what it is. Conflicts and dissatisfaction arose before the reforms as well as after them. The surprise has been the small proportion of such problems.

Many of the checks and balances envisaged in the reforms have since been removed or modified. Not only have successive ministers kept pulling up the plant to see if it is growing: there always was a basic tension at the heart of the reforms. It reflected our society, which balances two prospects of freedom: entrepreneurial capitalism, the capacity to maximise profit, and democracy based on concepts of equity and social responsibility. Democracy assumes an educated populace – one that has moved from supervision to freedom. Tomorrow’s Schools aimed for more empowerment – the democratic partnership side. But the policy also carried, via direct funding, the entrepreneurial side. The partnership side assumes rights and obligations. The entrepreneurial side assumes self-generation and innovation.

David Lange stressed the partnership side. He repeatedly spoke of a covenant between people, Government and schools. He saw the charter as the linchpin of the new model. The weakening of the charter concept is one of the more unfortunate developments of the decade.

The search for equity also ran into difficulties. Labour backbench pressure led to a system of zoning with balloting for out-of-zone students. This proved cumbersome and unpopular, making it easy for Lockwood Smith to remove zoning in the name of parental choice. What eventuated was not parental choice but rather school choice. It has led to certain schools being bypassed by their clientèle, and the idea of the community school has been lost. Parents make decisions based upon perceived benefits for their children. Give a school a good (or a bad) name and it sticks. Because we continue to find it difficult to measure educational value addition, it is hard to counter prejudice with fact. Recent research indicates that unpopular schools have no ability to respond to or change some important factors affecting parental choice, especially the socio-economic status of the suburb, the type of children who live there, and the impressions created. One unintended consequence of the reforms is a system of winner and loser schools rather than the win/win situation envisaged in 1988.

Small rural schools face a different problem. Indeed, it seems the Tomorrow’s Schools formula does not work so well for these smaller schools. The reform architects envisaged these schools working together much more than has eventuated. Maybe they need more assistance in being self-supporting and collaborative. The cutback of Ministry regional offices in 1992 did not help. They acted as conduits and filters between the centre and the local, and their removal meant that individual schools and people had nowhere to go but straight to the centre.

Other removals from the system have also been counter-productive. One Picot recommendation, an overarching advisory committee, was never put in place. This meant the various agencies developed policies that cut across each other. Suspensions remain a concern. There was a Parents Advocacy Council to address it and similar issues but it has gone. Truancy is another serious problem. Associate Minister Noel Scott in particular worked very hard to ensure that there were community liaison groups in place but they too have been done away with.

The removal of such buffer zones increased the trend to centralisation. Understandably, Government as the major funder wants to ensure that the taxpayer is getting value for money (97% of our students attend State schools). The calls for school performance management systems and the development of professional teacher standards arise from a desire to ensure that greater flexibility is supported by greater assurance of quality. Principals all say that the paper war has grown massively. A principle is being lost somewhere in the swelling in-trays. Ways must be found to assure quality learning outcomes and service delivery that will not stifle the objective of the reforms – self-managing institutions.

The reforms aimed to enhance performance. Have they done that? It must be remembered that they were not about curriculum. Lange always saw that as the second leg of the double. While Dr Smith was bedding in the administrative reforms, he bravely ventured into the minefields of curriculum reform. The steps he took were necessary, timely, and he tried to involve teachers. But in so doing, he contributed to the sense of headlong change. This affected morale and hence when people criticise what they call “Tomorrow’s Schools”, they are sometimes responding to other pressures that were never part of the original policy but are now intertwined with it.

It is time to stop talking about Tomorrow’s Schools. There are new challenges and new opportunities. There is as always a new international trend. This is known as Effective Schools. Its aim is to find through research what enables schools to enhance performance. It builds logically and sensibly upon the concept of self-management. The findings do not surprise – they include a dedicated and qualified staff, clear school purposes, strong academic and administrative leadership, a safe school environment and a positive school climate. Where such research looks most useful is in filling the gap between knowledge of what constitutes effectiveness and the ability to deliver it.

The key is of course dedicated and qualified staff. If people feel undervalued, unjustly criticised or unfairly treated, then their minds and hearts will not be fully on the job. Since the transition to the new system in 1989, much initial goodwill has dissipated as the aim of empowerment has been lost sight of. Already our best educational practice is along the required lines for the future. In the move towards more effective schools, we need to remember that the system as envisaged by Picot was built around a sense of trust. Unless we can restore and retain that trust, then the gains we have made could be lost.

The Butterworths’ account records the genuine desire of the politicians and officials to create a better system. That is worth remembering and chronicling. What should also be recorded is the sterling work undertaken by the unsung heroes of the reforms – the educators throughout the country who got on with their task while all round them the vessel was being refitted. Maybe now they should be given more control of the ship’s course.

Harvey McQueen is a writer and poet, who was personal educational adviser to David Lange during the education reforms.

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Posted in Education, Non-fiction and Review
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