Russell Marshall’s Column

Russell Marshall

New book shows where NZ went wrong with schools

By Russell Marshall, former  Education Minister

The New Zealand Council for Educational Research (NZCER ) has published a book which bids fair to be the most important publication of our time about schools.

It’s ‘Vital Connection: Why we need more than self-managing schools,’ by NZCER Senior Researcher Dr Cathy Wylie.

She draws on the year-by-year comprehensive study she has made for over two decades of the effect and outworking of the massive Tomorrow’s Schools ‘reforms’ of 1989.

I have to declare an interest as I was the Education Minister who set up the Picot Task Force whose report and findings became the basis of the radical changes.

‘I was troubled by the undue speed of changes’

Moved to another portfolio soon after Picot got under way, I was troubled by the undue speed with which changes were made and implemented, and at the seemingly cavalier ways in which experience, wisdom and good practice which had gone before were so often dismissed.

I suspect that the late Brian Picot and the educators in his task force would not have seen a good deal of what transpired as the outcome of what they had proposed.

Cathy Wylie looks at the directions which were taken and the tensions of a new system that left so much to chance.

One major adverse consequence was the loss of ground in the first decade in major areas such as curricula, senior secondary school assessment, education of Maori, and Special Education.

‘Long standing support for schools and teachers disappeared’

As the Ministry of Education concentrated on compliance and policy, long-standing support for schools and teachers disappeared, the old connections were lost and schools were obliged by the new ‘look after yourself’ regime to become competitive with each other.

Wylie argues persuasively for stronger connections and better support. One of her major recommendations is for the Ministry of Education, the Education Review Office and the New Zealand Qualifications Authority to be reunited as one Ministry.

Her argument is that this and other proposals are necessary to get much better value for the Education dollar — but also to make the necessary gains in student achievement.

The latter is of course a high-profile aspiration of all governments, including the present one, though widening of income gaps over recent times hardly helps.

I am sure that this major, evidence-based, constructive work will be widely read, and I hope that there will be some wise and positive outcomes.

We might also see a belated return to wide respect for and appreciation of teachers and the work they do.

Good to see that you see, as does Cathy, the need to put the teachers, special ed. and other practitioners into the lead. This manageralism of all practitioners reduces the creativity of passing on wisdoms in practice.