Up until the late 1980s, New Zealand’s state schools were run very differently than they are today. 

The now non-existent Department of Education ran the books, so every time a school wanted to fix, upgrade or buy something they had to make the case with the department.

In an attempt to cut through the bureaucracy, the then-Education Minister David Lange ordered a review of the system.

That review – the Picot report – recommended sweeping changes; the Tomorrow’s Schools reforms. “What they were basically was a complete overhaul of the school system,” says John Gerritsen, RNZ’s education correspondent.

“Instead of having an education department that basically ran the schools, you peeled it back to an Education Ministry that was making education policy and leaving it up to schools to run themselves.”

Under the new system, parents would elect other parents to run the school’s books and do other jobs like hiring the principal. Boards of Trustees, as they were called, took effect from 1989 and had stayed in place in the country’s public schools since 1989.

But in February 2018, Education Minister Chris Hipkins announced Tomorrow’s Schools was under review, and appointed a taskforce to investigate.

“The vast majority of schools are doing an okay to very good job for their students, but you do get these outliers repeatedly where schools struggle, where there are problems between the schools and the boards,” says Gerritsen.

“There’s a feeling the whole thing could perhaps be done a bit better.”

The issue with the system was that – in the view of some – it created an unlevel playing field and increased competition among schools to attract students. 

Schools from higher socio-economic areas tended to have more educated parents from professional backgrounds too – meaning accountants, managers and lawyers could fill their boards.

At the same time, however, they did not necessarily have any idea how to run a school.

Late last year the Taskforce came back with its recommendations.

The biggest change was proposed new education hubs, run by the ministry to oversee hundreds of schools each, and take some of the day-to-day admin away from the boards. 

“Some principals and teachers are intrigued by the idea [but] pretty much everyone is worried they could become a new layer of bureaucracy,” Gerritsen says.

The review group insisted the idea was for the hubs to provide support to help schools work together, rather than compete.

The group was suggesting other changes too – controversial five-year terms for principals and changes to school zoning and donations among them.

But the scale of any education shak-up will not be clear until June, when the Government is due to announce which recommendations it wants to pick up. 

The Detail was made possible by the RNZ/NZ On Air Innovation Fund.

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