Education Minister Chris Hipkins agrees children have faced a postcode lottery in the country’s 2500 schools; he hopes his changes will ensure we do not fail a new generation of children.

Hard on the heels of its health reforms, the Government will this month budget millions for a major restructure of the Ministry of Education and its relationship with schools.

“If you look what the school boards do, there is very, very patchy quality of school property management and we’re doing quite big change in that area to make sure we’re managing the school property estate much better than we have in the past,” Chris Hipkins told Newsroom.

The reformed Ministry, schools and property regime should be “really pumping” within the next five years, with most schools handing over property management to the new education service agency.

“Most schools find it a real chore, they don’t particularly enjoy doing it, they don’t really feel they’re well equipped to do it, and they often feel quite abandoned with inadequate money to do a job that’s quite big.”

That’s good news to board chairs like Rebecca Keating – she’d rather be supporting kids’ learning than arguing over the wrong paint colour at Tauranga’s new Te Manawa ō Pāpāmoa school, which opens next year.

The new walls were meant to be painted blue, as she had imagined it; they ended up a kind of orange. “There was a little bit of a difference that ended up on the walls, to my frustration.” 

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Nobody was to blame, she said. “It is what it is – to take it all down and replace it would be a cost, and we don’t have that flexibility.”

Keating has spent 19 years on school boards and in her day job is an experienced property project manager, yet she said even with her professional experience, school building projects could be challenging – never mind for school boards without that kind of experience.

She believed schools should keep control of their own finances, though, and she was dubious about proposed regional delivery groups taking autonomy away from schools.

But Bali Haque, the former principal who spearheaded the reform proposal, tells Newsroom the minister hasn’t gone far enough.

He argues the way to restore teachers’ “shocking lack of trust” in officials is to establish an entirely separate education service agency, as recommended by the Tomorrow’s School Independent Taskforce that he chaired.

Ironically, that would be much like the new Health NZ agency set up to run the country’s hospitals and health services.

“We have  fragmentation, variability, and a shocking lack of trust. People do not get the same service regardless of where they live. There are many wastage, duplication and workload issues across both school boards and DHBs.”
– Bali Haque, Tomorrow’s School Independent Taskforce

Instead, he thinks Education Minister Chris Hipkins is essentially rearranging the chairs in the ministry, without instigating the culture shock needed for real change.

“The changes required are substantial and cultural, and cannot be turned into another exercise in tinkering,” Haque explains. “There is a real opportunity to coordinate the health and education reforms – our communities will be the winners if we can.”

Internal plans revealed

An internal and sector consultation document, supplied to Newsroom, provides an overview of the proposed high level design for the new education service agency, sitting alongside a Māori Education Group and a Te Marautanga Curriculum Centre in a redesigned Ministry of Education.

“The changes outlined here,” the document says, “seek to shift the centre of gravity of the Ministry toward the frontline, shifting resources from the Ministry to the sector-facing Education Service Agency.”

In a nod to concerns that by reducing the power of elected school boards, communities would lose ownership of their schools, the document says the education service agency would “significantly strengthen frontline voice”.

It would split school oversight into three regions – which, somewhat perplexingly, is different from the four regions planned in the health reforms and the Three Waters reforms. The three regional delivery groups (northern, central and southern) would work with school boards to manage their big budgets, teachers, support staff and pupils.

If you look at the way we’ve done things in New Zealand over the past 30 years, we’ve delivered public services in an incredibly piecemeal and fragmented way. And I think the accountability has been blurred.”
– Chris Hipkins, Minister of Education

It’s a massive task: last year there were more than 190,000 children in early childhood education, and 826,000 primary and secondary-aged children attending 2,536 state, integrated and private schools.

This year, the taxpayer has invested $12.8 billion in educating these one million children, including paying the wages of more than 102,000 teaching staff. Another $1.8 billion is being spent on capital expenditure for school buildings and other infrastructure.

The chart in the consultation paper does not include the leadership and professional development centre that the taskforce recommended – but in an interview with Newsroom this week, Chris Hipkins was adamant it would be there.

And he said there would be budget for leadership advisors, to support principals and senior staff. He acknowledged support for them is, at present, erratic.

This design proposal is illustrated in the consultation document, “Establishing an Education Service Agency [working title only] within a Redesigned Ministry of Education”.

How lockdown helped rebuild trust

The colour of the paint on the walls at Te Manawa ō Pāpāmoa school is exactly the sort of thing Chris Hipkins thinks school boards shouldn’t have to deal with. “If you go back to how Tomorrow’s Schools was originally envisaged, yes they saw schools having more autonomy, but the real reason they wanted parents involved is because parents care about kids’ education.

“Those are questions about what are our children learning how are they learning – those are the motivators that get parents involved. Not determining what colour the school should be painted, or which classrooms get new carpet.”

The shared adversity of the past year had helped rebuild relationships between school leaders and ministry officials, Hipkins believed. Heading into the Covid-19 Level 4 lockdown, the Government had provided the Ministry of Education with new pools of money they could use in a flexible way around distance learning, IT, and professional development.

“They interacted in a different way and that certainly helped to build good relationships,” he said. “I think that’s a good lesson going into the restructure. We, as a Government, allowed them to be more flexible, and I think that really helped to build the quality of the relationships between frontline staff and the ministry.”

That flexibility would be carried through into building the new education service agency and its three regional delivery groups. He acknowledged that health had four regions. “Putting on another hat as Minister for the Public Service, I think we do want to look at greater regional alignment over the whole of the public service – there’s an opportunity to do that over time.”

He agreed the new education structure, like the health and three waters and local government reforms, reflected Cabinet driving greater central government oversight. It was a step back from the devolution to councils and district health boards and school boards of the past 30 years.

“I think that is fair. If you look at the way we’ve done things in New Zealand over the past 30 years, we’ve delivered public services in an incredibly piecemeal and fragmented way. And I think the accountability has been blurred, and the levers available to government to steer the system that we’re accountable for haven’t always been as good as they might be.”

He agreed there had been a postcode lottery in the provision of school education. “I think there has, and I think that’s a feature of Tomorrow’s Schools. You’ve had some very strong schools and some very weak schools. And I think historically, over the past 30 years, governments have been too slow to respond to weak governance and weak leadership within schools.”

There had been real variability in the quality of support supplied to teachers, too, creating “real unevenness” in the workforce. The quality of governance and leadership and teaching impacted on the childen.

“I think those kids haven’t had the educational opportunities that they really deserve. And I think we’ve got to do a better job of making sure that where schools are getting into difficulty, where there are clearly challenges in the communities that aren’t being met, that we’re intervening earlier and providing more wraparound support for those schools and their communities than we have done previously.”

What’s right, and what’s wrong

Bali Haque said there was remarkable agreement about what was wrong  across both the health and education sectors. “Neither system currently represents a national connected and networked ecosystem – instead we have  fragmentation, variability, and a shocking lack of trust.

“Neither system serves Māori or Pasifika or those with disabilities well enough. Both systems could be described as postcode systems – people do not get the same service regardless of where they live. There are many wastage, duplication and workload issues across both school boards and DHBs.”

More than 30 years after the Fourth Labour Government’s Tomorrow’s Schools reforms devolved governance to elected school boards, Haque said it was time to dramatically shift the balance back the other way.

Hipkins was moving in the right direction, he said, and had accepted most of the taskforce’s recommendations – but there were critical omissions.

Most notably, the lack of progress on a Leadership Centre (“the support we provide for our principals in NZ is appalling”) and the failure to create an entirely new education services delivery agency outside the old, bureaucratic Ministry of Education.

“We fear that the culture change required to make the education services agency (within the Ministry) a success may be insurmountable. The ministry as presently constructed has been proven to be relatively dysfunctional for many years,” he said.

“Our preference is to follow the model proposed for Health – a separate operational entity.

“We need political leadership to make this work, or the opportunity will be lost.

“We are at risk of repeating past mistakes in the implementation process. The end result could burden our already overworked teachers, principals and government officials with more churn, for  little progress.”

Ten-year smorgasbord of change

School Trustees Association president Lorraine Kerr said a lot of people didn’t understand that school boards covered the whole spectrum of education in the compulsory sector. So it was important to ensure the school had a system that worked.

Yet thus far, within a whole “massive smorgasbord of change”, schools still didn’t have a clear explanation of what the new education service agency would look like.

Most boards would be happy to relinquish responsibility for managing property owned by the ministry, she agreed, especially given cyclical property maintenance and capital spending were significantly underfunded.

“Boards spend a lot of time on property, but who owns the school property? Certainly not the board,” she said.

“A lot of principals do like working with property projects but, at the end of the day, you hire a principal to focus on the teaching and learning, not someone who is essentially a building inspector.”

But boards would want to retain control of all their other finances. “If you’re going to take away finance, how can you make any strategic decisions as a board?”

“All the prices have gone up, all the costs have gone up. So what you’ve got budgeted for a specific project isn’t enough, so then you’ve got to go through the process of getting it quoted then repriced.”
– Rebecca Keating, Te Manawa ō Pāpāmoa school

Iona Holsted, the Secretary for Education, said the restructuring proposal would create a new leadership team structure for a redesigned ministry and education service agency.

Subject to Budget decisions, she would establish the core structure of the agency in the second half of this year. It would deliver new supports and services to schools and early learning, rolling out over the next five to 10 years, she said.

“It is important that the wider education sector is engaged in developing the relationship they want to have with the education service agency and the services they want to receive over time,” she added. “This engagement will start pretty well immediately from establishment and will continue to grow over the months that follow.”

The new Te Manawa ō Pāpāmoa school in Tauranga’s fast-growing coastal community is set to open next year. Photo: Supplied

Schools ‘exploding’

Over in Tauranga, Te Manawa ō Pāpāmoa school is funded to open next year with 200 pupils, but that is expected to grow rapidly. The buildings will have capacity for 650, and potential to expand to 850. “The subdivisions growing up around Pāpāmoa east are just exploding,” said the board’s chair, Keating.

Boards shouldn’t have to be responsible for managing and maintaining their property, she says, in the face of such dramatic cultural and demographic changes affecting whole networks of schools and early childhood centres. And the cyclical maintenance funding wasn’t calculated appropriately, she said, meaning the money didn’t stretch far enough.

So too for capital projects. “So what you’ve got budgeted for a specific project isn’t enough, so then you’ve got to go through the process of getting it quoted then repriced.”

The past year had been “challenging,” she said. “All the prices have gone up, all the costs have gone up.”

Newsroom Pro managing editor Jonathan Milne covers business, politics and the economy.

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