7 May 2014

CORRESPONDENT with John Gerritsen

10:22 am on 7 May 2014

This week's Budget will include funding for the largest and arguably most important education initiative since the introduction of the national standards in reading, writing and maths four years ago.

Announced earlier this year, it will create 6000 new roles for leading teachers and principals at a cost of $360 million over four years, with most of that money used to boost the pay of people appointed as lead and expert teachers, and executive and change principals.

The Government said those people will share their expertise across clusters of schools (or in the case of change principals, lead failing schools), raising the quality of teaching and providing teachers with a new career path.

It builds on the Government's mantra that the quality of teaching is the biggest in-school effect on children's education, and aligns with the OECD's assertion that high-performing school systems feature cooperation between schools and teachers, and high regard for the teaching profession.

And it potentially sits well with teacher union efforts to create roles that allow the best teachers to stay in the classroom and mentor others, rather than take up management roles.

But many teachers and principals are deeply suspicious, particularly those in primary schools still smarting from the introduction of the national standards in reading, writing and maths.

They believe the new roles will hold teachers to account for their students' results, creating a culture of fear where teachers coach their children to pass a narrow range of assessments, and where teachers with students from poor families face constant criticism for the performance of those children.

The Government has said that is not what will happen, but the critics are not buying it.

Part of the problem may well be the sums of money involved. Executive principals, for example, will get $40,000 extra and will be released two days a week from their school to oversee a cluster of up to 10 schools. There is a suspicion that sort of money means they will have considerable authority over their peers.

Another criticism is that the policy will not address the impact of poverty on achievement. That is a big factor in this country - the OECD estimates socioeconomic background has a bigger effect on student performance in New Zealand than it does in other developed countries. It says the gap between New Zealand children from the richest 25 percent of families and those from the poorest 25 percent is equivalent to four years' of schooling, compared to the OECD average of three years.

The policy also does not address one of the OECD's key observations of successful school systems - ensuring the best teachers and principals work in the most challenging schools. Rather, all schools will benefit from the policy, apart from up to 20 where change principals are appointed.

But the biggest potential impact of the policy will be on the system of self-managing, self-governing schools that was introduced with the Tomorrow's Schools reforms 25 years ago.

An oft-cited weakness of the system is the isolation it creates. Schools are free to experiment and innovate, but they can also be left to stagnate and even fail, with Education Review Office visits the only external check on their status.

The Government's initiative could cut through that isolation. Critics say that would be a good thing, but it is also a major change that has taken place without any public review of the current system and its strengths and weaknesses. Such a review might find other, perhaps better, solutions.

The Government has involved the main school sector groups in designing the details of the policy but that work is taking place under Budget secrecy.

Once that is lifted, the policy's impact will be clearer and teachers, principals and trustees will be able to decide whether to embrace it, or fight it.