School Autonomy Brought a Lost Decade in NZ Education

School autonomy was responsible for a “lost decade” in education according to one of New Zealand’s leading education researchers. In a new book published last week on New Zealand’s system of self-managing schools, Dr. Cathy Wylie of the New Zealand Council of Educational Research says that promising educational advances were ignored as schools focused on administering property and finances.

The book, titled Vital Connections, reviews the history of New Zealand’s Tomorrow’s Schools program introduced in 1989 to make schools fully self-managing. It concludes that the model is flawed and cannot meet the demands now being placed on the education system. It says that New Zealand needs more than self-managing schools; schools need more central support.

Tomorrow’s Schools gave New Zealand one of the most decentralized school systems in the developed world. It reduced the NZ Education Department to a much smaller ministry, abolished regional education boards and made schools responsible for their own decision-making. Schools had to make do with their allocated budgets. It was a real live experiment in school autonomy which failed to deliver its promises.

Dr. Wylie says that the past 23 years have demonstrated the limitations of making each school a separate island. Tomorrow’s Schools created a system of fragmented schools which emphasised the “self” part of self-management, of putting one’s own school first and not being part of an overall national system.

“We now have a substantial body of robust analysis that shows we need to rethink the self-managing model in order to create a more dynamic learning system.” [NZCER Media Release, 3 December 2012]

The first ten years of Tomorrow’s Schools was a “lost decade”. Managing property and finance dominated school life under self-management. They were the central focus of principals and boards of trustees. The primary role of the principal became a business manager rather than an education leader. There is a telling anecdote in the book by one principal on how student learning became secondary as principals became business managers:

We got distracted by the new sexy stuff: finance, property, staffing. Somewhere about 1992 or 1993, maybe even 1994, over the summer holidays, we were having a family barbeque. And my brother in law with no experience in education at all said to me, ‘How is this Tomorrow’s Schools going?’ And I said, ‘It’s great’, ’cause I loved it, I used to find the old system restrictive and I found the new one liberating. I said, ‘I’m appointing staff, I’m moving budgets around, I’ve got property projects on the go, I’m busy as. It’s the best thing that’s ever happened.’
‘Oh that’s good,’ he said. ‘Are the teachers teaching any better, or, more importantly, are the kids learning any better?’ I said without even thinking, ‘I don’t know, I haven’t got a clue, I’m too busy running the place.’ That answer rattled around in my head, and as I was going home I said to my wife, ‘I should know, and I don’t because we’re doing this other stuff.’ And I think we were all like that, or most of us. [p.98]

Tomorrow’s Schools relied on competition between self-managing schools to improve student results. In this environment, the primary concern of schools was to increase or maintain their own student numbers in order to survive. Self-management meant putting one’s own school first. Dr. Wylie says that this competition often diverted school leaders and trustees from a focus on learning, and added obstacles to improvement for schools that found themselves at the bottom of the local competition market.

It was a case of “fragmented freedom” as self-management was “sown on uneven ground”. Larger schools with greater resources that had no difficulty finding and keeping good-quality teaching and support staff and were located in areas with steady or growing student population were favoured by self-management. Competition gave these schools the “upper hand”.

Some schools were more adept at marketing themselves than others, through placing stories and photographs of student success or completed school amenities in local newspapers and presenting a smart facade to passers-by. [p.108]

Many schools adopted selective enrolment policies. Families often found that they could not enrol their children in their local neighbourhood school. Some schools used the additional property and operational funding gained from taking students from what had been other schools’ zones before Tomorrow’s Schools to build up large schools with attractive resources. Schools serving low-income communities that were near schools with a higher socio-economic intake that could offer better-resourced facilities (such as computers, sports grounds, music) suffered, particularly at the secondary level. There was also ‘white flight’ in some areas, with evidence of increased ethnic polarisation.

Self-management was “problematic” for schools in low income or rural areas, small schools and those serving Maori students. These schools struggled to maintain enrolments, attract and retain quality staff and offer a full curriculum.

Constant staff changes, and staff starting with less experience, made it more difficult for many of these schools to build and sustain strong school cultures and systems that shared knowledge among teachers, and that provided the learning organisations schools need to be if they are to make a positive difference to student learning. There were some notable exceptions, but an education system needs to produce more than exceptions if it is to produce overall improvements in learning and achievement. [p.121]

Dr. Wylie also says that while Tomorrow’s Schools allowed schools to take more initiative and given them a strong sense of their community, it has delivered uneven and inadequate educational gains for learners. She says it “left too much to chance” in education. As a result, there has been no improvement in overall education outcomes. Large gaps in student achievement between rich and poor remain. In low income schools, secondary qualifications rates actually fell. Her conclusion is a damning indictment:

The New Zealand experience with school competition has not resulted in gains in student learning for the system as a whole. This absence of gains is consistent with the cumulative international research evidence that competition between schools has, at very best in a few contexts, only limited and uneven positive effects. Competition is not reliable as a systemic means to improve education. [p. 108]

She also says that Tomorrow’s Schools has been wasteful, with too much reinventing of the wheel and few channels for sharing good ideas and practice between schools. Collaboration between schools in the same district to support each other to improve declined.

She also says that governments failed to provide sufficient funding for schools to manage their increased responsibilities. “It’s actually not a cheaper model. School self-management costs more, not less” [Dominion Post, 4 December 2012].

After the first ten years, the NZ Department of Education could no longer ignore the growing problems and financial difficulties of many schools. But it was a case of “muddling through” and this has gone on ever since. For example, at one stage the Department encouraged schools to work together in clusters to compete for additional funding, but these clusters soon dissolved once the funding ceased. In any case, schools in competition with each other were not likely to form clusters together.

The basic problem was that central office support for schools was perceived as undermining school autonomy. The priority was to adhere to the principle of self-management and this meant that any connections with schools had to be framed as indirect or temporary. As Dr. Wylie says:

…it is separation of the government agencies and schools, the absence of the middle ground and shared responsibility, that made and still makes it difficult to harness and use all the knowledge and actions needed to keep developing the quality of New Zealand education. [p.114]

Dr. Wylie recommends fundamental changes to the system. She argues that stronger connections and better support across the system are vital, not only to make gains in student achievement for all but to get much better value for the education dollar. Schools need the opportunity to learn from their peers in other schools.

“Our current system lacks the national and local infrastructure of connections to share and keep building effective teaching practices so that all our schools can do what we ask of them.” [NZCER Media Release, 3 December 2012]

She says that what is needed is to integrate the key strengths of what was lost with Tomorrow’s Schools. This means more support at the local level, more connections to share and build knowledge and more coherence between the different layers of the schooling system.

She recommends a return to more central and regional support for schools. Her proposals include a national network of 20 education authorities throughout the country, with responsibility for schools in their region and charged with ensuring schools and teachers are supported and challenged and can learn from each other.

The lessons from New Zealand’s long history with extensive school autonomy are being ignored in Australia. Governments are pressing ahead with greater school autonomy without regard to the evidence that it has little impact on student achievement, and leads to greater social segregation between schools. All education ministers should have Vital Connections on their Christmas reading list.

Cathy Wylie, Vital Connections: Why We Need More Than Self-Managing Schools, New Zealand Council for Educational Research, Wellington, 2012.

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