Empower Capable Principals To Lead Reform

Dr Michael Johnston
Insights Newsletter
18 August, 2023

In 1989, the Lange government implemented the Tomorrow’s Schools reforms. The old Department of Education was replaced by a new agency, the – initially – much leaner Ministry of Education. Schools became self-governing. 

The goals of Tomorrow’s Schools have not been achieved. Since 1989, the performance of New Zealand’s school system has deteriorated. The literacy, numeracy and disciplinary knowledge of our young people has undergone a slow but inexorable decline. Our educational inequality is amongst the worst in the OECD.  

Arguably, the decline during the Tomorrow’s Schools era has occurred because the opportunities they afforded have not been sufficiently exploited. Certainly, Ministry interference with school autonomy hasn’t helped. Forcing schools to accept Modern Learning Environments is a case in point.  

In any event, a return to centralisation is not the answer. It would be foolish to think that further empowering the Ministry can solve our educational problems.  

The Ministry has grown to dwarf the Department it replaced. Yet, just about everything it does makes things worse. From literacy and numeracy, to curriculum, to teacher education, the Ministry has spectacularly failed to provide competent stewardship of education. A reform-minded Minister can spend years trying to harness the Ministry and get nowhere. 

Instead, to make a real difference, Ministers should focus on creating conditions in which capable principals can take full advantage of the flexible Tomorrow’s Schools environment. Instead of looking to the Ministry to enact reform, they should concentrate on getting them out of the way. 

Principals understand our educational problems better than anyone. Some of them have great ideas for improvement. They should be encouraged to act on them. 

Already there are principals who, with the support of their Boards, are collaborating to design new teacher education programmes based on evidence rather than ideology. Others are leading the development of knowledge-rich curricula. Still others are opting out of the new Level 1 NCEA, scheduled for implementation in 2024, and leading the design of local qualifications. 

These innovations offer real opportunities for reform. Not all of them will be successful, but some will. A Minister who wants real reform should encourage innovation with political and financial support. That support should come with requirements and resources to measure the effects of each initiative. The successful ones should be publicised and promoted. 

The Ministry will never lead meaningful reform. A better approach would be to empower capable principals to go around them.

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