Is the Government Targeting School Boards of Trustees?



One thing about having education as a topic for these articles is that, under present circumstances there’s no shortage of things to write about. I had initially intended for this article to discuss the neoliberal denigration of teachers, then I came across the full version of Martin Thrupp’s research on national standards, which provides even more fodder for the ‘national standards are crap’ campaign.

However before I put fingers to keyboard, I read that this year’s Boards of Trustee elections have been a bit of a fizzer, to put it mildly. The New Zealand Herald reports that over 1,000 primary schools will not be holding elections as they failed to attract enough candidates. While there is the implication that these are lower decile and smaller schools, that is not necessarily the case.

This lack of candidates isn’t surprising, and the only surprise is that it has taken 20 odd years for this to happen. Way back in 1999, the self managing school concept was sold to parents as the way for them to have real involvement in the provision of their child’s schooling and as a result, parents showed extensive interest in standing for their school’s Board. I was very involved at the time, as I was the elected staff representative at my employing school, and within 12 months was also chairperson of the board of trustees of my daughter’s special education facility. A couple of years later I was the principal member of another school’s board, and a board member at my daughter’s next special education school.

Disillusionment followed fast, as it became very obvious that the governments of the day (Labour, then National) were not really going to relinquish control. The first farce was the requirement for each Board to develop their own mission statement (straight out of the business model handbook). I recall devoting an entire Saturday to attending a workshop for boards on the writing of mission statements. That’s devotion or is crazy a better description?

The farce? Once each board had managed to produce a suitable mission statement, it was then submitted to the Ministry of Education for rubber stamping, except that’s not what happened. It was not unknown for the Ministry to reject mission statements and return them for editing and redevelopment. Self managing schools?

Following on from this was the requirement for boards of trustees to learn how to write policies – yes, another Saturday down the gurgler. We were all instructed in how to write policies using the set format of rationale, intentions, and implementation (or something like that) and then we were set our first task – writing a policy on how to write policies. I kid you not.

But, the real farce, the one that showed the true colours of Tomorrow’s Schools and self management, was when boards were required to develop their own charters. Yes, charter schools were in the frame right from the outset.

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Publicity had it that a school’s charter was the document that would set the framework for the school’s governance, management, and educational programmes. This was the bait that brought interested and talented parents forwards, and, in most cases, the foundation boards were comprised of very qualified and capable people.

Humbug. A large ring binder, labelled as the school charter, arrived from the Ministry of Education. This document prescribed over 80% of the charter, including just about every aspect of the governance/management framework . A section was left open to local boards, consisting mainly of a school description and local goals, although these two were also subject to the ministry’s rubber stamp.

Included in the charter was the requirement for boards to develop policies on everything under the sun, probably including cleaning the kitchen sink. This policy development, a nod to self governance, was so onerous that a couple of enterprising people in Hamilton developed a little business that sold a disk containing every policy that would ever be needed. Phew, that compliance was ticked off, although clearly there was little or no local input into each policy.

Phase two of the policy wars followed within a year or so. It became very apparent that the Education Review Office’s then ideology was that a well governed school brought higher achievement and that the evidence of this was a comprehensive set of policy documents. In fact the difference between a good and bad ERO report often came down to the comprehensiveness of the policy folder.

The quickest and most effective way around policy issues was to phone up a neighbouring school to see if they could fax the appropriate policy. Bingo, a quick bit of word processing and the problem was solved. Local content? No. Compliant school, yes.A farce? You bet.

The next real headache for boards was at the end of their first year of operations, when they suddenly found that they were obliged to prepare extensive financial statements that met the appropriate Audit Office legislation. As this came without warning, many boards were very stretched and stressed – this requirement was a very long way from the vision of Tomorrow’s Schools.

And so it continued. Each new minister, from Lange to Goff to Smith to Creech to Smith to Mallard to Maharey to Carter to Tolley and now to Parata, all imposed increasingly onerous requirements on what were and are basically groups of parent volunteers wanting to do their best for their local school.

I recall one chairperson commenting that the board spent most of its time fighting the ministry, and how right he was. Nothing has changed. Right behind the ministry is the ever present spectre of the Education Review Office, the grim reaper of education.

Given all this, is it surprising that parents don’t want a bar of being on a school board of trustees? It’s an onerous task for a volunteer group, and now made much worse by the pressures over national standards, league tables and the like. Wait until site based contracts and performance pay appears, should National win the next election. You ain’t seen nothin’ yet.

This now means that over 1,000 schools will have a board comprised of those who put their names forward, without the community having any choice. There’s no democracy here. It is certain, as has happened on the past, that some of these new members have an axe to grind, would most likely not been elected, but who now become BOT members by default.

We know that the government is overtly or covertly taking back control from boards of trustees. Significant numbers of boards battled very hard to prevent the introduction of national standards, and this continues. The chagrin of the government’s realisation that boards were doing this was rather marked, and, as we know, this government doesn’t like local control or giving people too much choice.

Their desire to take back power from local boards is very clear, not just in education. The problems with the board elections plays right into the government’s hands, shown by the minister’s response in immediately raising the suggestion of amalgamating school boards – another attack on the concept of local control.

New Zealanders need to watch out, as this government, having severely damaged our internationally well regarded education programmes, is now after the whole structure of New Zealand schooling – Christchurch and charter schools being the start.

Forget about consultation – we will be told what will be ‘good for us.’ It’s time to wake up before it’s too late.


  1. Great article. Back when “Tomorrows Schools” first came in, it was always going to be the more wealthy and well resourced communities who were able to manage the workload of a BOT. For everybody else, without lawyers or financial experts in their ranks, it was just a huge burden. I look back at this period as the time when communities began to be really stretched as government reforms pushed more and more responsibility (but no actual authority) back on to communities. It was also kindergartens and possibly others who struggled with the whole charter writing exercise, while still trying to maintain their necessary fund-raising activities and voluntary help at schools and kindergartens.
    A couple of years later in came the Employment Contracts Act and families and communities were further attacked as hours of work expanded over weekends, wages fell relative to the cost of living and people were caught up in a not-so-merry dance just to keep up.
    Small wonder that there are fewer willing or able to invest time into membership of a BOT.

  2. School boards are the employers of the teachers and school staff. The School Trustees Assn is just another employers’ organisation. In such a role the board is often required to be confrontational with teachers, particularly when required to implement unpopular government policies such as bulk funding or national standards. However, most members of school boards are fans of the staff and their educational professionalism. They have often chosen the school because of the quality of teaching and leadership. The occasional teacher might cause concern but that can usually be addressed by an efficient school management team.
    So it is understandable that the school community is reluctant to apply for roles which require them to oppose (for various government reasons) the schools greatest asset – the staff.

  3. We know the system is not perfect, but I am concerned that this may turn into another case of throwing the baby out with the bath water. There are some flaws in the system. These need to be identified and solutions found. Although I think the biggest problem may be successive Ministers of Education themselves.

    • I agree Melanie. The best and timely solution, given that 25 years of Tomorrows Schools is approaching, is that a major review be held, to identify and enhance the plusses and to find better ways of dealing with the minuses. Naturally the terms of reference would need to be open and unbiased and reviews members chosen in full consultation and consensus with with all – none of Judith Collin’s cronyism please.

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