A breath of fresh spring air shows the way out of a dark age in education


The restructuring of state education proposed by the government working group led by Bali Haque, feels like a fresh breath of spring air after 30 years in the dark ages of Tomorrow’s Schools.

The infamous fourth Labour government of Roger Douglas and David Lange introduced Tomorrow’s Schools in 1989 which set up schools under a business model based on choice and competition. This competitive model would bring out the best we were told. Successful schools would be rewarded with more students enrolling and better facilities while poorly performing schools would fail and be closed – just like failed businesses.

Within a couple of years the reforms could be see as a devastating failure. High decile schools advertised their good exam results and grew exponentially while schools in poor areas lost students and funding and were left with unmaintained buildings and a desperate loss of morale.

“Choice” was presented as parents and children picking the schools they wanted to attend instead of being restricted to a particular enrolment zone. The reality was different. It was schools which did the choosing – not parents. And schools wanted the whitest and the brightest – with just enough brown students to get a top rugby team.

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They may as well have hung a sign up outside their gates – if you are poor and brown, bugger off.

Despite the obvious failure both Labour and National have pursued this failed model for 30 years. Now finally a breakthrough with the reform proposals announced last week.

The reforms are detailed here and here and have received a cautious welcome from most across the education sector. They have the potential to be utterly transformative for children from middle and low-income families. Instead of every school having to reinvent the wheel and school boards worrying more about paying for broken windows than the quality of children’s education, boards and principals will be free to focus on making sure the quality of education is the absolute best it can be for the children who walk through the front gate of the school each morning.

This is liberation in an education context.

A few hysterical reactions from self-serving right wingers are the surest sign the education reforms are on the right track.

Auckland Grammar headmaster Tim O’Connor says the proposed reforms are a direct and serious attack on state education and “need to be resisted at all costs” while Avondale College principal Brent Lewis says a proposal to transfer all the legal responsibilities of school boards of trustees from elected boards to appointed regional hubs was “real Stalinist stuff”.

Oh please!

The proposed changes would have the opposite effect to these childish claims.

It’s important to say here that both Auckland Grammar and Avondale College were at the forefront of the worst educational practices encouraged by Tomorrow’s Schools. Both set up enrolment schemes to pick and choose the best and brightest from well outside their local areas and rejected students they didn’t want – in some cases students living just down the road from the school.

It was about enhancing the image of the school rather than delivering the best education to all in the local community. In Avondale’s case, after Tomorrow’s Schools was introduced, students from outside the local area dominated their top stream classes while local students dominated H block (referred to as the handicap block) where students were effectively excluded from sitting external exams and polluting the schools’ exam pass rates.

The reforms are open for public submissions till April 7 next year. Don’t leave it to the self-servers – it’s time to move out of the dark ages.


  1. Yes John we agree that this Government need to open up fully with “transparency” now.

    We also hear this morning on RNZ news that Chis Hipkins has release details on Labour policy to have all their MP’s now release all the details on whom they have met during their activities of the term of their Governance of NZ, so this will assist us all to observe if our own “community NGO’s” public representatives also are receiving the same level of meetings with these same MP’s as the business interests are obviously receiving now.

    This Minister is doing some good finally as Labour has been absent since taking over last year in giving our community groups any solid levels of consultation as they promised they would provide us that “voice to be heard”

    Go Chris!!!!!!

  2. Yeah I’ll believe it when I see it. Parents like myself are still expected to pay “voluntary” fees (where’s the funding?) and teachers have gone on strike (where’s the pay rise for these hard working people?).

    Pay appropriately for our children’s education using the tax money we provide. That’s all public servants are asked to do and its what they should do. That would impress me.

  3. It set me thinking, how does one rid themselves of headmasters/principals like those of Auckland Grammer and Avondale College. These individuals are funded by the government so who are they to say what goes in such an overt manner?

    And why Avondale College? A school in a quite low decile area. A school that has generated Nat MP’s and hangers-on from its executive. What is it with that place?

  4. You hit all the nails on the head, John. Those of us who have been battling the darkness of tomorrow’s schools for years can now see light on the horizon. Your observations about the self interested Auckland schools are very apt. Self interest rules.

    Hopefully the government will have the spine to implement most of this report, ensuring the removal of all traces of the neoliberal education agenda.

  5. I’m trying to work out how a school can have an enrolment scheme restricting the intake to the area closest to a school because of roll numbers getting too high yet the seeming contradiction on here.

    Enrolment schemes to pick the best and brightest from well outside their local areas and rejecting kids living just done the road? How did that work? Was it in the design of the zone approved by the Ministry of Education?

  6. How can you have an efficient prison system with all those different boards? How can you run a casino when the cards and tokens get up and walk around? Nope, it won’t work. There’s only one way to gamble with kid’s futures inside concentration camps and it’s totally top down. Just hand over the brats and shut the hell up

  7. well written piece John, issues many out there have a severely under informed opinion on just because they too “went to school” at some stage, such naivety was exploited by the ACT Charter School pushers, I remember them cold calling people in West Auckland offering free uniforms and stationery

    if “NZ Initiatives” and the most right wing Principals are bagging “removing competition between Schools” the proposed restructure is indeed on the right track!

    I am a critic of the state sector Unions–mainly PSA actually–but the country owes the NZEI and PPTA in particular, for holding the line on so many attacks–bulk funding, Hekia’s National Standards and other general madness, Charter Schools and Teacher registration etc.

  8. Spot on, John. You’ve summed everything up very well, including the reasons why the Auckland school principals are objecting. Vested interests as they may not be able to cherry pick their enrolments in the future which in turn could very easily show that their education programmes aren’t as flash as they make out. For those of us who battled tomorrow’s schools and the accompanying ideological agenda, this report is a welcome relief and I only hope that the government has enough steel in its spine to implement the bulk of this.

  9. You are incorrect about one thing John; you cannot exclude a student from enrolment if they are within the zone. Cherry-picking occurs from a pool of applicants if they are outside the zone.

    • Matty, Zones were abolished in the 1990s so for several years many schools were advertising directly to parents and picking and choosing to establish their school reputations in the new marketplace. The situation was out of control in Auckland especially and local students were repeatedly denied access to their neighborhood schools so much so that National – Wyatt Creech was Education Minister – put some half-hearted zoning restrictions in place whereby schools could reject students if there was another “reasonably convenient” alternative school available. Needless to say Schools like Avondale and Auckland Grammar continued denying access to many students while cherry-picking from well outside their local areas. It’s only more recently that zoning which guarantees the right to attend your local school was introduced for “popular” schools.

      • “More recently”

        Well if you consider 1989 “recent” then I guess you’re right

        Schools have had neither the right to deny anyone in the home zone a place or “pick and choose” students (unless you consider a legally monitored ballot picking and choosing) for nearly 30 years

        You make several valid points but on zoning you a deliberately misleading

        • I’m not sure what point you are disputing. Schools in the 1990’s developed their own enrolment policies and in the cases of the two schools I’ve mentioned prioritised the most academically able and the best sportspeople etc. Not sure where the deliberately misleading comes from – there’s nothing in the article or my comment above that comes under that category.

  10. The bottom line is that most kids do OK, sometimes despite the education system.

    The problem comes with kids from uncaring and incompetent parents, mostly at the lower end of the economic spectrum.

    What chance does a child have if he’s been fed coca cola from a bottle as a baby, born with a meth and/or alcohol addiction and been beaten by a live in boyfriend or step father?

    • The bottom line is up here*** not down here…, with the low energy low intellects that you hang around with, Andrew.

      The system isn’t any good at fixing any of what may distract you. It’s not a magic wand the fixes every thing.

      The education system is fine, even with liberal shenanigans and funding cuts. The re-education system is shot, unless you’re a refugee because that’s something we have addressed as an acute need. But for anyone let’s say 50+ and in need of reeducation for a job? Praying would pay off better, because you no longer have the situation and needs of a teen or twenty something.

      It’s about priorities and funding the greater good, not petty quibbles about stupid comments.

      • Sam

        The countries that outperform NZ in the international education rankings underspend us: They provide a better education using less money.

        So there is no lack of money going into education.

        But when over 70% of prison inmates in NZ are illiterate to the extent that they’re incapable of filling out a job application or passing a driving test then you *really* need to get to grips with the circumstances of their upbringing rather than throw more money at a dysfunctional education system.

        And before you scream “poverty!” ask yourself why poor kids should miss on learning to read in a country with universal free education. It’s no coincidence that that same cohort have required help from CYPS (or whatever they call it this week) during their formative years.

      • Don’t have to do a god dam thing

        Can sum it up in two bullet points:

        1. Stop the “one-size” fits all education with two subsets:

        A) There is no single way of teaching that will reach all students

        B) All students do not need the same things/have the same abilities.

        2. Minimize/eliminate this focus on testing etc.

        Most of 1 comes from the Enlightenment era fantasy of the perfect citizen. It doesn’t work, it hasn’t worked for a long time and we have the data to prove it. For the first part, a system like that only functions if a reliable (read universal) method of education ie can teach the classics, English studies to a peasant. Doesn’t work, we know it doesn’t work. Look at the kicking and screaming that went on in the early 90s, the abusive punishment for korero Māori when after decades of denying what teachers in the 20s and the 30s knew implicitly, education officials were finally forced to acknowledge the vast differences in how people learn. That there was more than just reading it. For the second part, the more work is done, the more proof we’re coming up with that shows that certain things are aptitude-driven. But rather than focus on “Okay, this person is great in the sciences and math, but weak in social sciences, English and so forth, let’s focus on developing the strengths and coping strategies to deal with the parts they’ll have to deal with”, we double-down and go “fuck you, you try extra hard!”, even though we know a lot of these efforts can only accomplish so much.

        It’s doubly moronic when you consider we have the techniques now to reliably map this sort of thing, nueropsychological testing. But even if you get a school that’s willing to listen to data shoved into their hand, you still have to order off the menu in terms of accommodations and what not. You order off the menu or you get fucked. It really is ideological I think, especially with the National, it’s part of preserving a lot of the fantasies associated with the Kiwi dream and/or the “Every kid can grow up to be prime minister” motif.

        If I had to cover it all in one basic summary, which ties in with 2, we don’t approach education as “How can we maximize the education dollar so students ability to take advantage of their talents, interests, abilities and aptitudes.” Rather we aim for factory consistency, good little kiwis, on the idea that if everyone gets the same education=socioeconomic equality. Somehow, shut up! it’ll work!

        As for 2, this is really the enforcement mechanism for the former, as well an exercise in public masturbation by the accountability people.

  11. … [ It’s important to say here that both Auckland Grammar and Avondale College were at the forefront of the worst educational practices encouraged by Tomorrow’s Schools. Both set up enrolment schemes to pick and choose the best and brightest from well outside their local areas and rejected students they didn’t want – in some cases students living just down the road from the school.

    In Avondale’s case, after Tomorrow’s Schools was introduced, students from outside the local area dominated their top stream classes while local students dominated H block (referred to as the handicap block) where students were effectively excluded from sitting external exams and polluting the schools’ exam pass rates ” ]…

    WOW !!!

    Neo liberal trash!!!

    Says it all about the ideology. The stops need to be pulled forthwith to ensure the purging of all remnants of this odious , racist ideology from this country.

    How odious can it get?….

    Perhaps the above demonstrates just how odious.

  12. Educators should not be spending their time on building fabric maintenance, getting the best price on electricity this week nor boilerplate admin activities that have little to do with education. What schools need is a service that does all this stuff for them so they can focus on education.

    Schools don’t need their own board of governors like a business. In any case, how long will those governors be paying serious attention to the needs of the school? Until their offspring are finished there? This is hardly conducive to long term, high quality education. Schools aren’t small businesses; they don’t need a board of governors to chart their direction.

    School need to be fully funded with none of these “fees” creeping in all over the place.

    Schools could do with switching over to (say) a mere 5 weeks of holiday per year. The long sets of holidays that used to exist were a way for landowners to get ready access to cheap labour during harvesting. We don’t do that anymore so we can give it up and start living in the 21st century, not the 18th. This will give the nation’s children more time on the basics so that they have a solid foundation before they move onto more complex stuff. With more time in the educational year comes the extra time to spend learning well instead of trying to force too much education into too little time.

  13. For public submissions:

    Transformational Change: Advancing Climate Resilience Through Education

    “The scientific community has made the urgent need to mitigate climate change clear and, with the ratification of the Paris Agreement under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, the international community has formally accepted ambitious mitigation goals.

    Several fundamental aspects of climate change make clear both the need for education and the opportunity it offers. First, addressing climate change will require action at all levels of society, including individuals, organizations, businesses, local, state, and national governments, and international bodies. It cannot be addressed by a few individuals with privileged access to information, but rather requires transfer of knowledge, both intellectually and affectionately, to decision-makers and their constituents at all levels.

    Second, education is needed because, in the case of climate change, learning from experience is learning too late. The delay between decisions that cause climate change and their full societal impact can range from decades to millennia. As a result, learning from education, rather than experience, is necessary to avoid those impacts.

    Climate change and sustainability represent complex, dynamic systems that demand a systems thinking approach. Systems thinking takes a holistic, long-term perspective that focuses on relationships between interacting parts, and how those relationships generate behavior over time. System dynamics includes formal mapping and modeling of systems, to improve understanding of the behavior of complex systems as well as how they respond to human or other interventions. Systems approaches are increasingly seen as critical to climate change education, as the human and natural systems involved in climate change epitomize a complex, dynamic problem that crosses disciplines and societal sectors.

    A systems thinking approach can also be used to examine the potential for education to serve as a vehicle for societal change. In particular, education can enable society to benefit from climate change science by transferring scientific knowledge across societal sectors. Education plays a central role in several processes that can accelerate social change and climate change mitigation.

    Effective climate change education increases the number of informed and engaged citizens, building social will or pressure to shape policy, and building a workforce for a low-carbon economy. Indeed, several climate change education efforts to date have delivered gains in climate and energy knowledge, affect, and/or motivation.

    However, society still faces challenges in coordinating initiatives across audiences, managing and leveraging resources, and making effective investments at a scale that is commensurate with the climate change challenge.”


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