Wednesday, March 20, 2019

The Tomorrow's School Review - A Quiet Optimism - Part One

‘Why are you in such a bad mood?'

Lord Berric to the Hound, in Game of Thrones. 

 Todays post outlines some of my reflections on the TSR, and to be clear, they are wonderings that I have personally.  I wear a number of hats in the educational world, which include sitting on a number of Principal Executives, but these wonderings and reflections are from the perspective of over 18 years as a principal, in a range of contexts, and they are my own.  

I have had the privilege, due to some of the educational 'hats' I wear, of having the time to unpack and digest each of the recommendations, and I have read and re read the document (in hard copy and digital formats) so many times that I feel I may have given myself writers (and readers) cramp!   In addition, I have attended many meetings, conducted numerous conversations and pondered the pros and cons of the TSR recommendations with trusted colleagues and members of the public.  Whilst I am not an authority on the TSR report by any means, I do feel I have conducted due diligence and I have dived deeper than most. 

This is the first post in a series, and seeks to look at some of the things that concern me with the TSR.  

The things that give me cause for concern:

1. My biggest concern is the behaviour of some of our colleagues
2.  Do we have the money, the capacity and capability within the system?
3. Timing and Review Overload
4.  The unintended consequences
5. The lack of trust in the system 

Since the release of the report in early December, I have quite a few concerns, however it is important to emphasise that most of my concerns can be mitigated by careful implementation, and with the profession ensuring they are fully engaged in the architecture and development of the changes as we go forward.  I also believe that further mitigation of my concerns will occur if there is a bipartisan agreement and both of our major political players agree to ‘play nicely in the educational sandpit’. 

1. The behaviour of some of our colleagues

At a number of meetings I have attended, I have mostly only heard the voices of a certain demographic.  Words such as ‘protectionism’ and ‘middle class privilege’ have been used by others to describe the behaviour of some of my colleagues at these meetings, and considering I have heard with my own ears, comments such as those below, I have a tendency to agree.  These comments have included:

‘My Board works well, so why should I change?’ 

 ‘If 87% of schools are doing well, then why do we not just plough the money into those ‘bad’ schools?’

‘There is nothing wrong with growing big schools – it’s a sign of my success  - I have worked hard and now I can offer lots of things to my community -  besides, parents have the right to choose!’ 

‘My school does a good job for ‘those kids’, so I don’t see why I should have to change’ 

and my personal favourite

‘My school is doing ok, it's not my problem’.  

I have heard my colleagues lamenting various versions of these statements in most of the meetings I have been to. 

Here is why it is one of my biggest concerns.  I am not sure if you noticed, but there is a distinct focus on ‘my school’ or ‘my Board’ or ‘my parents’.  What I do not hear is the collective efficacy of OUR schools, OUR communities and OUR students.  The TSR has a distinct emphasis on the system belonging to all of us and the pathway to success is not alone but together.  What I hear in the above statements smacks to me as being myopic and insular. Worse still, I have rarely heard anyone talk about what the best thing is for kids, and that is what is at the heart of the TSR. 

This is not acceptable to me.  Our Nations children belong to us all.  They are our collective responsibility and they should expect to get an equitable bite out of the educational apple, irrespective of their postal code, what culture they come from and how much money their parents bring home.  Last time I looked, education was about children! 

2.  Do we have the money, the capacity and capability within the system?

My second biggest concern is I feel we do not have the money, the capability and the capacity in our country to make this happen.  Not without pulling effective leaders and teachers out of schools and classrooms, and by brining in more tax funds. 

What the TSR taskforce asks for is for our profession to be courageous, visionary and to be prepared to no longer accept the status quo.  It will take a big commitment from those of us charged with making this happen.  I have heard a number of my colleagues express that by the time this comes to pass, they will be retired, or they will step out.  This concerns me because we will need their wise council and experience to help iron out the kinks as we traverse the unknown.

With so many inexperienced new principals in our profession,  all of whom are busy getting their head around what it is to run a school and suddenly be the ring master of the ‘swively chair’, it is very important that they are given the time to digest and reflect on the TSR.  Best case scenario, the recommendations should they come to pass, have the potential to make their job so much easier.

3. Timing and Review Overload

Again, unless you are hiding under a rock, you will have noticed that Education is currently bogged down under a tsunami of reviews.  We are reviewing everything from Early Childhood provision, Curriculum and Assessment, Compliance and Workloads, to Tertiary provision.  There is a danger that during these reviews, and their associated overlaps, someone could drop the ball or, worse still, it could just be too big an overload for those of us in the profession running our schools, to have the time to digest, reflect and respond.

Take the TSR as our key example.  The review is made up of 8 key areas – all of which are important and critical to how we operate our schools.  Within the 8 core areas, there are 32 main recommendations.  Within the 32 key recommendations there are 157 – that is correct, 157, sub recommendations.  Some are fairly small and innocuous, others are much more controversial and potentially fraught with fishhooks.    This makes the report very complex.  So complex in fact, that I worry my colleagues will not be able to respond in a very informed way, and will be swayed by the ‘smoke screens’ that the media whip up.  

Two examples of smoke screens; the five year contracts and the size of hubs. Both of these recommendations are relatively small in the context of the whole report, but the media has fixated on them and whipped them up something fierce. 

Ironically, attend any meeting with any of the taskforce and they quickly dispel the myths that seem to grow up around them, quite quickly.  There are many ways to respond to the report, but the danger is that because it is term one and everyone is flat out, our colleagues may not get the opportunity to dive into the report or ask questions of the taskforce.  That leaves them formulating opinions and understandings that are shaped by what the media or our vocal, negative colleagues spell out. In particular that of the Community Schools Alliance.  

4.  The unintended consequences

I have a little devil that lives on my shoulder and sometimes it’s a vocal and disruptive little blighter – not always for the good I might add.  This concern relates to the quote above from Game of Thrones.  My experience in the last ten to twelve years as a principal has not been without it's challenges (as I am sure many of my colleagues would agree, due to choppy educational waters that required careful navigation!).  As a result I am aware that sometimes I can be a little cynical and distrustful of the motivations that sit behind policy or Government directives.  Sadly I am not alone.  National Standards, Charter Schools and a few personal scrapes and bruises as a leader are the experiences that have given my little shoulder mate a cynical voice. 

With this in mind, I can not help but ask myself if the TSR taskforce has thought about what the implementation of their recommendations might look like in ten or thirty years from now.  Have they considered what the unintended consequences might look like and how they might mitigate them?  Ironically, I did ask this of Bali Haque, the chair of the taskforce, at a recent meeting.  I am not convinced, by his response that they have but I am hopeful that by asking the question it will now be something worth being aware of.  You see, Bali talks about 'schooling up' the system, so it is as equally important that the taskforce do the same prior to the next iteration of the report.  

The original Tomorrows School implementation was meant to fix equity concerns but the unintended consequences resulted in ‘winner and loser’ schools, fierce competition and appalling inequity. 

An unintended consequence that pops into my mind is that without bipartisan political agreement, the hubs have the potential to be abused by less scrupulous political parties who will use the diminished powers of the Board of Trustees (who currently can be a buffer between principals who stand up for the rights of our students against the bureaucratic machinations of the Ministry) to push through neoliberal agendas such as National Standards and Charter Schools. 

5. The lack of trust in the system 

As mentioned above, it has been a bit of a rough educational ride over the last decade or so, and this has eroded trust and confidence in our system.  It is not helped by the educational elephant in the room - the current contract negotiations.  It is exceptionally facile to come out of opposition (where you have been talking a big game about restoring faith in the sector) into the big leagues and then fail to deliver to a profession desperate for the recognition and value needed to keep people in the system.  It is super hard to engage in all of these reviews where on one hand, you are told that you are valued and respected, but where on the other hand the actions show the opposite.  

The best and the fastest way, in my humble opinion, to build trust and ensure the profession is behind the changes - and actually, leading the charge, is to suck it up and settle the contracts.  Not shuffle more deck chairs on a sinking ship, but actually repair the ship and get it going again.  If you truely believe what you say about engaging with the profession and wanting the profession to be valued, then words are simply not enough.  If we hemorrhage any more teachers and principals from our wonderful profession - it will not matter how many reviews you do, there will simply be not a dash of goodwill left.  There is barely a smidgeon of it left now - do not waste it anymore by presenting insulting offers that are merely a reshuffle.  And, while I am on my high horse (I shall name him Sir Rantalot) may I just say that offering our secondary colleagues a bigger bribe than their primary counterparts in an effort to cause dissension and in a very lousy attempt at staving off a mega strike - well - that’s a real  (insert appropriate inappropriate word) move! My hunch is we will be about to take to the streets in what will only be described as one of the biggest industrial action moves this country has ever seen.  It is not too late,  for those who count beans, to count out a few more and fix this!  


Going forward, I am cautiously optimistic.  Whilst I have concerns, I am heartened by the Minister who informed leaders at the NZPF Moot that he was genuine in wanting to work in collaboration with the sector.  There is an opportunity here to be innovative and futures focused, and most importantly, better equipped to resource schools and ensure there is equity in the system! 

I think there is potential here.  If the sector is fully engaged, and collaborative co constructors in the architecture of this re imagined new educational landscape, then we have the opportunity to create something quite amazing. 

To do this, we need to leave our mistrust, our cynicisms and our hurts from the dark days of educational persecution, behind us.  We cannot let the bad experiences of our yesterday colour us into a foul mood for today and the educational future of tomorrow. 

In part two I will outline the little nuggets of hope and the things I feel have potential in the TSR.  

Post Script:  About the image above.  
The image above is from my high school year book.  At the time I was on the magazine committee and we decided to be controversial about our cover.  Our inspiration was the original Tomorrow's School reform and the Picot Report. We matched the colours and we used an article from a local paper as the metaphor of 'ripping into education'.   By the time it went to print it was too late to change the cover - suffice to say we may have been a little growled at.  Oh how ironic life is.  

Wednesday, January 9, 2019

School Choice - You Are Not Everyone's Cup of Tea

You are not everyone's cup of tea - and this is ok! 

Today when I was scrolling my social media feeds, I came across a meme called ‘you’re not everyone’s cup of tea’ and I started to think about how this applied to school choice and that it is ok if your school is not everyone’s cup of tea! 

For the purposes of this post I am not talking about those families that were always going to come to your school, or those who are looking at schools because they are new to the area – instead I am referring to the families that have preconceived notions about schooling, your school and those schools around you. Many make these decisions based on outdated information, hearsay and oftentimes, will rule out a school without even venturing across the threshold.

Sometimes they have had a fall out with their current school and they are looking for a new place. We all get them - those families that rock up to your office wanting to ‘have a quick look around’ in the search for that indefinable something that only they are privy too, in a school. They are usually already enrolled at a school locally but have decided, for one reason or another, that their current school no longer fits their brief, or meets their needs. So they go on a shopping expedition with a long list of questions and quite often, a longer list of wrongs they want their new school to fix. 

 Much like the process of buying a car, they want to come and ‘kick your tyres’. 

 I understand, I’m a parent as well and I too have done my due diligence and ‘kicked the tyres’ of any potential school. I know what kind of driving and passenger experience I am looking for my child. 

Earlier in my career as a principal I used to feel a bit disappointed if a family came to ‘kick my schools tyres’ and left without enrolling. I’m a little more pragmatic about it now, because I am a firm believer that it is ok if your school does not fit the family or if you are not their ‘cup of tea’. 

Here’s what I’ve learnt/noticed from many years of parent visits:  

Finding the right school will look different for each family:

Context matters. For some families they want their child to go to school with their friends, or they want them to be able to walk, for some they want a particular cultural or socio mix, and for others, it is all about how it feels when they visit. At my current school, many of our schools community have had a long association with the school, and for others it is about the sense of community the school fosters. The reasons people have chosen our school, or not as the case may be, are varied. Asking ‘what are you looking for in a school’ can help both sides find common ground. 

It is ok if we do not offer what a family is searching for: 

Trying to be everything for everyone is a recipe for disaster. I have learnt to embrace what it is that makes our school unique, and if a family is after a different socio or cultural mix to what our school embodies, then that is ok. It is likely that the school down the road will have what they are searching for. I can usually tell if our school is not going to meet expectations when I am asked questions like ‘What decile are you?’ promptly followed up with ‘ohhh’, or from comments like ‘ I notice a lot of (insert culture/stereotype) at your school..hmmm’. 

 A bad experience is two sided: 

I am a bit more wary of those tyre kickers who have already been to many schools, or who are so negative about their current school, but have never spoken to their current principal about their concerns. When I have a family wanting to enrol because of the ‘other school is so bad’ I usually contact the principal to find out what the other side of the story is. Sometimes if a family has been unhappy at a number of schools, they are likely to be as unhappy at yours! 

It is ok if a family ‘tried on’ the school but the school didn’t fit:

Our school culture, and yours, is what it is. It’s often a reflection of your current community, your staff and who is at the helm (both from a Governance and a Leadership perspective). It is shaped from what has happened in the past, what the focus is for the present and what the dreams for the future are. Sometimes this resonates with a family and they add to your particular flavour, and sometimes it’s never going to be a smooth mix. Oil and water comes to mind! 

It is far better they find their best fit rather than stay at your school and cause issues within the community because their discontentment will only end up making things difficult. If this happens I now see it for what it is – an opportunity for the family to find their ‘tribe’ and an experience worthy of reflection should it occur again. 

 Obviously I am writing about the odd family, not a mass walk out – in that situation there are much deeper forces at play and a different strategy would need to be enacted. 

Remember that this goes both ways: 

 Sometimes a family comes to you and you become their ‘tribe’, because they did not fit at their last school. 

Be honest, transparent and true to your community. 

If you present your school as it is, highlighting the things that make your school unique, and speak from your heart, families will either resonate with this or they will not. And this is ok. We had a family some months back come and visit – in fact they came back twice. They had looked at three other schools prior to visiting ours, and when talking with me, proceeded to tell me what was wrong with all of them, including the one they were with currently. They were looking for a utopia and a promise that as a school, we would not embark on a particular educational journey. I was unable to promise this, reiterated what our school was about and noticing that this was not enough, thanked them for their time and wished them well on their journey. You see, I knew we were not ever going to measure up enough, and I will not promise what is not in my power to promise. And this is ok. We may not have been the right fit for them, but I knew in my heart that they were not the right fit for us either. 

If they are not the right fit for you then it will not matter what you do, you will never be their cup of tea:

 There are many stories of schools that have bent over backwards trying to be everything for someone, but alas, it will never be good enough. No matter what you do, how you do it or no matter what you try it will be in vain. If you are a leader, you know what I am talking about. These people will never be your people. Instead, focus your energy on those who appreciate and love you because they are your people. Don’t neglect or alienate them in the pursuit of trying to be something for someone who does not want it. 


I think every school has something to offer most families but there will always be the outliers who may not fit one place, but might be the perfect fit for another. This is ok. 

 For those families that do not have the ability to ‘choose’ then it is important that all of us offer a high quality education because, for them, you are it. 

 For those that can choose, my message is to not be disheartened by that – it is ok. You cannot be everything to everyone, because then you are not being true to your context. 

 Remember that it is ok if you are not everyone’s cup of tea!