Fit the Bill: Will National’s Policies Improve the Education System?

Listener: 15 July, 2006. 

Keywords: Education; 

I thought the only really interesting manifesto policy in the 2005 election was National’s proposal to give parents more choice and schools more independence. National wants to relax rigid zoning restrictions, increase the number of places at integrated schools and restore the funding to independent schools to past levels so that more parents can afford to send their children to them. I was not convinced, so I invited National education spokesman Bill English to persuade me. 

Can parents make good choices? How can they tell what is a good school? The most quoted measures are misleading. The decile rating of a school describes only its students’ background, not how well it is performing, and the league tables of the students’ exam attainment do not tell us about each school’s teaching achievements since some students are easier to teach than others. 

English said many parents can and do choose schools now. National’s policy makes schools focus more on ensuring that their performance meets parents’ expectations. He also mentioned a Ministry of Education website, SchoolSmart, which offers a rich set of useful data that can be used to identify schools in trouble. But access is restricted to head teachers and ministry officials. He’s trying to open it up. 

Will parents be able to interpret it? After all, there is a rich set of useful data in the public accounts, but journalists (many of whom are parents) latch on to the “surplus”, which they interpret quite invalidly as justifying tax cuts. Won’t parents make a similar mistake, focusing on wrong criteria? If English is successful with his official information application, the ministry and the private sector had better get on with educating the public as how to interpret the data. 

Actually, English thinks that most schools are doing pretty well (as do I and the Ministry of Education), and that the differences shown in the data don’t matter a lot. He talks more about parent choice in terms of style – a school more suitable to the individual needs of the child – rather than educational achievements. 

Whatever parents choose, oversubscribed schools will have the real choice, cherry-picking the better (easier-to-teach, more prestigious) students. Enrolment schemes were introduced by National, but when I pressed him (eg, over balloting) English said more work had to be done on them. He also said National would help successful state schools to expand capacity, though with practical (and fiscal) limits. 

National wants state schools to take an ownership interest in their property should they wish. They will be “Trust Schools” similar to integrated schools but with state rather than religious origins, although whether the property will be sold, loaned or gifted is yet to be decided. 

The intention is that all schools would be bulk-funded, that is, receive a lump sum out of which they would pay teachers’ salaries and other expenses. (Universities are already bulk-funded.) But teachers seem happier to have the state as an employer rather than their school board, and they worry that there will be undercutting of pay rates, with a preference for two inexperienced teachers to one proven one. I worry that the boards may not be able to cope. Many head teachers already find their jobs excessively administrative. This would remove them even further from teaching. 

My views are greatly influenced by When Schools Compete, by Edward Fiske and Helen Ladd. (English had a copy of the book in his office.) They liked many aspects of the “Tomorrow’s Schools” reforms but were critical of others, thinking they relied too heavily on governance. Ultimately, education is about students and their parents, peers and teachers. 

I pointed out that the key to better educational performance might lie with teachers. Was he getting them on board? English said he got on well with teachers individually, and regularly attended their national conferences. But he is rarely asked to make a presentation. I said that was unwise. Too often we ignore the Opposition’s policies, meaning they are never adequately discussed, tested and improved. When the Opposition becomes government, the policies are put into operation and don’t work properly. Better the dialogue before the manifesto commitment. 

<>Will National’s policies improve educational performance? I remain uncertain. I do know I’d send my children to a school where Bill English was headmaster.