When we asked primary teachers for any final comments in NZCER’s (New Zealand Council for Educational Research) triennial national survey of primary schools in 2019, they spoke of their love of teaching and the rewards of working with students. But they also voiced concern about the cost: the size and intensity of their workload. This isn’t something that can be addressed by tinkering around the edges. NZEI’s substantial 2021 primary staffing review, Pūaotanga, concludes that staffing formulae and roles aren’t matched with the world we live in now. It offers a fundamental redesign.
Fundamental redesign is also identified as the only way that Aotearoa New Zealand’s schooling system can overcome the costs for students, teachers and leaders of insufficient connection and support, and of mistrust and competition, in the Tomorrow’s Schools Independent Taskforce final report.
As a member of that taskforce and an experienced researcher, I know how comprehensive our consultation was, and how solid the evidence we had that piecemeal approaches or band-aids would not suffice. Most of the taskforce’s recommendations to reset the relations between schools and the Ministry of Education were taken up by the Government, with a transformative shift in the compulsory school system laid out in late 2019 and included in the current Education Work Programme.
Both reviews were clear that the changes they sought could not be achieved quickly: it would take years of considered work, including building capability and capacity that have been so run down, and Government commitment in successive budgets. At the start of 2020, I was cautiously optimistic that the groundwork to develop the ecosystem that the Tomorrow’s School review report outlined would occur.
Two years on, I tell myself to have more patience after COVID-19 has left too little money, attention and knowledge for what is needed to properly address primary schooling’s needs. I want to have more faith than I currently have that the Ministry restructuring will be fruitful, and that the new Curriculum Advisor and Leadership Advisor roles will be what was envisaged, so that we really can make teachers’ and leaders’ lives easier as well as enriching learning. What’s needed in those roles are deeply knowledgeable people who can work as respected partners with teachers and school leaders to progress what matters in individual school contexts.
I think there is appetite for focussed connection, both within and beyond individual schools. And if you set things up so people share a common purpose, learn and share together, it pays off.
Recently NZCER published its annual aggregate picture of what teachers and principals report of their teaching, school and leadership practices. We compared 2021 and 2017 responses to see what had changed over the past four years at the national level. We didn’t see much change, which is not surprising when you consider that little had changed for schools in terms of support or major policy affecting their work. But one marked change was in the much higher gains for teaching practice in 2021 that teachers and principals reported from working with other schools in a Kāhui Ako.
The Tomorrow’s Schools Independent Taskforce recommended that Kāhui Ako continue, with more flexibility. The gains teachers and principals report add weight to that recommendation, which the Government accepted. I hope the current review of Kāhui Ako builds on what has been gained, rather than starting all over again with another initiative, or robbing Peter to pay Paul. We’ve done that all too often, losing too much of the time of teachers, leaders and students, when we could have been continuing to build.
COVID-19 is teaching us about the value of identifying what is essential and focussing our energy on that. This shouldn’t mean, for example, discarding curriculum area knowledge and skills for wellbeing, or vice versa, but being deliberate in scaffolding so that these are intertwined: two for the price of one.
COVID-19 has also underlined for us the costs of isolation. I know from research on school leadership and scaling-up reform focussed on proven approaches that there are benefits for both student learning and teacher wellbeing where teachers can work and learn together, building on what is effective for their particular student community.
The Curriculum Refresh has potential here, depending on how well framed and supported it is. It has to be hoped that lessons have been learnt, and schools will not be left to make sense of digital guidance and resources on their own.
Digital communication has certainly come to the fore. But as time goes on, I’m not sure that we can rely on it to further expand teaching and learning, to move beyond set school hours or location. Too many students, too many Māori, Pacific, those whose English is an additional language, those with additional learning needs, don’t have the digital resources they need to fully participate if we come to rely on digital technology. And I’m hearing teachers and school leaders wondering if some of the issues they experience with student engagement, behaviour and language use are related to a narrowing of student experiences outside school as they spend substantial and increasing time on digital devices.
We certainly need to draw on teacher, leader and student experiences now, to understand what goes into effective, and sustainable, teaching and learning in our uncertain times. It’s essential that there is more sharing, of things that have made a positive difference, and of the journey to get there, and also more sharing of the things that have not worked, that have taken more energy than was worth it, so that we can use our time wisely. We don’t need to wait for the system redesign to learn from each other.
Cathy Wylie recently retired as a Kaihatū Rangahau Chief Researcher with NZCER. She is well-known for her research on educational and social policy, and its impacts on teaching and learning. She is particularly interested in how we can better support teaching and learning to tackle long-standing inequities in our system, and the newer challenges we face. She was a member of the Pūaotanga Review Panel.