David Seymour: Who will hold the power under the Govt’s education plan?

Opinion 02/04/2019
Photo: Getty.

By David Seymour, ACT Party leader.

OPINION: Sometimes political contests come down to a single question.

Helen Clark asked Don Brash if he’d put young New Zealanders’ boots on the ground in Iraq. John Key asked Phil Goff how he’d fund his various promises (“show me the money”).

Here’s one for the Education Minister: who will be able to fire a bad principal?

The Government has big changes coming for public primary, intermediate, and secondary schools. Parents have elected Boards of Trustees to make decisions at their kids’ schools, including hiring and firing principals, for a generation.

The Government now proposes to take all of those powers away.

Our Schooling Futures is a Government report proposing that all powers currently held by Boards of Trustees be transferred to new organisations called ‘Education Hubs’. Each Hub would govern approximately 125 schools.

The Hub would in turn be governed by people appointed by whomever is the Education Minister at the time.

That last thought is worth pausing on. It has been a long time since political appointees decided what your kid learns at school. For the last thirty years you could elect a Board of Trustees to do that.

What are the chances that someone openly opposed to the Government’s philosophy will end up in one of these new positions? Answer: less than the chances of someone who supports it.

Back to the question of who can fire a bad principal. People who study these things tell us that the school leader is the most important factor in a school’s success. As a Member of Parliament and a former Education Under-Secretary, I’ve visited a lot of schools.

I’ve never visited a bad school with a good principal, or visa-versa. Getting a good principal is probably the most important thing any school can do. Being able to fire a bad one is a desperate need.

Under the Government’s proposals, the Hub chooses the principal, but the Board of Trustees can veto candidates they don’t like. Once the principal is in place, though, the employment relationship is with the Hub.

The Board of Trustees cannot fire a principal they don’t like, it’s up to the Hub.

This matters because if the Hubs can fire a bad principal (and the Board of Trustees can’t), you can start to figure out who has the real power. Who sets school zones, controls suspensions and expulsions, and manages the school property? It’s the Hub. 

Who can fire a bad principal matters because it cuts through the spin of the Government Taskforce promoting the proposals. The Taskforce chair, Bali Haque, wants you to believe that Boards won’t really lose their powers.  

The new Hubs would be friendly assistants. They are from the Government and they’re to help. They will be less intrusive than the widely-resented Ministry of Education is now.

Another Taskforce member, Cathy Wylie, says the opposite. According to Dr Wylie, no other country has copied our system of 2,500 independent self-governing schools. Boards of Trustees are generally poor managers of property that can naively choose shiny-bummed principals who aren’t up to the job, she says.

She says classrooms all over the country are empty because parents sent their kids elsewhere. The Hubs will take over and fix all that.

Which is it?

The Government needs to answer the question: Who can fire bad principals under their plan? Only then will we truly understand what is being proposed for our education system.

David Seymour is leader of the ACT Party.