Tomorrow’s Schools proposed changes might benefit trustees, principals

Carol Anderson, Lawyer with Education Law NZ and Special Counsel with Auld Brewer Mazengarb and McEwen, discusses the Tomorrow’s Schools Independent Task Force report and what impact the proposed changes might have. The consultation period for written submissions and queries closes on 7 April. An online survey, Have Your Say, is also open until 31 March. 

Carol Anderson

The report by the Tomorrow’s Schools Independent Task Force has been described as “a major shake-up” to the administration and governance of schools. The proposed changes could have some real benefits for school trustees and principals. Since 1989, New Zealand school boards have had to deal with more extensive and demanding legal, educational and financial responsibilities than school boards in other education systems around the world. In practice, the extra administrative burden has fallen largely on the principal, detracting from their role as educational leader of the school.

The Tomorrow’s Schools system currently provides widely varying quality of governance. The Task Force considers that it has led to serious educational inequality causing New Zealand to fall down the education performance table in international student comparisons. The changes are designed to address this and to reduce both principal stress and board workload. This would allowing the board to focus on the educational outcomes of their students rather than compliance, risk management and legal disputes.

The proposal involves setting up 20 regional Education Hubs, which will take over many of the legal responsibilities of school boards in their region. Some schools are concerned that they will lose all of their decision making powers to the Hub, but a closer reading of the report shows that there is potential for more flexible arrangements. Contrary to the impression created in the media, the full report makes it clear that while the Hub will have overall legal responsibility, it will have the flexibility to delegate some of those responsibilities back to individual schools.

Currently some boards of larger schools have sustainable institutional knowledge about governance and legal risk management and are fully capable of running their schools. Those schools could retain several functions they currently perform including property management, and property development – provided they meet the yet to be decided criteria. Conversely, some smaller schools are overburdened with administration. The Hub would provide support and advice on health and safety, HR, IT, procurement and maintenance or, if requested, actually undertake some of those functions for the school.

However, the functions which are unlikely to be given back to individual boards are those where boards get drawn into time-consuming and sometimes costly disputes: employment of the principal, student suspensions, exclusions and expulsions, and parent complaints. In these situations, boards are required to act independently but because the boards are controlled by parents they may be seen as having have conflicts of interest or being biased. Having these areas managed or reviewed by the Hub would provide the independence to the system which is currently lacking.

Tomorrow’s Schools made the parent controlled school board the legal employer of all staff within the school. However, the selection, management and professional development of principals has frequently been a challenge for trustees. When things go wrong in the employment relationship, trustees have to spend unacceptable amounts of time and energy dealing with the fallout.  Trustees tell me they “didn’t sign up for this”. On the other hand, it is challenging for principals to deal with an employer who often has no experience in educational administration, changes every three years and may have personal agendas.

The very public dramas relating to conflicts between principals and boards under the Tomorrow’s Schools system have been costly and disruptive in too many schools. This has benefited nobody. Under the proposed system the Hub will be the legal employer of principals and teachers but boards will still be influential in the selection process for a new principal and have a final veto. The Hub’s involvement will ensure that all boards get good advice when selecting a principal. Principals will continue to have the responsibility of employing and managing school staff.

The guidelines for student suspension hearings are complicated and there is concern about how some schools exercise their powers. There is also a lack of natural justice in the current system of suspension hearings. Suspended students are often only represented at the board hearing by a distressed parent, who may feel ill-equipped to make their child’s case properly. There are no automatic rights of appeal.

The punishment of exclusion or expulsion is much harsher than many trustees realise. Families find the experience deeply upsetting and experience isolation. It is worth remembering that nearly half of students suspended, excluded or expelled have special education or behavioural needs. The Hub would be responsible for all processes after a suspension has been initiated by a school principal. The Hub’s responsibility would be to work with the principal and to ensure that students’ rights are upheld, that they are treated fairly, and that they have continued access to education.

Parent complaints have often been a challenge for boards. Many parents who make a complaint to the board do not believe that the board has acted independently, even when it may have tried hard to do so. If parents want to take their complaint further there is currently no prompt complaint resolution system for schools. The Hub would be the independent body for hearing parent complaints when the school board cannot resolve the matter. This addresses a big gap in the current system.

There is much to consider in the Task Force’s 148 pages of recommendations. The report and a summary can be accessed online. If you or your school board have questions or concerns make sure you take the opportunity to make submissions by April 7, 2019 and influence the proposals.

An online survey, Have Your Say, is also open for feedback on the key issues and recommendations and closes on 31 March.

Carol Anderson is a Public and Education Lawyer with Education Law NZ and Special Counsel with Auld Brewer Mazengarb and McEwen. Connect with Carol via LinkedIn