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Where to start when approaching education reform

Last week Education Minister Chris Hipkins announced a three-year work programme to review the current education system. The proposed programme signals a comprehensive review of education from the early years through primary and secondary schooling and into the tertiary sector. This represents a significant opportunity for New Zealand. But it also raises the question, where does one start when approaching such a wide-ranging reform opportunity? 

Internationally, education reform has a chequered history. The literature on education reform, however, does identify two components underpinning successful reform efforts. Firstly, gaining buy in from the education sector so that reforms do lead to progress and change in practice. And secondly, ensuring that any reform efforts are rooted in a clear vision of for what we are educating. 

In his announcement, Minister Hipkins discussed his desire to generate a national conversation, involving “children, young people and adult learners, their parents, whānau, communities, Māori and Pasifika, teachers, researchers and education leaders at all levels, disability organisations and employers and industry” to develop “shared ownership of the vision” for education in New Zealand. 

The proposed wide consultation is a positive step given that top-down reform is rarely successful at effecting deep or lasting change. There is general agreement in education circles that system-wide change has to come from within the system, and through the creation of rich interactions between the different actors and elements within it. In this sense, reform is less a set of structures and policies to be implemented and more a dynamic process of reinterpretation, evolution and on-going support to those engaged in the day-to-day work of educating our young people. As American academic, Professor Richard Elmore contends, for lasting reform and renewal “the knowledge of what to do has to reside not in the mind of some distant policy wonk or academic, but in the deep muscle-memory of the actual doer”1. Policy alone will never be enough to affect the types and degree of change we hope to see in education. It is necessary to empower the frontline workers; those charged with leading the education, support and well-being of New Zealand’s young people, to understand, believe and implement what it is that is being proposed.  

For this to occur it is necessary to generate robust and rich answers to the questions: For what are we education? And what constitutes a good education?. The Minister has positioned the case for reform within the rhetoric and understanding that our current education system does not meet the demands of the 21st century. In his work programme proposal the Minister sets out an initial vision for what a rebuilt educational environment in New Zealand will look like, including five main objectives for education: (1) learners at the centre; (2) barrier-free access; (3) quality teaching; (4) quality inclusive education; (5) 21st century learning. It is difficult to argue with the importance of any of these objectives. However, to truly form a base for reform it is essential that a deeper level of interrogation supports them.

There is fierce debate as to the purpose and value of education. For some, education primarily is preparation of and for the workforce, designed to equip young people with the skills they need to contribute to the economy. For others, it serves a social, moral and civic function, creating thoughtful and aware citizens, committed to engaging in and contributing actively to a strong, just and equitable society. For others still, it is about fostering growth and creativity. The perspective that one holds about the purpose of education has important implications for the outcomes they value for students and schools more broadly. 

As the educational philosopher Professor Gert Biesta reminds us “decisions about the direction of educational policy and the shape and form of educational practice cannot be based solely upon factual information”2. Discussions of the direction of education and what constitutes a good education always requires engagement with value judgements – judgements about what is educationally desirable. Values, therefore, must lie at the heart of any educational reform process. 

1. Elmore, R. (2016). ‘‘Getting to scale…’’ it seemed like a good idea at the time. Journal of Educational Change, 17, 529-537.

2. Biesta, G. (2009). Good education in an age of measurement: on the need to reconnect with the question of purpose in education. Educational Assessment, Evaluation and Accountability, 21, 33-46. 

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