Opinion: Excellence shared or spread too thin?



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Yesterday's announcement was a masterstroke by Prime Minister John Key's National Government. It refocussed the education debate on positive action, raising student achievement, giving teachers and principals something more to which to aspire, and most importantly, addressing the need to spread quality teaching more evenly across deciles and regions. But will the initiative work?

In case you missed it, Prime Minister John Key announced additional funding of $359m over the next four years to support teachers and principals. This money will be spent on four new leadership roles in schools:

Executive principals

  • Principals with a "proven track record" who will provide leadership for around 10 schools, while remaining at their own school.
  • 250 positions.
  • Offered on a two-year fixed-term basis and linked to specific objectives for student achievement.
  • Paid extra $40,000 per year.
  • Their school will also receive money to fill their role for the two days a week they will work with other schools.

Expert teachers

  • Will work with executive principals and inside classrooms in the same "community" of schools, as well as their own.
  • Includes experts in core areas such as maths and science and literacy.
  • 1,000 positions.
  • Paid extra $20,000 per year.
  • Will spend two days per week away from their own school to work with other schools.
  • Their 'home' school will be compensated for their absence (details to be provided).

Lead teachers

  • Will act as role models in classrooms in a group of schools.
  • 5,000 positions.
  • Paid extra $10,000 per year.

Change principals

  • To help schools that are performing poorly. The role is intended to place the best school leaders where they are most needed.
  • About 20 positions each year.
  • Paid extra $50,000 per year.
  • Roles will be fixed term of three to five years.


Cautious praise

The response from various stakeholders has been cautiously optimistic. For example, Professor Graeme Aitken, the University of Auckland's dean of education, told the New Zealand Herald that those in and considering the teaching profession had been given an "inspiring message" about career progression.

Mt Albert Grammar School headmaster Dale Burden said sharing expertise with other schools - and receiving the resources to cover the time any staff were away - was something to look forward to. "If the time and resource are provided, fantastic," he said.

The Herald reported that PPTA president Angela Roberts said she was wary about how it would translate into practice, but she welcomed the Prime Minister's promise to include the sector in developing the programme. Principals' Federation President Phil Harding said the announcements were a pleasant surprise and he was certain principals would be keen on it although aspects of it still had to be worked out.

The fine print

As always, the devil is in the details, and right now, there aren't many to speak of. Education Minister Hekia Parata has confirmed the working group that will flesh out the initiative will comprise education sector leaders, including unions, and representatives from the New Zealand School Trustees' Association, the New Zealand Educational Institute, the Post Primary Teachers' Association, the New Zealand Principals' Federation, the Secondary Principals' Association of New Zealand, and Maori and Pacific Island education representatives.

The biggest bones of contention will be the selection process for the new elite positions, outlining the performance measures of success for these roles, and the resourcing for - and impact of - the two days per week executive principals and expert teachers will be away from their 'home' schools/classrooms.

Will it work?

Well, the new roles will be filled between 2015 and 2017 - on the proviso National is returned to office, of course - and the entire initiative is based on the premise that individual excellence can be shared. There's plenty of time to get it right.

To date, the current Government, and in particular, the current Minister, has a poor track record in education: falling PISA results, larger class sizes, bungled school closures in Christchurch and elsewhere, controversial charter schools, and of course, Novopay. Our education bureaucracy has ambition in fits and starts, but there has been a consistent lack of nationwide vision. Individual excellence has been the shining light.

It makes sense to tap into the excellence of inspiring, high-quality teachers and principals. I applaud the Government for this.

Looking beyond the spin, however, this exercise could well be a distraction to keep the education naysayers (like the unions) occupied.

My prediction, based on the Government's track record of bureaucratic slow-boating, is that even the brightest educational leaders will be inevitably mired in red tape. Executive principals and expert teachers will work across nine other schools two days per week. If they seed ideas, there may be educational successes, but the back-up at their home school has to be spot on to ensure there isn't a drop in the better performing classes and schools. The goal is to share excellence, but my concern is that individual excellence will be spread too thin and the systems in place will not be up to the task of ensuring the initiative achieves its desired result. I hope I'm wrong.

The aspect of the initiative I see succeeding is the introduction of change principals. Inspirational, high-performing, and successful principals being lured to struggling (and in my guess, lower decile) schools can only be a good thing. Individuals can achieve a lot, and when their sole focus is on the task at hand (i.e. one school, not 10), then great things may be possible.

I'll leave the last word to Winston Peters (and probably echoed by others), who said on Twitter after the announcement: "Let's hope Novopay can pay the teachers & principals from the Government's new educational changes promptly and properly!" 

Amen to that!

Do you think the Government's new initiative will succeed? Sound off in the comments below.


By Shane Cummings, Editor-in-Chief

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