Opening of School Trustees' Association annual conference

  • Wyatt Creech


Thank you again for the invitation to address your Conference this year.

It has been eighteen months now since I took over the education portfolio. It seems to have raced by. As they say, time flies when you're having fun! Over the last year, I think the education sector has been more focused and positive. The amount of aggro and argument has declined.

Last year when I addressed you I quoted one of those screen saver messages that said "God put me on this earth to accomplish a certain number of things. At the moment I am so far behind I will never die". That still sums up the portfolio pretty well. Perhaps I could add what I saw recently on a tee shirt - slightly modified to make it polite: "I'm always in the pooh - it's only the depth that varies".

Over my 18 months in the job I have taken stock of the pressures, the problems and the positives in the education sector. I note that the theme of your conference is adding vision, value and vitality. I share that desire. As a result of the last two Budgets, substantial new resources have gone into schools to address problems and assist students at risk. Schools should be starting to feel the impact of these catch-ups already. It is now time to move on.

All of us in the education sector need to work together for improvements. We can't live in the past. Society is changing; students coming to school reflect wider problems - teachers, principals and boards need to be equipped to respond well to the change.

My personal style is clear: I prefer to consult and work constructively with the sector - not fight with those constantly pulling against the tide. I am not interested in political agendas hijacking the education system. If groups want to have influence, they have to be willing to participate constructively. They must be prepared to talk to the others; not past the others. They must be willing to find middle ground; not struggle endlessly to win something for their part of the sector at the expense of other parts, or walk out when they don't get their own way.

As we move forward fixing the problems, we need to also develop a culture that sees schools as vibrant, lively, relevant establishments, well set up to prepare children currently at school for the future - that can respond quickly to the inevitable changes coming towards them and us. We must be committed to success. You as School Trustees and your communities must be there too. Successful, responsive education for our young people depends on committed parents.

The media will not be much help. They report mainly the negative. Each day 2,700 schools in New Zealand open for learning. Overwhelmingly what happens there is positive. But this is a sector full of claims and counter-claims; full of vested interests, masquerading in other, nobler clothing. Criticism is always exaggerated - whatever causes concern is a "crisis". And in a world where the media tend to focus on the superficial and the sensational, good news doesn't usually make it out there. Often this means unbalanced public understanding. That cannot be avoided. We just need to concentrate on what actually happens in our schools.

STA recently publicised a report based on a survey of Boards of Trustees belonging to STA. Although it has the weaknesses surveys naturally do have as research tools, and only 42% of all schools responded - and although it was carried out before the recent Budget announcements that increased again school resourcing - it had some interesting results.

For instance, most boards reported they were confident about their work. 81% said they were completely on top of their task or making steady progress. Another 16% said 'coping adequately'. That's pretty good - but needless to say only the negative results were highlighted in the media.

The Tomorrow's Schools system is now nearly eight years old. It is maturing. I want today to reinforce my basic commitment to the underlying principle of Tomorrow's Schools. To my mind the idea of giving responsibility for deciding the priorities for spending the education dollar back to school communities was completely the right choice. Communities take ownership of situations, take initiatives to solve problems, and make the best use of available funds to ensure their children fulfil their potential.

School campuses are definitely much brighter than before Tomorrow's Schools. Increasing community involvement in schools' design has given some excellent results - for example in Arrowtown and Eastern Hutt. And our recent decision to share the proceeds of the sale of excess education property increases your say in property decisions. I already know of several cases where it will lead to action.

One is in my electorate. There, the school has a separate block of land, originally a teacher's paddock as I understand. Some years back the locals built a community hall on this school land. They now want to buy the land so both hall and land belong to the community. In the past every cent would have gone to the Crown, so little happened. Now proceeds are shared 50/50 with the school. Country schools have ex horse-paddocks - city schools have land that's useful only for the hard bit of the annual cross country - it has no educational purpose. If it is surplus, it can be sold and half the proceeds used for capital works to improve the school. And the other 50% goes into the general pot for the benefit of all our schools.

More controversially, the Tomorrow's Schools system - brought in by the previous government - intended this devolution policy should apply to staff as well as operations. That recent STA survey asked about attitudes to direct resourcing. Results were far from all negative, and showed that concerns centre on a range of anxieties, including that funding levels could reduce over time. That is a fair concern. It can only be addressed by improving confidence in the whole way we operate. The Government is trying to build confidence in the education sector to address that fear. This was a key theme in the Budget. As confidence and credibility builds these anxieties should be alleviated and the full vision of Tomorrow's Schools - empowerment of communities - can be realised.

I want to scotch claims that we are making this policy compulsory. The Coalition Agreement makes it clear that we will stick to voluntary bulk funding. But the Agreement allows us to review the formula to remove any anomalies so as to make it work better for the Tomorrow's Schools system. We want to work through any issues involved with those in the sector who want to talk constructively about ways to make it work better, including STA. We said we would not make any changes in the 1997 Budget and we didn't. But our Coalition Agreement allows us to review the formula, and we will if we are convinced that it will give improved results for the young people of New Zealand - the ones who at the end of the day we are all here to serve.

We believe the flexibility this system offers gives communities the opportunity to work out how to spend taxpayers' money better. Some schools may decide their principal needs more management support - others might decide on extra classroom support for teachers. Some might see more computers as a priority - others may want added resource for homework centres. Needs vary. Vision varies. Direct resourcing gives the locals the flexibility to use the available resources to respond in the best way.

The Ministry of Education's national staffing formula applies exactly the same staffing ratio in every school from North Cape to Bluff, regardless of the different needs of groups of pupils, or different talents in staffrooms. As I say, under voluntary bulk funding schools can determine how best to use that that staffing resource to meet their needs - and they have the option of returning to central resourcing should they feel direct resourcing does not work for them.

The same approach applies to operations grants. We need to make sure the formula is right. More on that in a moment.

There is also the vexed issue of amounts. While I know what the survey mentioned by your President says about operations funding, I asked Ministry officials to have a good look at operations funding for schools and tell me what had been happening. The results are clear. By the start of the 1998 school year, the inflation-adjusted value of all operations funding will be greater than it was in 1990. While the size of the increase depends on the price index used, the result is the same - ranging from a small increase in real terms of 3%, using the Consumer Price Index; 2.09% rise using the Reserve Bank underlying inflation figure, to a 4.6% real increase using the Producer Price Index. Anyone who wishes can investigate this research. That is what the results show.

I am talking about the total operations funding for schools. That to my mind has to be the valid figure because that is what schools have to spend. Operations funding, while written as if earmarked for a particular purpose, can in fact be spent by schools on whatever they regard as the highest priority items. We can dispute figures forever; to me arguments about figures are the most sterile arguments of all. As Mark Twain said, "there are lies, damned lies, and then there are statistics".

And the amount of money will never be enough - unless the world changes radically in a way that seems to me impossible, there will always be calls for more money. There always have been, including in the period long before Tomorrow's Schools, and including under governments of either political persuasion. And those calls will not come just in education - health, welfare, the arts, public radio, foreign aid, police, youth and community work - the list goes on and on. One of the tough things Governments have to do is decide how much to spend on the various items of state expenditure. The big advantage of the Tomorrow's Schools system is that you, as locals, get to decide how best to spend the money, rather than the central bureaucracy in Wellington. We decide how much money will be there - and you will always lobby us for more I have no doubt - and you decide how best to spend it.

I, as Minister, have worked hard to get more funding when I have argued education's case at the Cabinet table, and to some considerable extent have succeeded. But I know I will never get enough to satisfy all demands. And as to arguments about what should be counted, again the argument can be endless. What finally matters is the amount of money there is for schools to spend. And that has gone from $698.32/pupil in 1990 to $801.71/pupil by this year, a nominal rise of 16%.

One way of settling the argument is to sort out just what we mean by operations grants. Ops grants now include per-pupil funding, the base grant and a huge range of other components such as TFEA and property maintenance. Believe it or not, there are over 25 different components. Entitlements are calculated from all of these to allow for differences in school size, type and socio-economic status. I have asked officials to work on the Operations Grant to get it onto a far more sensible and rational basis.

This should not be too difficult. The grant has three different sorts of components. The base grant which reflects the fixed costs of all schools. This puts a bigger slice of funds into smaller schools. Last year we got rid of the plain unfair, negative, base grants where large schools actually had their funding decline as they got larger.

The second component is the per pupil funding that goes to all schools. This has been increased by 5% in each of the last two Budgets. And finally there is the targeted funding - TFEA, rural, Maori language etc. that sees funding go to schools and pupils that meet certain criteria. This we have adjusted in each of the last two Budgets - in 1996 to make TFEA work across the decile scale. In 1997, a 10% increase focused on building up funds for schools in lower socio-economic areas. Your Association will certainly be invited to comment on those proposals as they are developed.

Remember, schools have full flexibility to use the whole operations grant for their own purposes. Despite the way it's calculated, no part is 'tagged' - schools don't have to use specific portions to fund particular activities. And as I say, critics who say this or that component hasn't been increased are missing the point - it's the total of the grant that matters.

What we now have to do is ensure that the value is regularly updated, changes through time are clear, and the figuring is less complex.

Many trustees and principals tell me that under Tomorrow's Schools the administration load is felt particularly by smaller schools. One answer to that is "clustering". My New Zealand First colleague Brian Donnelly, himself until last year from the chalk face - a school principal in fact - earlier today Brian called for further ways to bring smaller schools together to share and thus reduce admin costs. Brian pointed out that Picot expected these schools to co-operate for that purpose, but observed that had not happened to the extent Picot expected.

July's Budget allocated a funding pool of $6 million to help schools with the capital costs of forming 'clustering' arrangements that pool their talents and help reduce management pressures. Where schools decide to share the load, this new money can help with set-up costs. Schools make the arrangements they believe will work best for them. For instance you could have a common Board of Trustees for several schools - a sort of multi-campus school - or joint admin systems. I am interested in hearing ideas.

Earlier this year STA and others called for a 'fine-tuning' of Tomorrow's Schools. One of the issues you're concerned about, raised both in the STA survey, and in comments from the public, has been the role of trustees.

In this job I visit a lot of schools and meet many trustees and teachers. I have noticed a huge variation in what trustees actually do. Partly this results from local differences, but also from a lack of clear expectation of the role of trustees.

Some say the responsibilities they end up carrying are much larger than they expected. Others are quite happy. When I ask questions I get a wide variety of responses. At one school I was told of all the time Trustees had put in to establishing detailed curriculum policy. They had even taken a weekend retreat away to discuss it, then organised a parents' evening - though they were disappointed at the lack of interest. Another school of pretty much the same size told me that they had made all their curriculum decisions at a single meeting on a Tuesday evening!

Trustees' degree of involvement depends to some extent on the size of the school and the personal interests of the trustees. In large schools, decisions such as which teachers to employ in a particular job, or a particular department, are made by heads of departments, rather than principals. I have been told of one school where one of the trustees kept all the financial records at home on a personal computer. The principal simply did not know what was going on with the school's finances. Another says that half his twenty days of paid annual leave from work were taken up with school trustee business. Others say they manage very well with two meetings a month.

But while they acknowledge high workloads, most trustees don't want to pass them on. "You find the role satisfying and challenging", said one. "It is not something people like to give away".

This paints for me a picture of a need for us, in our review of the role of boards of trustees - sought I should say by the School Trustees Association rather than initiated by the Government - to develop a statement of clear expectations of trustees.

Likewise, I think we need to have a statement of clear expectations of principals and teachers. To my mind, details of curriculum implementation, for example, are a matter for the teaching profession. They are trained in that area.

The Education Act itself is not that helpful in establishing expectations. Section 75 hands responsibility for the management of schools to boards of trustees. This is what it says: "A school's Board has complete discretion to control the management of the school as it thinks fit". That seems clear enough on first reading. But the immediately following Section 76 states that the principal is the Chief Executive Officer and is therefore responsible for the day-to-day management of the school. Section 76 states: "A school's principal is the Board's chief executive in relation to the school's control and management. The principal shall comply with the Board's general policy directions; and has complete discretion to manage as the principal thinks fit the school's day to day administration". That seems to leave what happens in the school on a day to day basis entirely to the principal. But the dividing line between 'management' and 'day-to-day management' - between what we call 'governance' and 'management' if you will - is very unclear.

I would like to see it clarified through sensible discussion. No one is trying to strip Boards of their powers. We need to initiate a debate, involving trustees, to determine what is practical, what is realistic and what is sensible. We should by now be mature and sensible enough to have that debate in an environment where people can be open-minded, rather than becoming threatened or defensive about their role.

The current law holds that trustees are the employers of teachers. I have seen trustees quoted as saying they do not want to give up their employer role. But think about that. One of the largest parts of an employer's job is to negotiate rates of pay and job conditions with their staff. But in the education sector up until now, the State Services Commission - and now the Ministry of Education - has that role. Your survey indicated that trustees do not wish to have that particular responsibility passed to them, and the Government does intend keeping it. But it inevitably raises the question of trustees' role in employment matters.

Being an employer sometimes means taking hard decisions. Let me discuss two. First, remuneration for principals. A recent report that looked at job evaluation and remuneration noted that the impact of performance reviews of principals was limited, and saw a reluctance by boards to make remuneration decisions. I can understand that. It is hard to work with a person on a day to day basis - close personal relations are bound to develop in most cases - it is hard to have that sort of relationship and then go off and make decisions as to whether they are any good or not.

Another of those hard decisions arises when the staff of your school strike. Should they continue to be paid? They have after all withdrawn their labour. My view was well-known; it did not make me popular, but it was right. I thought deductions should be made. But I acknowledge this is difficult for trustees. Naturally you want to maintain good relationships with teachers.

But it seems to me that if employees can withdraw their labour partially or totally, and still receive full payment, there is absolutely no incentive for them to look for a fair and satisfactory settlement. The natural flow-on is to protract disputes.

It is also wrong in principle. Would you pay a painter's bill in full if he didn't do the whole job? In essence that is what happened last year. All but a few Trustees paid their teachers for days on strike. It created an extraordinarily difficult situation for the negotiating agent - that is, the Government through the State Services Commission.

Going back to principals, in schools, the principal has a pivotal role. The effectiveness of a school is closely linked to the quality of its leadership. The principal - and senior staff in bigger schools - need to be able to map out the educational direction for their school; identify emerging trends, and keep abreast of best practice.

We all need to put more focus on the skills required of a principal, including responsibility for managing staff. With a clear picture of core competencies, we can make sure we provide the training to ensure principals attain them.

Many of our larger schools are like medium-sized businesses. Principals cannot do everything themselves - they have to be able to delegate some management tasks so they can concentrate on the overall effectiveness of education for our children.

We should be willing to recognise the contribution of effective principals and reward it accordingly. The increase in resourcing for principals' pay in the Budget reflects our commitment. The Ministry of Education will be working with principals' groups on an acceptable remuneration and performance management framework.

I am sure you realise that in February all three teacher employment contracts - primary, area and secondary - expire. We want to develop, for the new contract round, a unified pay system within an integrated teaching service. The leadership of STA has been through the Working Party process. They can confirm to you that it has not been easy! The concept is straightforward enough - the devil is in the detail.

I tell secondary teachers everywhere that, like it or not, their primary sector colleagues feel a real sense of grievance that they are rewarded at a lesser level simply because they are primary teachers. What I have to argue is what a teacher is worth, regardless of where they are in the teaching profession.

A unified pay system should pay teachers on the basis of skills, qualifications, responsibilities and performance, no matter what part of the compulsory sector they work in. Let me say this. In negotiating this contract, I trust the Ministry will receive due support from boards. I would very much prefer that this pay round be non-confrontational, and marked by common sense and a willingness to find solutions on all sides.

As Government we have certain objectives. We want a high-quality teaching service. We want the pay system to reward, recruit and retain the best teachers. We want every teacher to realise it is worth it (professionally and financially) to achieve and perform. We want to make teaching an attractive profession for adults of all ages, including encouraging those in their 30s to enter teaching. And we want every teacher to have that sparkle in their eyes about what they are doing.

We need a good, positive working environment. Ideally employment contracts would cover longer periods, so that we don't face the difficulties that inevitably flow from pay rounds so frequently. The Government is trying to achieve that environment by putting more resources into building confidence, supporting students at risk, and developing qualifications and curriculum that are relevant and responsive to student needs.

Over the past decade New Zealanders have increasingly recognised the importance of education to our economic and social well-being. Education is the key to progress.

Four key strategies drive the Government's approach.

First we will continue to strive for quality and improved performance throughout the system.

Second, we must ensure that the education system can meet the demands of increased roll growth and participation in all areas, from early childhood to tertiary.

Third, we want to build a system which responds well to the changing needs of individuals and New Zealand workplaces, as well as to international influences and technological change. The Government is looking for effective coordination between education, health, welfare and labour market policies. Too often, there is unnecessary duplication or people fall through cracks between services offered by different agencies.

And finally, we want to raise the educational achievement of all students, including those currently at risk of failure. The causes are complex, so the response is wide-ranging.

Schools these days face problems that are not associated simply with education. Sadly for some children, school is the safest place they know. Though schools do not invent social problems, they have to handle them when they come through their gates. Schools increasingly have to show young people how to interact with others and how to conduct themselves - as well as delivering education. Only two weeks ago, the Governor General highlighted a widely-felt worry that our society is losing moral values. The concern is real enough; the solutions are more difficult. But what is learned in schools is always going to part of the solution.

I want to see, for all New Zealanders, an education system that delivers high quality education. An education system that is responsive to individual student needs - that will change to meet the demands of a rapidly changing world - that will enable students from all walks of life to participate effectively in New Zealand society. Cohesive, supportive communities and families mean vibrant schools - good schools add strength to families and communities.

To me, for an unusual mix of reasons, we now have a window of opportunity to make real progress in education in New Zealand. An opportunity where improving quality, improving standards - not the old arguments about mechanisms and structures - is the prime driver.

I want to conclude by thanking you for your contribution to the education of our young people. Each and every one involved in the education system has an opportunity to make a difference to the lives of young people. If we do it well, we enhance the value of their lives considerably.

I will continue to work over the coming year to further that simple objective: a better education for a better future for New Zealand.

Thank you very much.