Smart politics or smart policy?

The start of this year's election race has seen politicians accused left, right, and centre of bribing their electorates.  

John Key was first off the mark with his super teacher policy. A $359 million lolly scramble for teachers (over four years), Key wants to build four new teacher roles. It would see the promotion of 6,000 teachers in a workforce of 50,000. It would also see teachers sharing their expertise across schools.

While some on the right have accused the policy of targeting the fluffy concept of collaboration, some on the left have accused it of introducing elements of competition from the business world that are simply not suitable for education.

To recap the policy, the first newly created role is the Lead Teacher. This will see 5,000 teachers being paid $10,000 on top of their usual annual salary to lead other teachers and opening their classroom doors to share their teaching excellence.

Notching up another level is the Expert Teacher role for a select 1,000 teachers. With a price tag of $20,000 extra a year, these teachers will work across a group of schools for two days each week.  

Expert Teachers will work under 250 Executive Principals across the country, who will themselves mentor and lead principals across their group of schools. These super principals will receive an additional salary top-up of $40,000.

Finally, Change Principals will be responsible for turning around struggling schools, creating an incentive for these principals, as Gordon Campbell says, to "select schools based on the size of the challenge rather than the size of the school". Currently, schools with higher student enrolment pay their principals better.
Change Principals will be incentivised to work in challenging schools, and will come with a hefty price tag of $50,000 extra.

So why has the policy been criticised from left and right?

From the right, the Prime Minister's announcement to build a career track for teachers has been cynically called "a bold step left", pandering to "left-leaning women, education unions and other voters nattering about inequality".

As Matthew Hooton commented in The National Business Review, Key's move towards encouraging collaboration in education is "echoing 20 years of union demands". Indeed, it seems to be a clever political move. But clever politics and clever policy aren't always mutually exclusive.    

We found in our research trip to Singapore, that the nation's world-leading education system uses elements of both competition and collaboration, and that the latter is essential for whole-system improvement.

New Zealand, by contrast, has a self-managing school system where responsibility for education is devolved right down to the local level, with 2,500 Boards of Trustees governing 2,500 'island' schools, and where funding is allocated on a per head basis.  This competitive structure, in theory, is supposed to drive improvement. Indeed, while this autonomy has generated great improvements in many schools, good practice is slow to spread.  

Writing on the subject of collaboration and competition in schools for UK think tank Policy Exchange, James O'Shaughnessy (previous Director of Policy to David Cameron) has said that New Zealand's "highly atomised framework is both the system's greatest strength and weakness".

Allowing the best teachers and principals to help build the capacity of other schools could go a long way to improving the education system, contrary to the cynical view that this collaboration is simply serving the self-interested.

If the policy is well executed, promoting Expert Teachers and Executive Principals to work across a cooperative of schools should open the flow of information, skills and expertise to allow good practice to spread.

Meanwhile, the view from the left has been equally cynical. The government has been accused of "ideologically-driven readiness to monetise and to atomise aspects of the existing state education system".
Yet the problem of atomisation is precisely what this policy could fix.

And monetising these roles is essential. The reality is, the Executive Principal role is a huge job. These people will have to be super principals, building relationships and trust with principals and staff in around 10 schools in only 2 days a week, something that will be particularly challenging when principals are used to running things their way.

Executive Principals will be accountable not only for lifting student achievement across the group of schools, but will continue to be accountable to the Board of Trustees in their own school.

This policy is not about creating an elite class of super teachers and principals but about fairly recognising that these are leaders who will have a very challenging task on their hands.  Quite frankly, they will deserve the extra dosh.

As O'Shaughnessy says, "within public sector markets, just as in private sector ones, collaboration is actually a much more important feature than competition ... competition between firms plays a smaller yet essential part, providing the sharp edge of accountability that ensures collaboration is productive and does not slide into complacency".

This policy has the potential to open up collaboration to lift productivity while keeping the 'sharp edge' of competition in place. And while there has been some criticism from the margins, on the whole it has been widely welcomed.  It is not only smart political move, but a smart policy move too.

Rose Patterson is a Research Fellow at the New Zealand Initiative (