The reforms that introduced school boards of trustees were flawed and have been responsible for a "lost decade" of education, a new book says.
Cathy Wylie is calling for more hands-on government supervision to make up for the failings of the Tomorrow's Schools model, which she says left many boards struggling with their newfound responsibilities.
Her suggestion that boards answer to regional education authorities has been welcomed by the Education Ministry as it looks for more effective ways of supporting schools that "at times struggle".
The School Trustees Association also agreed that boards needed more support, although it rejected any return to "archaic" education boards.
Dr Wylie, of the New Zealand Council for Educational Research (NZCER), used a 2011 JD Stout Fellowship from Victoria University to write Vital Connections, which looks at the effects of the Tomorrow's Schools model since its introduction in 1989.
While schools largely welcomed the changes, they spent a "mucky decade" trying to manage property and finances, she said.
Any promising educational advances from the 1980s were forgotten amid their focus on administration.
"People look back at it as the lost decade. They were having to invent it as they went along."
Every year about 15 to 20 per cent of schools were receiving critical reports from the Education Review Office, requiring follow-up reviews within a year.
Surveys also showed that 12 to 15 per cent of principals reported having problems, such as personality clashes, with their boards at any one time.
"There is something problematic in the model itself that needs addressing," Dr Wylie said.
"We're asking an awful lot of boards of trustees. It is concerning to me that people are put in a position where they have to learn things as they go along. Their focus should be on kids' learning."
The Tomorrow's Schools reforms may have allowed schools to take more initiative and involve the community more, but they had delivered uneven and inadequate education for pupils.
Governments never put in enough money to allow the model to flourish, and it would be costly to do it properly, she said.
"It's actually not a cheaper model. School self-management costs more, not less."
She proposed boards be managed by one of 20 district authorities, to ensure schools and teachers were supported, challenged and communicating. Those authorities would have the final sign-off on appointing principals, instead of school boards.
Dr Wylie is also advocating for the ministry, the ERO and the New Zealand Qualifications Authority to merge into a single central government agency.
She hoped her book would spark discussions about change. "The system that we've got now is not strong enough for all that we are asking of it. We do have to be prepared to think afresh."
NZ School Trustees Association president Lorraine Kerr agreed that boards needed more support. "Since Tomorrow's Schools came in, all successive governments have done a poor job of funding to support boards."
But bringing back authorities such as the old education boards would be "archaic", she said. People wanted change, the current model worked, and boards of trustees were doing a great job given that their roles were voluntary.
Education Ministry group manager Frances Kelly said the book was an important contribution to the debate on supporting schools.
"We recognise that at times some schools struggle and boards and principals can require support to help them manage issues that arise and drive improvement."
WHAT WAS TOMORROW'S SCHOOLS?
The Education Department was reduced to a much smaller Education Ministry.
Regional education boards abolished.
New agencies were introduced, including the Education Review Office (ERO) and the New Zealand Qualifications Authority (NZQA).
Schools became responsible for their own decision-making.
Elected school boards to include the principal, a teacher, parents and other members from within the wider school community.
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