New Zealand - Parents in school decision-making - "The New Zealand Experience"

1.1 Introduction

The New Zealand compulsory education sector has undergone enormous and dramatic change over the past decade. New Zealand’s 2,660 schools are governed and managed by approximately 18,000 people, elected by their communities to ensure that the wishes of the community are considered in the running of the school. It has not always been that way.

2.1 The 1989 Era

In order to gain an understanding of school based parent/caregiver decision-making in New Zealand it is necessary to undertake a brief trip back in history to pre 1989 in New Zealand education.

Prior to 1989 New Zealand’s education system was overly centralised. All primary schools had an elected school committee which had no real statutory powers. In many cases the main focus was in fund raising for their school. The decision making power at that time largely rested with an intermediary board structure of 10 education boards.

For practical purposes the board structure controlled and administered primary education on a regional basis, including exercising powers relating to resourcing, property, staffing and the hiring and firing of teachers and principals.

In reality the "firing" part of the hiring and firing equation was more illusionary than real and under performing teachers or teachers subjected to disciplinary processes were merely shifted from one school to another rather than the issue itself being faced and dealt with.

In the secondary sector each school had an elected board of governors which had limited employment powers but again the essential control rested with another agency, the regional offices of the then Department of Education.

In both primary and secondary schools active participation by the school community in the running of schools was very much on a grace and favour basis and largely rested on the extent to which the principal of that school welcomed community participation.

In reality there was virtually no ability for the parent voice to be heard and much less influence in the running of their local school in any tangible way.


3.1 Overview of education changes in New Zealand 1989

In 1987, David Lange, New Zealand’s then Prime Minister and Minister of Education, set in place a task force known as the Picot Task Force to review the administration of education in New Zealand schools. The task force found that New Zealand’s administration structure in education, which had existed in much the same way for 100 years, was overly centralised, over complex and in need of extensive reform.

The task force reported back in 1988, producing a comprehensive analysis of the needs of the compulsory education sector.

In this report, Administering for Excellence [known as the Picot Report], the task force surmised.

"An effective administrative system must be as simple as possible and decisions should be made as close as possible to where they are carried out. Because the state provides the funds and retains a strong interest in education outcomes, there must be national objectives, and clear responsibilities and goals ...

Individual learning institutions will be the basic unit of education administration. This is where there will be the strongest interest in the educational outcomes and the best information about local circumstances. People in the institutions should make as many of the decisions that affect the institutions as possible - only when it would be inappropriate should decisions be made elsewhere."

The task force identified that the old education system was "cumbersome":

In fact it was pointed out that the old system was not one system, but a number of systems, with some overlaps of functions. It was very often confusing and frustrating for those trying to work through the labyrinths of educational decision making; in short, a major exercise in bureaucracy.

It was noted, at the time, the underlying aims of the Picot reforms were to increase the responsiveness of the New Zealand education system and increase the satisfaction with education of all the significant stakeholders. The stated purpose of the Tomorrow’s Schools Reforms was to improve the education system by:

The listed improvements would come about through:

From the communities perspective the Tomorrow’s Schools Reforms were about simplifying and removing bureaucracy and empowering parents.

The scene was therefore set for reforms within the compulsory education sector that were most dramatic and unusual.

4.1 The New Zealand model

While decentralisation was increasingly being examined in a number of other countries in the case of the New Zealand scenario the model proposed was one of "self governance", where each school was to have its own governing body with full employer powers and which was to be directly accountable to parents/caregivers and the school community.

Trustees were elected by the parents and caregivers of pupils at an individual school to "control the management [governing] of that school. Parents and caregivers, through the New Zealand reforms, were given the opportunity to become involved in the real decision making affecting their local school and their child’s education.

Through a locally elected board of trustees the school’s community would be free to make education, professional, and financial decisions which would enable local people to meet the needs of their local students.

The new self governing focus was to be tempered by maintaining a national curriculum, national standards, with some central policy making in administration functions, and a centrally based review and audit agency [Education Review Office] which would audit the performance of boards on a regular basis.

With more local control standards in education would no longer be uniformly imposed from the centre but would allow for local differences, and allow schools to develop in ways which met the distinctive needs of the local community.

In this local responsibility lay the greatest potential for good but, conversely, perhaps also its greatest risks.

5.1 Boards of Trustees

The reforms of 1989 saw boards of trustees being placed at the heart of the reformed compulsory education system. Boards are made up of three to seven elected parent representatives, the principal, staff representative, and for secondary schools, the ability to have a student representative. Boards also have the power to co-opt up to four additional members for equity/cultural reasons or to obtain particular expertise. Those coopted are for all intents and purposes full members of the board for the period of their cooption.

Trustees are elected by the parents and caregivers of the pupils of an individual school for a three year term.

The first election of trustees occurred in April 1989, with real concerns expressed at that time that boards could be high jacked by pressure groups. In fact this was not an issue and in excess of 2,660 schools were defined as electorates, returning officers appointed, voting papers designed, printed and distributed, and advertisements placed.

It is now a matter of record that the first elections were successful and some 17,000 new trustees set about drawing up their charters. Successful elections have since occurred in 1992, 1995, and 1998, with the 1998 elections being very successful in electing a board for each of the countries 2,660 schools.

6.1 School Charters and National Education Guidelines

The Tomorrow’s Schools reforms were predicated around the premise that each board of trustees became an autonomous self managing, governing body. This has been achieved through creation of boards as legal entities with their own specific rights and obligations. As the governing body every new board was required to develop a charter which became the base guiding document of the school. The charter’s significance is reinforced through the Education Act 1989 which provides that:

"... every charter has effect as an undertaking by the board to the Minister to take all reasonable steps to ensure that:

(a) the school is managed, organised, conducted, and administered for the purposes set out, or deemed to be in the charter, and

(b) the school and its students and community achieve the aims and the objectives set out or deemed to be contained in the charter."

The charter is in effect a signed agreement between the board and central government which reflects the values and priorities of the local community along with national goals and objectives.

As time has passed trustees have increasingly taken on board that the charter is a "living document" and one which boards may want to review, alter, or modify from time to time to best reflect the current values or priorities of their school community. The National Educational Guidelines, [NEGs] which contain a statement of goals for education in New Zealand, as well as curriculum and administrative requirements, are deemed to be part of every school charter, and set out the contractual arrangements school trustees have with the Crown [government].

The curriculum and administrative requirements of the NEGs are specified through ten National Education Goals as well as National Administration Guidelines [NAGs]. These NAGs set out six major responsibilities that fall upon boards of trustees.

7.1 Statutory Empowerment of Boards of Trustees

Boards of trustees are empowered under the Education Act 1989 to run their schools:

"except to the extent that any enactment of or the general law of New Zealand provides otherwise, a school’s board has the complete discretion to control the management of the school as it sees fit."

The Act also provides that:

"the school’s principal is the board’s chief executive in relation to the school’s control and management


"except to the extent that any enactment with the general law of New Zealand provides otherwise, the principal -

(a) shall comply with the board’s policy directions; and

(b) …. has complete discretion to manage as the principal thinks fit, the school’s day to day administration"

8.1 The notion of governance

There has been much debate in New Zealand, between stakeholders/government and between stakeholders themselves, over whether the Education Act is in fact confusing in its empowerment of board and principal.

Indeed, it is fair to say that the governance/management interface has at times been a source of considerable discontent, at both the national level and as a cause of friction between a number of boards of trustees and their principal, at the individual school level.

The governance/management distinction was interpreted as equivalent to that between policy and programme, with the board responsible for setting objectives and monitoring their achievement, and the professional responsible for formulating and implementing the detailed programmes by which they would be achieved. Professional integrity would be preserved by maintaining a functional distinction between policy and programme.

Of course the reality is that neither good governance nor good management is achieved simply because it is legislated for and that the legislation does no more [and can do no more] than provide a permissive framework within which boards, in conjunction with their principal, can determine their own governance/management structure according to the expectations of their communities and in the best interest of their students.

In practice the governance role undertaken by boards of trustees of New Zealand schools has many facets, including.

9.1 Employer responsibilities

A critical part of the shift in power to the board of trustees came with the board assuming the role of employer.

The board’s powers are little different from that of any other employer except that the board is however subject to "good employer" provisions and, where a board remains centrally funded for teacher’s salaries, the board is subject to centrally determined staffing schedules. The board’s employer powers are determined through two pieces of legislation, the Education Act 1989 and the State Sector Act 1988, and amendments. Legislation provides.

that each board

that the board has



In practice, much of the employment role is delegated by individual boards to their principal, as the board’s day to day manager, although each board will itself determine to what extent. This varies to a significant degree amongst boards, with smaller more rural boards of trustees generally tending to retain a more "hands on" approach to the employment issues than for larger more urban schools.

In the majority of cases, the board will ratify appointments and will retain the power of dismissal.

10.1 Intended Model as against current reality

The Tomorrow’s School model envisaged that boards of trustees would control all resourcing required to manage the school, and would become fully autonomous.

Boards would receive and control

and the Ministry of Education would be a small, tightly controlled policy development body with no service role for schools.

To date, all property funding has not yet been devolved to the school level.

In the early 1990s, the teacher unions mounted a vigorous campaign against the bulk funding of teachers’ salaries but in 1995, boards were given the choice to opt-in to "direct resourcing" of teachers salaries. Some 10% of boards entered into direct resourcing for a term of three years. Because boards were "direct resourced" on a formula basis [and lower than the top of the scale], boards could stand to "win" or "lose" under the option. Suffice to say that many boards found the option unattractive although the fact that boards taking up the option were released from the centrally determined staffing schedules was an attraction.

The direct resourcing option now known as the "fully funded option" [FFO], was enhanced in mid-1998 by funding at the top of the scale for secondary schools and at a weighted average across the qualification groups for primary schools. Since this enhancement an increasing number of schools [now in excess of 25% of all schools] have elected to take up the FFO, and a steady increase of schools entering FFO over the next year or two is anticipated.

The FFO [still commonly referred to as "bulk funding"] continues to be a matter of great contention to the teaching force generally and particularly to the New Zealand secondary school teachers’ union, the New Zealand Post Primary Teachers’ Association [NZPPTA]. It has not been uncommon for secondary teachers to withdraw "goodwill" [that is, extra curricular activities] where the board of trustees of their school has taken up the FFO.

11.1 So how is the New Zealand experience working?

By and large we know that local decision making is working well.

Over the past 10 years, trustees have grown into their role, and are certainly more confident and questioning but, at the same time, they accept and acknowledge the vital need to promote and foster the partnership with the professionals and their schools and the community which elected them.

We know that very few people, school communities, and teachers would not want to see a return to the old system. The flexibility for a board to manage resources as it sees appropriate has seen improved buildings and grounds, a unique local flavour introduced to schools, appointment processes, disciplining and sacking of staff at the local level and the ability to make decisions without bureaucratic interference.

Overt accountability has forced boards to be more open to the community and parents/caregivers and to accept that the board itself is accountable for the consequences of its own actions.

There have been failures but this has been quite rare over the past nine years and with less than 50 incidences from 2,660 boards.

The publication Reforming Education - the New Zealand Experience 1984 - 1996 notes that (in March 1994) the Minister of Education announced a school support project which aimed to provide assistance to schools suffering severe difficulties. In two years the number of schools assisted by the project barely reached three figures.

"A strong and effective School Trustees Association [STA] can claim a good deal of the credit for this. Through its industrial mediation service, the STA has been able to resolve problems, and tensions that might otherwise have ended up with board and principal at loggerheads, or even in the Employment Court."

A recent NZSTA survey which was conducted by the New Zealand Council for Educational Research notes.

"Most boards are confident about their work. They feel supported by school staff and NZSTA, and supported by parents and the local community - …

29% of boards reported that they were on top of their task, and another 52% described themselves as making steady progress. 16% described themselves as coping and 2% as struggling."

In terms of partnership,

"There is no sign that things have deteriorated since [1989], despite heavy workloads. Relationships are mostly good."

The Education Review Office, [ERO], our audit agency, after evaluating all boards at least once, commented.

"That the system of local management of schools by boards of trustees has begun well. The past five (5) years have been a time for the community to test and explore new relationships created by new administrative structure."

12.1 A Vital partnership - Boards and Principals

A key to the success of the Tomorrow’s Schools reforms rests in the dynamic partnership with our principals. This partnership remains crucial to the continued success of the New Zealand trustee model. Successful schools have both an effective board and an effective principal, and each contribute to the overall objective of an effective school.

As noted by ERO, effectively managed schools are those where the board has an excellent understanding of the different roles and responsibilities within the board and where the lay board members know what the principal’s needs and expectations are. In return, the principal knows and understands the needs and expectations of other board members. The partnership in trusteeship has prospered where there is a good understanding of the role of each partner. Research has confirmed that a high proportion of trustees, principals, and teachers, view their inter-relationships as of good, very good, or excellent quality.

13.1 Educational Outcomes

In retrospect, New Zealand had a great opportunity to attempt to "benchmark" education in 1989, to provide a known base for attempting to measure the educational outcomes of the reforms. While this unfortunately did not occur we are confident that our schools are hugely more dynamic, focused and responsive to providing high quality educational outcomes.

14.1 Reviewing the Model

While we are confident that the great majority of boards are both comfortable and effective in their role it is true that a small proportion of schools have not flourished under the Tomorrow’s Schools model. This is not any indictment of the model itself as some schools struggled under the pre-1989 centralised system.

Rather it indicates that the New Zealand model has not proved to be a panacea for all New Zealand schools and perhaps we need to look at more innovative ways to assist these failing schools.

The Ministry of Education is working towards a review of the Education Act 1989 with a view to producing legislation which better reflects the new more permissive environment. As part of this review it is anticipated that a degree of flexibility will be established to acknowledge the possible need of failing schools to look to different governance arrangements but without undermining the obvious strengths of the Tomorrow’s Schools model.

The NZSTA, as the representative organisation of the boards of trustees, will be working closely with Ministry officials to protect the real parent input, to ensure that local community control and that the opportunity to develop in a way which meets the needs of the community and its children is not diminished in any way.

The concept of triennial elections and the lack of retirement by rotation, does mean that some schools can experience a total turnover of the board and the loss of expertise that entails. This aspect is likely to be reviewed, although turnover is not all bad given that trusteeship in New Zealand has the added benefit of acting as a huge adult education programme with a lot of people gaining considerable skills from their experience.

15.1 Conclusion

In New Zealand our reforms challenge years of conditioned thinking. The government of the day may well have envisaged boards of trustees quickly coming to grips with self governance/management and working well in a relatively short time. In fact, such huge reforms take time to settle in but we can now claim that trusteeship is generally flourishing.

It is appropriate to conclude by quoting, David Lange, Prime Minister, and the Minister of Education in 1989, and acknowledged Father of Tomorrow’s Schools, who said at a recent NZSTA conference.

"I knew in the early days boards would struggle under the weight of their new responsibilities. I knew that I was asking for a lot of goodwill from everywhere. I knew that and I went right ahead and did it, because I also know that there is no more powerful force than parents who want their children to get a good education."

Ray Newport