Strengthening the ‘voice’ of the community in education has the potential to lift achievement levels, particularly for those currently not well served by the education system.
When we look at the big picture, we see that in international comparisons, the NZ education system is characterised as generally high performing. Look slightly deeper, however, and we see a large minority of children, most who are disproportionately from poor, Māori or Pasifika families, who experience significant disparity of achievement within the system. What do we mean by “significant disparity of achievement?” Well - according to a February 2016 report from the OECD, it means the poorest 25 per cent of our students are more than six times more likely to perform poorly in maths than those from the richest 25 percent.
The NZ education system is strong on treating people equally. Education is compulsory, everyone has reasonable access, we have national formulas for the size and quality of facilities and national staffing ratios. Everyone is entitled to the same ‘dose‘ of education. What the research shows is that our system is not strong on equity. This means the outcomes from our system are very different for different groups of people. Our system does not work for everyone and there appears to be a deepening socio-economic divide in our schooling system, where well off kids are far more likely to do well at school than are poor kids. For more on this crisis in school achievement, see the New Zealand Herald’s Political roundup on our unequal education system.
To start to address inequity we look first at the spread of achievement within the school then whether the school is providing the support to those who need it most. This ‘analysis of variance’ that all schools should be doing is a powerful tool for reducing inequity, provided schools then respond by investing in extra support for those who need it. Unfortunately, this is often difficult and can be costly. An equitable school community would have to place a high value on shifting resources to those who need it most. As a result of shifting these resources, often some other students will not get everything they want. Most schools struggle to manage the local dynamics that result from this type of decision-making.
The rationale underpinning the NZ system of school governance is that local boards of trustees and school principals will make better resource distribution decisions than a central authority. The local team will be in a better position to respond to local needs and allocate resources to where they are needed. The Government does this roughly with the school decile funding system and the assumption is that then school communities will make finer grained distributions locally. But nearly 30 years after “Tomorrow’s Schools” and the introduction of boards of trustees, many of our school students are still underachieving. This suggests our school communities are not very good at being able to re-allocate the necessary resources.
Education success does not just rely on the distribution of resources. Apart from the in-school factors, we know that education success is related to parents’ (particularly mothers’) level of education. This seems to stem from parents having had some success in education and then expecting their children to have the same or better. These parents also know how to support their children to engage with learning and meet that expectation. They feel confident when dealing with their children’s schools. When that confidence, expectation and support is shared across a community it acts as a powerful expectation on the performance of the school. These parents are also likely to be strong advocates ensuring that their children get their share of the school resources.
We have a system that favours strong, educated and assertive families and communities. This explanation behind education success also, in my view, explains why our system is low on equity.
The Connecting Education and Communities Project is trying to build that same level of expectation and support for families who are most likely to have low education levels, low expectations of what school can offer and low skills in negotiating the school system. We want to strengthen the community voice in schools when the distribution of resources is being decided so that all our children have equitable access to resources. We want to assist the creation of a self-reinforcing system that builds both the expectations and the skills of the people in our school communities. Ultimately, what we want to do is build expectation and capability across the whole community.
Will it work? Our experience suggests that building CEC at a community level is the most effective for sustained change. As always, there is lots to learn along the way, which we will share as we go along through our website and this blog.
*Author: Jim Matheson is the CEC project leader.
My role is to work with communities on strengthening their engagement in education. This often means helping communities build consensus on overall goals. This includes help with aligning of activities, developing advocacy services and facilitating effective working relationships between the community and its education institutions. I am an education consultant whose work focusses on improving education for all. I work with communities, education institutions and governments in New Zealand and the Pacific on analysing education performance and developing workable solutions for improvement.
The trickiest thing about education is that it is complicated. That’s also why I enjoy it - I like the mess!!!