As principal of a semi-rural full primary school in the Bay of Plenty with 350 students, including International students, I notice an abundance of opportunities the Pandemic has given us in considering educational needs and priorities as a sector moving forward. Our context provides insights into localised emerging future needs that must be considered nationally.
Oropi School is a thriving and growing semi rural school within close proximity to Tauranga city. We have been growing in domestic student numbers every year for the past 10 years due to the ongoing population growth in Tauranga and attraction to our localised curriculum opportunities. Up until the start of 2020 we had long term and short term international students from South Korea, China, and Japan. Our international strategy was booming. The Oropi district location is an abundant export region of primary industry - kiwi fruit, avocados, honey, and farming; with most families on lifestyle blocks and representative of small business owners, workers, and entrepreneurs.
What we must initially recognise and acknowledge is the support and work of MoE, NZEI, NZPF and Principal colleagues; locally and nationally. In response to the Covid-19 Pandemic, there are many positives that have been happening in the educational leadership space. In essence, we have worked collaboratively for the common need, with no political or competitive distraction.
Capturing the essence of what has brought us together is something I hope we work to define so that we can use this as our benchmark for the future. So why have we been together, collegial, and collaborative more than ever and how can we retain this way of working for all strategic decision making in education? We are not being driven by political agenda, and we have a common need, goal, and purpose. Personal bias, agenda, and ego influences are minimal. We have been working together to get consensus. No one is seen to have all the answers. To get solutions, we have had to listen to one another, and synthesise all the factors affecting us individually to come up with national priorities and to inform the ‘big picture'.
As Principals, on the whole, we have been able to rely on up to date, informed, detailed bulletins from the Ministry of Education. Getting the information from the right source at the right time has been key. It has enabled a good degree of consistency. Most importantly, it has helped Principals feel supported and have ‘backing’ when making decisions locally, which gives us confidence in new territory. We need to be mindful ensuring our efforts at working collaboratively are not lost. This can lose traction when media 'jumps on board' before accurate, factual messaging is going out about initiatives and policies. This can particularly be the case with social media, which can skew truth, prioritising opinion over fact. This will only 'muddy' our communications. We need to address media influence in education.
We as a sector need to be unanimous, decisive, and succinct in messaging to our communities before the media gets hold of it and confuses our communities. Media has a place, but ‘when the horse is already bolted’, especially in social media forums, messaging is muddied, and ‘ímagined’ issues and problems arise. We need to ensure we as community leaders and representatives are the first to pass on necessary updates and information to our communities, that is backed up by our Government and Ministry.
Locally, I have felt very supported by networks of Principals. Great examples are being highlighted around supporting one another. We are not competing, we are not trying to prove ourselves against one another. This is proof that there is another way besides the neo-liberal competitive methods of the recent past; we are at a crossroads between the 1980s policies that fostered competition and our new ways of working.
With all these points in mind, we as a sector have been enabled a potential way forward and a new way of working to address our disconnects of the past.
The opportunity for re-prioritisation of Strategic Direction
In light of the Tomorrow’s Schools Review, there are initiatives that will need to be parked and equally ones that take priority. This must be put together in a collaborative, collective way: local responses & solutions, supported by national direction, strategy and resourcing; not ad hoc, knee-jerk responses, where we are held to ransom by political populism.
The first point is the Equity Index funding solution being considered to replace the decile funding tool. This is a major priority to push through because:
- The Decile tool is fast becoming highly inaccurate as a funding determinate due to the economic impact of Covid-19. We are going to have major interruption to distribution of wealth across the country which the Decile tool can no longer accurately determine. I would argue, and would be pushing for, the Decile tool to be eradicated by the end of 2020 and a new funding mechanism in place for 2021. Oropi School reflects a ‘traditionally wealthy’ community. However, we now represent those who could be losing income. All of a sudden …
- We cannot rely on parents for donation contributions
- We can no longer go to our local businesses to seek sponsorship
- We do not have international student groups coming to boost our operations grant
If we are funded as a high decile school moving forward we would have a significant reduction in income from the start of 2021. That could put us at a huge disadvantage, creating the benchmark for new characteristics of a poor school in the future. If the MoE and Government are being responsive and effective, they will be considering this.
Cultural responsiveness and Intercultural understanding are critical at this point in time. We are in dangerous territory globally right now and education has a role to play. The Covid-19 situation is not the fault of a culture and a sense of blame that we are starting to see globally will be detrimental to humanity and increase racist sentiment.
Humanity has enabled the spread of Covid-19. It is not a cultural cause - it is called living in a modern, globalised society. And so, we need to eradicate and deal to these cultural ramifications in the education sector. Schools need tools to bring their intercultural programmes and curriculum initiatives to the front as priority, to embed global competencies, so we can try and avoid this emerging consequence of the Pandemic.
The future role of online learning is at a critical point. With ‘24-7’ learning platform availability, the demands of online learning are significant. The implementation has been messy because we do not have good systems and structures nationally to support systemic need. What worries me with this is: will this ‘new’ concept put pressure on our system (and a new expectation) to offer a flexible online and face-to-face option for whanau to opt into? If this is to be the case, we must co-construct what this will look like and how it will be nationally supported, and ensure MoE is providing the right support and infrastructure to enable success.
Well-being and local priorities must take precedent. Schools will need to be doing things like reviewing our current annual plans, budgets, etc and this needs to be supported nationally. It has been like starting the year over again many times as we have moved around alert levels. This needs to ensure our reporting priorities and expectations are considered. National consensus and collaborative decision making will need to be happening on these aspects of school operation, where authorities look to the sector for feedback and answers to this.
We have seen a growth in the need for schools to become places of social services provision and support. This is going to become more and more of a demand and need put on schools. How do we ensure all communities have the support and access needed? It will not just be restricted to who we traditionally classify as ‘at risk’ with our blunt mechanisms of determining need. Localised solutions and trust in each context to justify need will be paramount, with local solutions supported nationally.
Already I am seeing the school being seen as a place to come to, to seek work opportunities due to employment issues elsewhere. This could be a collaborative opportunity for MoE-Government and School Leaders to work on together to enable local work opportunities through schools for parents and community members who have lost employment.
The Pandemic response in terms of education has significantly highlighted the need for cross-sector collaboration and decision making. Greater strategic coordination nationally is a priority so we can better respond to future needs. I am optimistic. This has created a way to think differently about how we work moving forward.