Future Schooling, Communities of Online Learning and Rural Education.
In our submission to the Tomorrows School Review the Virtual Learning Network (VLN) Primary School stated, “We believe that every school and kura should be supported to be the best it can be, making the most of what is locally available, embedded in a strong community base, but also making the most of a wider network of expertise, skills, and resources in the schooling system. We are advocating for changes that enable learning that is flexible, open and accessible for all learners across a networked schools system.”
I believe the Taskforce captures the essence of this in their report and supports the VLN Primary School vision of equity and access to educational opportunities for diverse learners. However I feel that the Taskforce lacks a future focused perspective in their thinking, and has a poor understanding of current practice in online and flexible learning and its potential within a future focused education system. It is concerning to see that the Taskforce advocates school review and closures for small underperforming schools. Schools which ironically would have the most to gain by some of the proposals outlined in the taskforce report. This could have a huge impact on the rural education sector and their communities.
The taskforce doesn’t go far enough in considering what a networked schooling system could look like. Firstly we should start thinking outside the geographical box. For example, in discussing numbers and location of hubs, it was noted at a recent consultation hui, that you should be able to drive between hub schools. There seems to be little understanding that effective school networks can also be virtual school networks; and that educational professionals are becoming increasingly comfortable in learning and working in blended and online situations.
There was little in the report that indicates how the system would be better reorientated around the individual learner, instead focusing on the schools and educational agencies as the chess pieces being moved around the future schooling board. Questions that could have been addressed by the Taskforce could be: How can our learners be better supported to have more choice and voice in their learning within a networked schooling system? How can we remove the barriers and gatekeepers within the current schooling system and enable our young people to learn anywhere, anytime, with anyone? Will our future schooling system enable learners to enrol at more than one school, or have a more flexible view of attendance when learning from home, school, the marae, or any other learning centre? How can resourcing be allocated for students who are learning in more than one school, or for teachers who work across multiple schools, as is already happening through VLN communities? How can collaborative online networks be resourced as part of the publicly funded schooling system?
These were questions the VLN communities have been grappling with in the development of a regulatory framework for online learning or CoOLs (Communities of Online Learning) that was legislated for in 2017 by the previous government and is now in the process of being repealed by the current government. In repealing CoOLs it was stated by Minister Hipkins that, "The Government considers that the contribution of online learning is better positioned within a strategic discussion with the education sector." In recent consultation with the Taskforce, it is becoming increasingly clear that the strategic discussion isn't happening. This is deeply concerning as it affects the future sustainability of VLN communities and the way they will be able to work with and across schools in a new education regime.
The Taskforce group seems to have little understanding of the work, scope or potential of VLN communities in NZ schools which have been successfully operating for over two decades. The combined VLN communities (VLN Primary, NetNZ, FarNet, Volcanics, HarbourNet) have roughly 3000 students involved in supplementary online learning from 200 schools across Aotearoa NZ. These 200 schools collaborate through the VLN communities to enable online learning for their students and in doing so are working strategically to provision flexible schooling, curriculum and timetabling, while working in an integrated and proactive way nationally and regionally. If you have read the report in any depth you will see this is the type of role the Taskforce suggests Te Kura take (p.63). So what is the VLN communities role to be in a future schooling system? The Taskforce does recognise that the VLN enables delivery of curriculum choice for small and rural schools but doesn’t go much further than that. It is very disappointing that the Taskforce has had minimal consultation with the VLN communities who have been pioneers in collaborative flexible school networks, nor have they made the connections signposted by the Minister of Education about the link to the CoOLs repeal and the wider education conversation. These education conversations were meant to be the place where the future directions of online education would be discussed and potentially worked out.
Another point of concern from the Taskforce report is the shot it has fired at the rural education sector. The VLN Primary School is a strong advocate for small rural schools with 83% of our member schools from the rural sector. So, it was disturbing to read Recommendation 27 of the Future Schooling report state that, “Education Hubs carry out school network reviews to ensure smaller schools that are unable to deliver quality education services are merged with others, or closed, where this is a practical possibility.” This raises the spectre of the EDI ‘Education Development Initiatives’ of the 1990s and early 2000s when 170 small rural schools were closed under a process of network reviews. This process was a response by the New Zealand government to changing rural demographics, falling school rolls and perceived underperformance in schools and had a profoundly devastating effect on many rural New Zealand communities.
Recommendations by the Taskforce have the potential to improve resourcing and reduce administrative bureaucracy thereby relieving the workload and stress of principals, bringing greater equity for small rural schools. This would address a wide range of challenges small rural schools face such as safety and supervision of children, stress and workload of sole charge principals, professional collaboration and support, recruitment and retention in rural and remote areas, lack of access to relievers, and fluctuating student rolls. Addressing the challenges of rural schooling could provide principals with the professional status that should be afforded them. Better working conditions and professional status could reduce the revolving doors experienced by some small schools where principals leave because of unrealistic demands, and could make principalship of a rural school a worthy professional goal in itself, and not just a stepping stone on a principal’s career ladder (Whalley, 2018).
Rural schools have a vital role to play in strengthening rural communities, and education in a small rural school equips our children well for the future. These schools should be recognised and supported as a valuable part of the education system and of wider society. Principals who are well supported and collaborate in online communities can be just as connected and provide as many opportunities for their children as those in large urban schools. The solution doesn’t lie in thinking narrowly by moving our children out to bigger schools, but in thinking differently by being more flexible, collaborative and smarter in our approach to rural education:
For the first time in history, school size, as measured by students in daily, physical attendance, is no longer a measure of a school's teaching capacity. In an open learning environment, it is the extent to which a school is networked that determines its teaching and learning capacities.
(Stevens and Stewart, 2005)
We recommend that the Taskforce change their deficit thinking about small schools and remove Recommendation 27 from their proposal; and that they engage more closely with the VLN community schools about their role in contributing to a future focused collaborative schooling system.
Opinion - Rachel Whalley ePrincipal VLN Primary School
Stevens, K., & Stewart, D. (2005). Cybercells: learning in actual and virtual groups. Southbank, Vic.: Thomson/Dunmore Press.
Whalley, R. (2018). Collaboration across New Zealand rural primary schools: A virtual learning perspective (Thesis, Master of Education (MEd)). The University of Waikato, Hamilton, New Zealand. Retrieved from https://hdl.handle.net/10289/11975