by Darren Sudlow

Opinion: Our Schooling Futures

With all the publicity, debate and discourse on the Schooling Future report and recommendations, I find myself once again returning to an article I have already rewritten once.

It seems our ever-changing educational landscape lacks some coherence at a strategic level. Here at NetNZ, we seem to rehash the same conversations with a different set of people every couple of years. And it is getting a little frustrating.

The report itself is in many ways, a bold reimagining of how schooling at a system-wide level should work. It places community, connectedness and collaboration front and centre while seeking to address the siloed, market-driven educational environment that Tomorrow’s Schools helped shape. It has been polarising and that is far from surprising because it challenges those who are currently very happily ensconced within their own wee school world. And that world can be a very comfortable place. I question whether that is the best place for most of our learners though.

Yes, we must ask questions and there are some possible risks, which I will not dig into here, but by and large, this is a bold and important shift in our educational landscape. Well almost.

I say almost, because dare I say it, the working group hasn’t quite realised a potential vision under the proposed changes, especially if we want to ensure a future focussed education system that reflects the world now and in thirty years time. The missing piece is to fully recognise the potential impact of technology on education - and in particular at a system-wide level. There are hints of this here and there in the report.

Regarding achieving more equity in our system the report recommends:

“Firstly, more active planning and management of the schooling provision available in an area. This management would be based on a network approach rather than individual schools being treated separately. This would also allow for future-focused planning, which will be increasingly needed to make the best use of network strengths and digital learning opportunities to widen student choice and opportunities.”

Absolutely. Agreed.

And then in the role of the Education Hubs:

“The Education Hub would have the oversight and direct responsibility of provision for schooling in its area. It would work with information about school configurations and curriculum options alongside information about demographic and school roll trends and student interests to periodically review the schooling options provided in its network, including the use of digital options.”

It is that last bit that catches my attention. But what is it that the working group means here? From our conversations with them, I don’t think it is quite the step we would be recommending. This is what it should mean. (Cue the third iteration of the same message).

In the long term, it is extremely important we explore a range of opportunities that recognise the changing nature of society and education. Technology, and in particular the internet, has had an undeniable impact on all aspects of society. Professor Manuel Castells, conceptualises this change as the rise of a ‘Network Society’ with the internet being the decisive technology in this change - “with the explosion of wireless communication in the early twenty-first century, we can say that humankind is now almost entirely connected”. The network society is constructed around personal and organisational networks, powered by digital networks and communicated by the internet. This, in turn, means society is both boundaryless and global.

If this is the emerging paradigm, then we need to reconsider how we ‘do’ education. Schools operating as silos, in a competitive, market-driven environment, focused entirely on the local context, makes little sense.

The vision laid down by the Schooling Futures report provides an opportunity to explore how we can bring meaningful system-wide change to education in the 21st century. Networks of schools and networked learning are the key to addressing many of the challenges we face in a fast-changing world.

This is clear in the development of Communities of Learning (COLs) which recognises the importance of schools working together to provide meaningful pathways for learners within or across local communities. The planned, but now defunct, Communities of Online Learning (CoOLs) recognised the importance of a regulatory framework for online learning enabling an education system where location is no barrier to quality learning outcomes.

Together they present a compelling picture of how learning could work across boundaries - Schools working together as networks of learning to create efficiencies in the use of their resourcing, to cater a wide variety of learner needs and interests and to prepare them for a ‘connected’ world. In essence, schools as providers together, across schools and boundaries, rather than in isolation. The Education hubs would surely have a role to play in enabling this, but we also need to recognise there are no regional boundaries when online. Boundaries disappear. What we potentially have is a fluid, national network of learning that any learner could tap into.

However, the CoOLs proposal has been binned - what will take its place? What sort of regulatory framework can be developed to support this vision? How can this fit within the Schooling Futures recommendations? It should.

Yes, Te Aho Te Kura Pounamu has a part to play in this vision, but they are not necessarily the key part. They are just one school within a network of schools. One with a unique, important purpose, but none the less, just another piece in the jigsaw. Rather than recommending that the role of Te Aho Te Kura Pounamu in isolation is explored within the scope of the vision presented by the working group, it is the role that a range of organisations (including Te Kura), networks of schools and ultimately every public school plays that needs to be explored.

Somewhere in amongst all this fantastic blue sky thinking that we have been engaging in, we have an opportunity to leverage technology to realise a vision for education in New Zealand which establishes schools as networks, as collaborators and as providers in a boundaryless environment. The significance of this vision is that is based on an established, proven model that has been in place in some form since 1994. We need to ensure that this time around it is not an opportunity missed.