Flaw at core of new education bill

Roger Partridge
The National Business Review
23 December, 2019

Standard organisational theory explains the differences between an organisation’s objective (or its goal) and the strategies and tactics it adopts to achieve its objective.

If an organisation confuses these concepts, it risks jeopardising its goal. For example, a company that treats sales growth as an objective rather than a strategy may soon find it is destroying shareholder value by growing unprofitably. 

Nowhere is this clarity of objectives more important than in the world of education. A well-educated population is essential to national wellbeing. Effective education provides a path to prosperity for all New Zealanders, especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds.

With the state having a virtual monopoly on the provision of education in New Zealand, each of us has a stake in the goals set by the government for state-owned schools.

Unfortunately, Education Minister Chris Hipkins’ recently released Education and Training Bill risks undermining the effectiveness of our education system.

The bill proposes a ‘wider range’ of primary objectives for state schools. Indeed, it proposes that school boards will have no fewer than four ‘equal’ objectives. Along with ‘educational attainment’ the trio of additional objectives comprises:

  • ensuring schools are safe and inclusive;
  • ensuring schools are free from racism, discrimination and bullying; and
  • giving effect to the Treaty of Waitangi.

However, by treating the new objectives as ‘equally important’ as educational attainment, the bill confuses the objective of education with strategies for achieving it. This confused approach risks watering down the focus of state schools on ensuring that every student achieves their potential.

To explain why these multiple objectives are fraught, it is helpful to look at how the related concepts of objectives, strategies and tactics work in other fields.

Returning to the corporate world, a company’s objective is typically sustainable returns to shareholders. A company’s strategies for achieving that objective may include a mix of building its business, treating customers well, forging an engaged workforce, achieving operational efficiency and acting in a responsible manner to ensure the business maintains its social licence to operate.

Achieving success

Implementing these strategies will requires specific tactics. Two examples aimed at the strategy of workforce engagement are Mainfreight’s renowned employee profit-sharing scheme and Perpetual Guardian’s pathbreaking four-day working week.

Away from the corporate world, a sporting analogy can also illustrate the differences between objectives, strategies and tactics. The goal of a national sporting team is typically to satisfy its fans. Doubtless, most teams will try to achieve that objective by adopting the strategy of winning. Other strategies might include fan engagement and strict player codes of conduct. Tactics for achieving the strategy of winning might include player and coach recruitment, rigorous training regimes and sophisticated on-field tactics.

Regardless of the field of endeavour, this hierarchy of objectives, strategies and tactics helps inform how success will be achieved and how overall performance will be measured.

In this context, it should be obvious that the objective of education is educational attainment, that is, ensuring every student attains their highest possible standard of educational achievement.

Achieving that goal will require schools to adopt multiple strategies. Among those strategies, schools will need to ensure, so far as is reasonably practicable, that they provide students with a ‘safe and inclusive environment,’ that the culture of the school is ‘free from racism, discrimination and bullying’ and that they give ‘effect to the Treaty of Waitangi.’

But each of this trio is subordinate to the overall goal of educational attainment for all students. They are not goals in their own right. Schools are not merely babysitting services designed to ensure students are ‘safe.’ They are educational establishments designed to educate.

‘Extra’ objectives

If school boards are given these four equal objectives, where will that leave them when assessing the performance of the school principal? Will he or she score a possible 75% if the school is safe, free from discrimination and Treaty-compliant, even though students’ educational achievement is woeful?

More than that, the three ‘extra’ objectives are not the only – or perhaps even the most important – strategies schools will need to adopt to ensure their students’ educational success. What of ‘recruiting, training and retaining the best possible teachers’? Or of ‘ensuring teachers teach an effective curriculum in a manner that engages their students’? Or even ‘ensuring that the school sets ambitious goals for all its students and develops effective programmes to help students achieve them’?

Indeed, if a school is ambitious for its students and has great, well-led teachers, concerns about safety, inclusiveness and discrimination are likely to take care of themselves. If this is so, there is little need to spell them out. And certainly there is no need to elevate these strategies to ‘equal primary objectives.’

Of course, schools are not businesses. But there are lessons our education system can learn from theory that has helped businesses to survive and thrive. Unless this theory is used to fix the flaws in the Education and Training Bill, we will be setting up our schools to fail our children.

Roger Partridge chairs The New Zealand Initiative.

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