Decentralisation doesn’t help  address inequities, claims Canadian academic


New Zealand has been, and remains, a high-achieving country in international education assessments, particularly the OECDs Pisa. Much of this is thought to be due to its education reform programme. The de-centralised New Zealand model requires schools to compete with each other for students and funding, with the idea that competition will drive improvement across the system. A Canadian academic, Ben Levin, from the University of Toronto, while admiring New Zealand’s system, says that much more could be done to improve the lot of the most disadvantaged pupils and to address inequities.

While overall New Zealand fares well   compared to others, there are still wide disparities in student achievement existing between ethnic groups.  Māori and Pacific peoples’ average PISA scores are much lower for example than the average for Pakeha/European students.  The country has skilled teachers and school leaders, and New Zealanders have a strong positive ethos toward education as well as a generally positive and practical view of the world. But, as everywhere in the world, students who come from poorer families tend to have significantly poorer education outcomes. And much more could be done to address this.  New Zealand has an outstanding education research effort, with a great deal of high-quality work focused on the challenges of better and more equitable outcomes, and strong connections between key researchers and the school system. However, Levin believes that the successful though the system appears to be   it could do much better.  There is much more potential to improve outcomes to use best practice and research and to  reduce inequities.  He claims that  ‘From an international policy perspective, the New Zealand story suggests that a decentralized and competitive system is not enough to improve student outcomes or reduce achievement gaps, even in a small country with a skilled teaching force.’  As far as competition is concerned, in practice, Nevin says that much of New Zealand is still quite rural with a large number of small schools separated from each other by considerable distances, so actual competition is limited in much of the country.  He also noted that the reforms had some unanticipated consequences. For example, collaboration on shared services such as special education became more difficult with decentralisation. Although the first rounds of elections of governors for schools were contested, many schools have difficulty finding enough people willing to serve as governors, and actual elections for governing body members are uncommon.  Nevin concludes that in New Zealand the difficulties are compounded by the high degree of decentralization and the unwillingness to build a national approach to improvement. While the Education Ministry supports various pilot projects — some of which show very substantial benefits to students — it’s unwilling or unable to push the adoption of these programs in all schools. Similarly, the findings of the Best Evidence Syntheses, though powerful, have often not been turned into national policy. Schools regard themselves as autonomous and resist with some robustness anything that looks like imposition from the (Central) Ministry.  Nevin seems to be saying that more space needs to be made in the system to allow for top down initiatives, basically to protect the interests of the most disadvantaged pupils as they are losing out under the decentralized system. We shall see how reformers respond to this analysis.

Ben Levin-Decentralisation in New Zealand



  1. Patrick, Larry Cuban has a very apposite post recently about why policy initiatives don’t change practice in individual schools, that seems to fit very tightly with the New Zealand experience of autonomous, geographically remote schools. Which for me, suggests serious efforts to improve the little schools can do to effect change for children disadvantaged by their social circumstances, or simply parental disinterest in their early years, is always about the quality of teachers.

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