I received this letter from the now former chair of board of trustees.
Your website has the following quotes:
1. ‘ERO made no judgements as to the merits of the complaint because that might well have contaminated it with the odd fact or two; the intention, I suggest, being to keep the complaint free of detail so the ministry could provide its own, to be magnified beyond belief, mountained out of a molehill, imaginatively reconfigured.’ (Posting on Marlene Campbell 2015)
2. ‘New Zealand schools need to be delivered from deadweight of bureaucratic authoritarianism. And at base lies the education review office. The review office is pure Kafka: the relationship of school to review office is one of unpredictability and lack of accountability leading to an overall relationship based on fear that is often sublimated by schools furiously conforming to, even beyond, review office expectations. In the complex, value-laden environment of education, there is always more a school can do, so there is always pervasive that Kafkan dread of being guilty of grievous error, of something else that needs to be done, of who knows what? Unpredictability of review office behaviour can derive from the personality or mood of the review officer, a principal being prominent in the newspaper, a principal being associated with a different philosophy of education, even just showing hints of it, a letter about the school residing in the review office’s secret file – there are multitudinous ways a review office might exploit to put a school on the rack – and there is no accountability. Oh the heartrending tales I have been told as a result of smugly applied, casual, cruel bureaucratic action, careers ruined, families distraught, all grossly unfair. But that unfairness and unpredictability is not an unintended consequence it is the sought for means by which the job is done for bureaucrats, the fear is cast.’ (Network Magazine 1996)
3. This brings this sad story to the nub: any curriculum initiative, for instance, the numeracy project, comes loaded with unworkable and undesirable features. The only way the numeracy programme could have been made to work was if teachers felt free enough to colonise it, but teachers, for reasons explained above, did not feel free enough to colonise it, do not free enough to colonise it, and now even less so. Under managerialism, it is not teachers who colonise curriculum initiatives (and the curriculum generally for that matter), but the education review office. (Primary School Diaries 5 2015)
This sums up our experience exactly.
As the quotes above express, the happenings that occur in the grisly tale that follows are not uncommon; though the sheer depth of the injustice and cold-heartedness are – also the determination of those concerned not to buckle, to stand tall and tell the story.
In the past seven years, situations against schools have been set up by the education bureaucrats; or situations have been opportunistically taken advantage of. The shared ingredients are innuendo, gossip, and then complaints, nearly always uninvestigated ones, followed by bureaucratic intervention of some sort on the basis of those complaints. By their very randomness, these interventions serve to intensify fear throughout the system and increase its effectiveness as a standard instrument of control.
From many years of being a senior bureaucrat (1975-1990) I can describe with some confidence a common pattern in the origins and process of complaints.
A child says he or she was treated unfairly at school. On questioning by the parent, this becomes elaborated, often with the story drawing in one or two others to create a minor contagion. The individual parents discuss going to the school, but the child says no, he or she is too scared. This is usually because the complaint lacks credibility or is of only a trivial nature. The term ‘systemic bullying’ usually enters the vocabulary. When asked why they don’t go to the school to have the matter looked at, the parents say if they do the child will be bullied – this is utter rubbish. I have never had a report of a child being bullied because of a complaint being laid, indeed, just the reverse. For bureaucrats to accept such stories on the parents’ word instantly demonstrates extreme prejudice and lays the basis for schools to be vulnerable to great harm. Underlying the structure of Tomorrow’s Schools is an anti-teacher disposition which by now is rampant in guiding bureaucratic action. In the modern context, the parents all fired up, send a letter to the education review office where it is retained in a secret file until the following review, or the ministry stirs up a storm with talk of the board being dysfunctional, from there a school is only a step from disaster.
In the school being discussed, that was the pattern, but to be hugely complicated by an individual from within the board of trustees going against the other six members in extraordinary fashion, and urging a very small parent group to lobby the bureaucrats to punish the school. There was intensive communication by this individual with the education review office and the ministry. The education review office was to be completely taken in, admitted so to the school, but then, as part of a cover up, was to return to re-litigate the same issues. (This last development is to be covered in Part 2.)
In this posting no names are used because it is the story that is central not, at this stage anyway, the identification of the people directly concerned. It is written to alert the profession, the public, and politicians, to the ineptitude and a culture of bullying of a major education bureaucracy; a culture, though, that was inevitable given the anti-teacher political leadership and the non-accountable nature of the bureaucracy.
An education review office team of two reviewed the school in late 2014.
Most attention will be paid to the lead reviewer – the person concerned was a former secondary teacher.
The school is not large or small, or rural or urban, it is something in between. Sixty per cent of the roll comes from children who live outside the school area, attracted by the school’s reputation and what it has to offer. For over 50 years the school has been a school preferred by many parents. It has welcomed all children and worked skilfully for them. It is a school based on lavish amounts of individual attention for children; interesting and varied programmes; a sense of community especially based on ka hikitia; and clear and consistent boundaries for behaviour. Academic results have always been good, a characteristic that even the lead reviewer was to acknowledge in some places but, typically, contradict in others.
I had known of the former principal who had retired after the previous education review visit (some two years before), a fulsome review, but who stayed on at widespread request as board chair. He had been a most kindly and wise principal, who was married to one of the lead teachers – in her turn a most excellent school model. The retired principal and the lead teacher were to be the target of persistent attack by the lead reviewer because, and this can be the only rational conclusion, they were husband and wife ipso facto they constituted a conflict of interest. So the central issue was to become a principal who hadn’t been for two years (though who stayed on as board chair) and his wife, a lead teacher.
It is important to establish here that in the following year, the legal department of the education review office, in response to an official request by the lead teacher, was to acknowledge that there was no evidence that the teacher was anything but a very good teacher and that no conflict of interest had occurred.
The other lead teacher – the senior lead teacher – who I know personally, is a teacher of genius, huge insight, dazzling intelligence, and an abundance of love for the children. But the high quality of the lead teachers and the good quality of the other teachers seemed to mean nothing to the lead reviewer who found herself able to say they did not use modern teaching methods; the only evidence for which, it seems, was that the teachers varied from the education review office approach to inquiry learning. The charge of not using modern teaching methods by the lead reviewer was particularly ironic in that the senior lead teacher had recently come back from sabbatical leave as a result of an award from TeachNZ and NZEI.
The education review office terror by design begins, a terror based on randomness: much the same things can be happening in a school from the last review but, seemingly, out of the blue, as a result of non-accountability, utterly irresistible terror based on infinite bureaucratic demand is able to descend. This is Kafka.
The lead reviewer was (with what has now been admitted as no evidence) and no direct knowledge of any sort, was able to say that ka hikitia was not being done properly. The attack on the ka hikitia programme was then linked to another major target of criticism – assemblies. These assemblies, a feature of the school’s communal life for decades were dismissed as a waste of time. At these assemblies, held in the hall, the school shares learning, acts on ka hikitia, does kapa haka, looks to the day ahead, and introduces themes for the classroom inquiry – all the time paying close attention to the competencies. But the lead reviewer was to brook no argument in defence of either assemblies or the school’s attention to ka hikitia.
The review team arrived at 3 pm on the first day and within ten minutes, at mention of assemblies, the lead reviewer declared ‘she had heard all about them’. The lead reviewer then went into meetings with the principal and senior management, once again bringing up the matter of assemblies, strongly advising them to change their format and timing. On the second day she was to spend ten minutes at an assembly, sufficient knowledge, it seems, for the lead reviewer to be even more trenchant in her condemnation of assemblies. (You see, as the school was to learn, she had her own source of information, one of apparently greater authority.) The matter was brought up time and time again. The lead reviewer did not trouble herself, it seems, to read the comprehensive account of the rationale and procedures for the assemblies.
When the principal and management team sought to respond, the lead reviewer would hold up her hands as to say enough, no more. This body movement and phrase was is one of the enduring horror memories of those in the school.
But then reviewer returned to ka hikitia. There is no evidence the lead reviewer spoke to any of the community about this concern, her education conclusions seemed to have arrived with her. There is no evidence she spoke to any of the Maori community about ka hikitia. She certainly did not discuss it with the school’s kaumatua who was the principal at the school for 34 years and was present while the review team was there. He lived the principles of ka hikitia well before it was appropriated by the review office as a concept with which to torment schools, as though they had the inside running on it; he embodied ka hikitia and embedded it into the functioning of the school and bequeathed it to the school as a taonga.
But worse cultural offence was to follow.
Here was a review office team leader highly critical of a school for a supposed neglect of ka hikitia, and here was a review office team leader who then refused to fit in with the school protocol for the powhiri. The normal routine is to do whole-school fitness first, then assemble in the hall. The senior lead teacher told her that they planned this routine, mostly so the little ones don’t get confused. The review team leader said she wasn’t going to stand outside the gate waiting for them to finish fitness. The senior lead teacher hadn’t suggested she do any such thing, only that the powhiri should follow the usual protocol. Here was a review office leader who was to give inordinate attention to a minute number of pakeha people organised in surrealistic manner to hear so-called complaints (more on this below), but who did not give the expected respect to the Maori community. Maori families, who make up 40% of the roll, were ignored. The leading review officer’s culturally offensive rejection of the schools kawa was deeply felt.
The lead reviewer entered the school with an aggressive, know-all attitude and, it seems, with her mind made up about the school and its people.
And so things proceeded …
Though the previous principal had been retired for some time, was now board chair only, the lead review officer was intent on taking aim at him as though still the principal.
‘Where is the Complaints’ file? she charged. ‘Have you taken it off-site and hidden it? were her exact words.
The offence taken by the secretary, the ex-principal, and the current principal was strongly felt.
The secretary quickly located the file, in its usual and accessible place.
This incident is significant because it goes directly to the heart of the information the review officer was acting on; the idea of systemic bullying in the school. The expectation by the lead reviewer would be that there would be a large number of complaints, but, of course there weren’t.
The lead review officer was looking though the board minutes.
She said to the board secretary: ‘Why are the committee minutes on sealed envelopes? They shouldn’t be.’
‘We do it on the advice of the school trustees association. We’ve done it that way for decades and our auditor agrees with that.’
When the committee folder was handed back, the minutes were in disorder, with the envelopes roughly ripped open.
Before I go any further, I want to go forward to some months after the visit and the response to complaints made to the review regional head office by the school.
I do this to stop the smoke and fire idea gaining hold in readers’ minds.
As suggested above, the attention of the review office was on the ex-principal and a ‘conflict of interest’ in that his wife was a lead teacher.
After the review office visit, this lead teacher made a request under the Official Information Act for the evidence that would prove she had been a bad role model, and evidence that would show there was a conflict of interest. She received a letter from the review office’s legal department informing her that there was no evidence of her being a bad role model and neither was there any evidence of there being a conflict of interest.
I ask you to keep in mind that review office admission as you consider the events that lie ahead: if the events weren’t so terrible, what happened could appear Gilbertian, or a Kiwi education version of a pissoir for Clochmerle.
But the metaphor I intend to use is of the actions of this high-flying businessman in a nearby town undertaking a stock market takeover of this small seaside school.
The businessman joined the board [board of trustees], and when told that his takeover actions as a board member were inappropriate, and that his unremitting attacks on the company and its management [school, staff, and board] from within the board were unusual and unhelpful [by STA] he rejected that advice saying another set of regulators [ERO] said it was fine, indeed, they appreciated his regular informed insights into the faults he revealed and into modern ways of doing things. The businessman then set about organising a petition against the company but to only infinitesimal support; however, when one of the set of regulators [ERO] visited the school the high point in his campaign was reached with these regulators agreeing to participate in an off-site meeting with this minute group of disgruntled shareholders. At this stage the businessman was full of hope because management was getting a bollocking on the basis of his insights into modern company management. Matters looked very hopeful, indeed, when the chairman of the board resigned and one of the directors, his wife, went on prolonged sick leave.
But to his dismay the businessman’s regulators withdrew all charges, admitting they were without evidence or support. And in a May, 2015 board meeting, a well-attended shareholders’ meeting presented a letter to the board asking for the resignation of the businessman. Their letter was tabled in committee so the shareholders were unable to speak to it but the businessman resigned (though saying he had planned to, anyway).
The school is still harmed by this example of bureaucratic terror by design (yes– it serves a bureaucratic purpose), with the metaphor of blood in the water holding as appropriate. The school also fears further repercussions from taking on such an unaccountable bureaucracy still, they suspect, in informal alliance with the businessman. They have no faith they will be offered any protection from the ministry or understanding by the media – and feel tremblingly vulnerable.
I need to point out that the most blame should not be directed to the businessman, one has to suppose he thought he was doing the right thing; the blame should be directed to the bureaucracies who were to act throughout in an irresponsible, cold-hearted way, and consistently anti-teacher manner.
The businessman for more than a year had continuing contact with people in the review office and some in the ministry. According to him, he discussed with them the faults of the board, the chair, the principal (that is the current one), and the teaching.
The businessman then organised a petition that did the rounds of the side-lines at Saturday schoolboy rugby as well as outside the school gates. After all that, six people signed the petition (one signature was indecipherable, two no longer had children at the school, and one (she was visibly upset) spoke to a teacher that she had felt coerced to sign at her workplace. Several other parents who were approached reported that they would be told they would be signing a birthday card for one of the lead teachers.
Yes – Clochmerle comes to mind.
The businessman insisted that this petition be tabled at a board meeting. This was initially refused as it was a criticism of management matters and none of the petitioners had used the proper complaints’ procedure. The petition was eventually tabled but came to nothing.
Highly critical things by the businessman were said about the teachers, the principal (especially the ex-principal), the board, relationships between teachers, ka hikitia, teaching methods, and assemblies. The businessman had never approached the teachers with any of his concerns, laid a complaint against them, been in a classroom or been at assembly.
Unfortunately, this was the person who the review office team trusted and chose to believe above everyone else.
The review office team were to listen uncritically to the tiny handful of complainants at an off-site meeting; a courtesy the lead reviewer did not display to anyone else in our school community. The ‘testimony’ from this off-site meeting appears to have confirmed her preconceptions of systemic bullying, an argument at the centre of the businessman’s lobbying.
And the outcome was blood in the water for this small seaside school.
And so the lead reviewer continued on her aggressive way.
The local police education officer called into the school on the second day of the review. When the senior lead teacher explained what he did in the school, the lead reviewer immediately criticised him to his face for presenting DARE and Keeping Myself Safe programmes as that should be done by the teachers.
Then the lead reviewer said the competencies were being neglected. The senior lead teacher in response explained that they took the competencies very seriously; indeed, the competencies were the planned rationale for the way her and the school’s classrooms and assemblies were run. The lead reviewer sniffed and asked where she could find them ticked off.
Inquiry learning is being neglected said the lead reviewer. ‘No’ said the senior lead teacher, we simply take a variation of it. The lead reviewer said that must stop, it should be taken exactly as set out by the review office. This exchange lies at the heart of the damage the education review office is wreaking on classroom learning. It is all about control, demanding schools act in exact conformity with the hierarchically transmitted bureaucratic form – a form that education bureaucrats can understand and administer. Because the leadership of the education review office and its membership are mainly recruited from the lower senior levels of education, because by design review office members are often put in education contexts of which they have no direct experience, and because there is no professional growth except of a bureaucratic on-the-job nature, a classic bureaucratic form has been constructed to allow ease of function. In essence it is a checklist approach. And because of that it is about conformity and control, the means and purpose being terror by design based on randomness, non-accountability, and infinite bureaucratic demand. Schools are controlled by nearly two thousand objectives, all set out in various documents to be administered and interpreted by the education review office: the official curriculum, appraisal, indicators, management documents, and regulations. These nearly two thousand objectives provide the basis for the terror, randomness and infinite bureaucratic demand. The classic bureaucratic form referred to has, of course, a classic bureaucratic symmetry: the classic bureaucratic form is bound to fail, the response to which is to blame the teachers and to look to the bureaucracy for salvation in the form of more classic bureaucratic form which is bound to fail, and so on in a tail chasing exercise that is the central to the functioning and failure of Tomorrow’s Schools.
The lead reviewer moved to the beginning teacher. She was to describe her interaction with the lead review officer as terrifying.
As a former senior inspector of schools I can report it was an unspoken rule that anything to do with beginning teachers should be done with the utmost care and sensitivity.
The beginning teacher was the responsibility of the lead teacher who you will remember was the wife of the ex-principal, now board chair, who was being targeted as having been involved in a conflict of interest in not being professional in his oversight of his wife’s teaching.
The lead reviewer was to spend some time in the beginning teacher’s room criticising various aspects of the programme; the first ten minutes of this interrogation when the beginning teacher was engrossed in working with a group of children – an inappropriate thing to do, and to a beginning teacher, for which she had not a kind word.
(Because I have done this kind of work for nearly fifty year as a teachers college lecturer, inspector of school, practicum lecturer, and undertaking school reviews, please excuse me for finding a grotesqueness in the weird odyssey of this official school visitor in a smallish seaside school.)
After the lead review officer had observed the beginning teacher’s class going through their pre-interval routine of tidying their desks and getting them set for the lesson to follow interval, then the children standing beside them for about a minute before being released, she expressed the view that the beginning teacher’s expectations of her children were too high. The beginning teacher checked to see if the lead reviewer was serious, and saw she was determinedly so.
This generalisation of too high expectation was to be repeated. Yes – it’s to do with the lead teacher. You see, it was a practice modelled by the that teacher. This was another way of the lead reviewer getting at the lead teacher and the ex-principal on the matter of the so-called conflict of interest.
Yes – the beginning teacher had held the children for a minute longer to absolutely no frustration to the children, because that was the routine. What the lead reviewer hadn’t worked out was that they were held back that minute to allow the younger children in the room next door to clear the cloakroom before the older children came out.
The lead reviewer was to spend no more than five minutes in each of the other classrooms and spoke to only one other teacher in this time and that, wait for it, was to voice her opinion that the teachers should not take her class to assembly, (some of the children said the lead reviewer asked them if they liked their teacher). This has all the appearance of obsessive behaviour.
Given the activities of the businessman, STA had recommended the school invite in two eminent educationists to undertake an internal review. Both were highly respected former principals. The review they produced was comprehensive, balanced, insightful, and positive.
The lead reviewer on glancing through it was scornful, declaring it not worth the paper it was written on, and sent it airborne across the table. The businessman had previously expressed the view, no doubt communicated to the review office, that the review couldn’t be impartial as both reviewers knew the staff and school so well. But what the businessman and the lead reviewer didn’t realise is that the review isn’t really the main point (as positive as it was); the main point was the willingness of these eminent educationists to do the review in the first place. One of the distinguished principals was awarded a QSM for services to education, was the inaugural president of the Secondary Principals Association, has been a commissioner in several Northland Schools, and he administers an educational trust for youth at risk. That both distinguished principals had agreed to do the review, ought to have been sufficient message in itself.
But there is another person in this fracas: that is the other reviewer.
The other reviewer, where was he, how was he reacting, what was he thinking, what did he do in response to the travesty unfolding? Some embarrassment on his part was noted, was that a flinching, a rolling of eyes? but he did nothing, or seemed to do nothing in moderating the lead teacher behaviour. Let him dwell on that failure to act. This other reviewer the teachers reported, unlike the lead reviewer, displayed some understanding of primary teaching, but he was observed, they commented, to disappear into a moral and ethical twilight; he became a bystander, one who looked on. He would have come into teaching wanting to do well for children and for schools but look at him now. The huge irony was that here was the review office steamed up about non-existent systemic bullying and damaging patterns of behaviour in a school and here was the review office acting on just such a pattern.
In the reviewers’ final meeting with the teachers whenever the teachers tried to challenge, defend, question, or correct the lead reviewer, she shut them down by putting up her hands in a stop sign, or she talked over them, saying she didn’t want to hear any more about it, just fix it. When the teachers asked her to tell them, for example, what evidence there was to prove the assemblies were a poor use of teaching time, she just said there was plenty of evidence and stopped any further discussion by putting her hands up in the now very familiar stop sign and saying I strongly advise you to fix them.
The lead reviewer told the teachers they should not joke with the children and warned them about getting too close to them and becoming emotionally involved with family situation. These two statements are characteristic of the many fatuous, unsympathetic, nit-picking judgements to emanate from the lead reviewer. Of course, teachers should not get too close to children, that is a self-evident verbal trick the teachers resented. This is a small primary school and all the classes have siblings of older brothers and sisters who the teachers have taught. In some cases they have taught their parents and the odd grandparent. Both lead teachers have spent many hours of their own time for many years helping the parents of at-risk children to get boarding scholarships and acceptance into the high schools they all agree will suit those children. They have taken these children to open nights at their prospective high schools, spent hours writing applications and reports and liaising with the families and the Year 9 Deans at these schools, and they keep in touch with the families to follow the progress of the children once they have gone to high school. The lead teacher, the target of the lead reviewer, has worked tirelessly in her own time with the new-immigrant families helping them find employment, helping them find accommodation, helping them settle into their homes, and keeping a close eye on their children while they are at school and when they have moved on to high school. The teachers could not do any of this successfully if they did not get emotionally involved with the families. It is called caring, and the review office’s mantra about the child being the heart of the matter would back this up. For this cold-hearted reviewer to be splitting hairs the way she did was felt by teachers as an outrage.
The teachers tried to tell the lead reviewer how unsafe and upset at they felt at the businessman’s unrelenting activities to drag the school down.
If it is too much, she said, take stress leave.
The final review meeting with the board was Jacobean not Gilbertian. What occurred there needs to go down in the annals of Tomorrow’s Schools as one of its darkest hours. This was education grotesqueness beyond even my predictions for Tomorrow’s Schools. For the education system to allow this to happen demonstrates a transcendental inhumanity and an embedded antagonism towards teachers. This was plotted cruelty. The senior lead teacher, the staff representative on the board, was to experience something that was unimaginable to her.
The senior lead teacher was despairing and shaken. She was unbelieving that the context of unverified complaints had formed the review team’s emergent findings; appalled at the lack of impartiality demonstrated by the review team leader with her discourteous shutting down of everyone except the businessman. The lead review officer’s face, it appeared to those present, set in grim satisfaction at the treatment being meted. The chairman of the board (the ex-principal) tendered his resignation and walked out in disgust, not long after the senior lead teacher walked out in disgust and tears. At the end of the meeting so did the Maori representative in tears.
The other teachers found the senior lead teacher in the staffroom in a very distressed state and hugged her shared despair as she left for home unable to continue.
[In Part 2, the education review office, in shaping to settle the situation, really undertakes a cover-up, continuing the bureaucratic bullying, even the same arguments, in coldly unrelenting fashion.]