Blood in the water: the review office goes into cover-up mode: it distorts, weaves, demeans, confuses, lies, and bullies Part 2

In Part 1, we described how grotesquely awry review office behaviour left a smallish seaside school shattered.

I want to make one thing clear, this posting is about a bad reviewer, even more importantly a bad review process that allowed, even encouraged her to be a bad reviewer, and enabled her to get away with it – it is not about a bad review.

In the final board meeting of that December 2014 review – the first review – the lead review officer threatened that if her findings weren’t accepted she would recommend intervention. The board chair tendered his resignation (not to be accepted) and left in disgust; the Maori representative was in tears; and the senior lead teacher in tears as well. The meeting was to break up in a shambles. Left hanging over the board and teachers was the charge that they had created, allowed, and participated in a culture of fear.

We left the teachers weeping and hugging in the staffroom.

This is not education reviewing, this is workplace bullying.

This is 21st century education.

But the teachers were to act unusually and bravely, though for that they are bound to pay a price. What they are fighting for is their dignity, and in that they might be successful, but less certain is that they will free themselves from the stain of review office censure. That will be up to us and the media.

  • The teachers registered a number of formal complaints with the deputy chief review officer of the district. 
  • Over two days in mid-January, the complainants were interviewed by two review officers.
  • On 13 March, 2015, the deputy review officer and another officer presented the findings to the complainants.
  • Without any explanation, the lead review officer was exonerated from any suggestion of non-compliance with ERO’s Code of Conduct.
  • But also, in a rare action, but without explanation, the emergent draft and review reports were set aside.
  • The withdrawal of the emergent draft and review reports would suggest that the teachers had won and their complaints upheld. But had the teachers really won? and had the criticisms within the emergent draft and review reports really gone away.

Let us stop here and dwell on the inner workings of the review office.

If a complaint from a school about a review office report possesses certain characteristics, there is a minor history of reports being  gently and confidentially dealt with: typically for  this to occur, the principal is a strong and established one and the school large; the complaint is restrained in form and pertains to a restricted area of review office functioning, in other words, is not root and stem; the officer’s behaviour in reference to the Code of Conduct is only lightly touched on; and the reviewer concerned is willing to compromise – then the review office sometimes offers a rewriting of the report with the board chair and principal participating.

On the other hand, if the complaints are serious, and from many directions, then the review office will not take the chance of being publically caught out, having its sense of infallibility openly challenged. The office goes into risk-averse mode and, because it is the judge and jury, the office is able to distort, weave, confuse, lie, and bully with abandon. It is heartless and relentless. This is the mode the review office has gone into in the case of this small seaside school. Yes – the reports from the review officers were withdrawn, a most unusual happening, but done for tactical reasons: the transgressions of the Code of Conduct were obvious and damning, and the arguments contained, indefensible. Better the reports are not there decided the review office. With the reports withdrawn, anything brought against the school, even if it was the same as brought up against the school in the reports, could be said to be new evidence. In bringing up as new that which was old, will also serve the purpose of protecting the lead review officer in her breaking of the Code of Conduct.

The plan was, as is the practice, to send in a high-ranking review officer to put the school on the defensive. This took the form of demanding the school develop an Action Plan; an Action Plan to ‘remedy’ faults as designated by the high-ranking officer, the same faults, as it happened, that had been listed in the reports that had been withdrawn. And the same faults as had been expressed by a businessman in communicating with the education review office in the months before.

The following is information about the behaviour of the reviewers exhibited during the course of the December 2014 review. Overall, the behaviour represents extreme prejudice; a judgement supported by the review office itself with its withdrawal of the review reports.

The 200 pages of the curriculum document sent in by the school to the review office and the five-page explanation of the rationale for assemblies were not read by the reviewers; the explanation was that the documents were temporarily lost, even if the truth, is highly unsatisfactory and unprofessional

The review officer was completely taken in by the complaints of the businessman who had turned against the teachers

These complaints by a businessman were never officially investigated, due process never followed, but the lead reviewer was to accept those complaints as substantial, and to repeat them using the same words as the businessman

No evidence of any sort was put forward by the reviewers to support the complaints

The school subsequently asked the review office legal department for evidence to support the complaints, and the legal department said there was none

The lead reviewer at the beginning of her visit said it was not her job to investigate the substance of complaints only that proper process had been followed – this pledge was to be consistently ignored

The lead reviewer, in finding the school processes immaculate, took it on herself to shift to the nature of complaints – even though they had never been made to the school officially

The lead reviewer deeply offended the Maori community with her persistent criticisms of ka hikitia

The lead reviewer did not talk to the leader of ka hikitia even though he was on the site

The lead reviewer did not consult with the Maori community

The lead reviewer was insulting in her refusal to follow the school’s protocol for the powhiri (which had to be changed in organisation as a result of her refusal)

On the first day of the review, in the first ten minutes, at mention of ‘assemblies’, the lead reviewer declared ‘she had heard all about them’ (a reference to what she had been told by the businessman)

All the review office behaviours during the visit, it seems, were bound by a pathology of anger and disrespect

The lead reviewer displayed bizarre behaviour in the manner with which she refused to listen to the views of teachers and board

The lead reviewer made an outrageous accusation that the Complaints File had been taken off-site and hidden

The lead reviewer went deeply into the Complaints File, found two minor complaints from six years before, and then proceeded to slap them on the table as if she had found something significant

The lead reviewer was nit-picking and angry (and wrong) in referring to the board minutes as being incorrectly filed in sealed envelopes: another indication of the negative and angry attitude displayed by the lead reviewer

The review officers in the off-site meeting broke a promise that only complaints about process would be listened to, not supposed matters of substance

This meeting with this small off-site group, contrasted with the brief, badly organised meeting with parents on-site

The lead reviewer was unwillingly to attend this on-site parent meeting and almost all parents were to find her manner shocking, negative, and unpleasant

The lead reviewer was insulting to the local police education officer who had come to speak to the children

The lead reviewer asked individual children whether they liked the teacher

The lead reviewer dealt with the beginning teacher in an intimidating way

The lead reviewer produced no evidence of the lead teacher not being a good role model, or that a culture of fear prevailed in her classroom

The ex-principal (of two years ago) was unrelentingly harassed by the lead reviewer to accept the idea that the lead teacher, his wife, was an unsatisfactory role model, that a culture of fear reigned in her room, and he did nothing about it

This central argument of the businessman concerning the lead teacher, so willingly accepted by the reviewers, is wrong, cruel, and unfair, and merits various kinds of outside attention

The responsibility for the lead teacher to mentor the beginning teacher had been delegated by both the ex-principal and the present principal because she was an expert practitioner and was perfectly suited to being a beginning teacher’s mentor

The ex-principal felt bullied, demeaned, badgered, pressured, lied to, not listened to, disregarded –  and throughout, not a shred of evidence presented, just hearsay from the businessman

On the recommendation of STA, because of the depredations of the one person, the board decided to get two eminent educationists (both legends in the district; one a legend nationally) to write a report on the status and characteristics of the school – it was comprehensive and balanced

The lead reviewer on glancing through it was scornful, declared it not worth the paper it was written on, and sent it airborne across the table

The criticism of ka hikitia, the assemblies, lack of attention to the competencies, and the criticism of the form of inquiry learning, were wrong, anti-educational, and without merit

When the notes taken by the other reviewer of the thoughts and ideas of the lead reviewer were obtained from the review office it was found that some of the most outrageous statements and behaviours were omitted, by what mechanism they were omitted the school doesn’t know, perhaps by editing as the other reviewer scribed, or someway else – it’s a mystery

At the final meeting with the teachers, when the teachers expressed distress at the actions of the businessman, the lead reviewer said, ‘Oh well, take stress leave.’

The lead reviewer warned the teachers not to joke with the children and not to become emotionally involved with the family situation: this seemed at odds with her argument that a culture of fear reigned in the school

As Part 1 records, those two lead teachers did a huge amount of work guiding their graduates through to the next stage of schooling in an exemplary example of love and care

One of the lead teachers was so deeply harmed by stress and victimisation of the review officers, she is now not there to play her important and treasured part in the life of the school

At this final meeting with the teachers, nearly every time the teachers tried to defend what they did for the children, the lead reviewer said: Look, just fix it

At the final board meeting, the lead reviewer threatened that if the board did not accept her ‘findings’ she would recommend intervention

As described above, the board broke up in a shambles: the ex-principal walked out in disgust; the senior lead teacher in tears to go to the staffroom to huddle with other staff members; and at the end of the meeting, the Maori representative left in tears

By this time I’m upset myself – I’m upset for this delightful little school, in this beautiful setting, so deplorably treated, also for my knowledge of the dozens of other schools in similar situations, for whom, at that time, I could offer sympathy but, for various recurring circumstances, some of which are apparent here, I was unable to support materially.

We now return to the visit of the deputy chief review officer and another officer on 13 March, 2015. I want to cover as quickly as possible what happened whilst still communicating the essence.

The deputy chief review officer began a carefully planned campaign of stonewalling, distorting, and payback. It had worked at other times in other schools, why not here? Even though the reports had been withdrawn, the deputy chief review officer set about in blustering and intimidating manner relitigating matters contained in those reports. If pulled off, it will be a very clever tactic, putting the school on the defensive and providing a rationale for the outrageous behaviour and statements of the previous reviewers.

The stakes meanwhile had risen for the review office because it would have known that Kelvin Davis (14 March) would ask questions of Hekia Parata in the House, not directly about the school, but about the complaints process. His involvement and knowledge of the both the district and school constituted a clear and present danger to the machinations of the review office.

The deputy chief review officer proceeded to advance his deceptive role. He suggested teachers stop referring to the past and start again, then, in bald-faced manner, immediately declared there were significant issues that must be addressed by the board, issues requiring an Action Plan. He ordered the school to give attention to ‘Managing the quality of teaching’ and ‘Behaviour management’. In other words, he had taken the two issues (euphemistically expressed) central to the previous reviewers’ visit, and the businessman’s attacks, also set out in the withdrawn reports, and was to relentlessly pursue them

This is unconscionable.

It is obvious what should have occurred: the deputy chief review officer should have explained why the reports had been withdrawn; he should have acknowledged the reviewers had acted  contrary to the Code of Conduct; provided heartfelt apologies to all the groups and individuals who had been  demeaned; and then proposed an open review undertaken with two reviewers, board chair, Maori representative, principal, and staff representative.

The education review office acted disgracefully and it is up to the review office to make amends.

But no, in late August, two review officers from another district are to visit the school, and they will have the Action Plan available as an instrument of control.

In response to questioning from board and staff, the deputy chief review officer gave an assurance that the new review team would not know the details of the December, 2014 review; adding that review officers don’t talk to each other about schools and their work in them.

As former senior inspector of schools, I can inform you that the deputy chief review officer is playing the most cynical of games here.

There is an authoritarian feel to this and much else about the deputy chief review officer’s behaviour. The lead reviewer in the December review was an ultimate lightweight of fantastical ignorance. In the absence of any understanding of the primary school curriculum, she fixed herself on gossip and extraneous education events. But her deplorable behaviour was in a sense a cry for help of a person out of her depth. But the deputy chief review officer knew exactly what he was doing, and it was authoritarian in nature. The deputy chief review officer knew he was telling lies, that he had moved from reality, the listeners knew that as well, but the deputy chief review officer in entrapping the listeners in such a context and knowing he could get away with it, and they knowing it as well, was rubbing his power in the faces of the teachers and board members.

(The deputy chief review officer added a telling admission of the influence of the businessman on the review office when he said that the only people who would know about the review would be the people in the review office the businessman had spoken to.).

If a review team was invited from another district to do a review, they would know what to do, whether they had been told of the circumstances or not.

Given the value-laden nature of education and its infinite complexity (leaving aside the nearly 2000 objectives that overlay schools today, most of them generated by and taken seriously by the review office), as an inspector, I could have gone into any school, no matter how good, and, if I had wanted to, tied the school in knots in an afternoon. Then I could have declared the school wanting in the quality of teacher and behaviour management – and this is what will happen, if we allow it to, at this smallish seaside school.

There is another dastardly plan at play here, one that began with the December 2014 visit. In that visit, huge pressure went on the principal to falsely dub in the ex-principal and his wife, the lead teacher, for the so-called conflict of interest. That pressure was to continue and increase exponentially with the visit of the deputy chief review officer. The principal would have known in those meetings that the review officers in both visits were really saying, back up the story of the conflict of interest; if you scratch our back we’ll scratch yours. And if the principal had buckled, the lead reviewer would have triumphed.

It was highly significant that the businessman, following the March visit, in his draft Action Plan, cited the review office’s concern about the principal’s lack of primary school pedagogy. This had not been discussed in either visit (December or March), but had obviously been discussed in Auckland by the review office, communicated to the businessman, and was to underlie the quality of teaching and behaviour management issues to be investigated in the August visit. It was a warning to the principal that his future was at risk if he continued to hold out – it also showed that the businessman and the review office were still in cahoots.

The principal who replaced the ex-principal two years before, was appointed from secondary, hence the cheap shot about lack of primary school pedagogy. I want to make clear that I do not know the principal nor have I spoken to him but I do know he is greatly admired and respected by the teachers and community. He has taken all the steps that could be expected, to acquaint himself with primary teaching, and his skilful and sensitive work with children has been appreciated.

As well as trying to turn the principal on the matter of the conflict of interest, they tried to break the ex-principal.

The two review officers locked themselves in a room with the ex-principal and grilled him for over an hour, always returning to the matter of the so-called conflict of interest. They were desperate to establish the account of the businessman as against that of the school’s. If that account found some support, then the original review would be provided with some kind of cover for the gross unprofessionalism that had occurred. The review officers threatened, blustered, insulted, distorted, and lied. They demeaned the years of service this highly respected principal had given to children and schools, declaring he had failed to protect children; implying he was worthless and dishonest. Here were two review officers, one of them of high seniority, intensively interrogating an ex-principal, one who had been retired for two years, on charges not only not investigated but never made clear. The ex-principal was involved now in the school because he had been voted in by the parents to be on the board, and to be chair by being voted in by the other trustees. And here he was being cruelly harassed by two powerful bureaucrats come from Auckland. Can you imagine the ex-principal going into retirement with that dark cloud of memory haunting him.

There was to be a weird immediate aftermath.

There was a knock on the door (the senior lead teacher had arrived for her timed appointment); the three in the room looked up, the eerie silence making the tenseness of the atmosphere all the more apparent; then the senior lead teacher walked in, advanced, and held out her hand to the deputy chief review officer’s colleague – the hand stayed unshaken as the colleague refused to perform this basic courtesy. A powerful revelation of the rage that possessed these education review office visitors.

At the May, 2015 meeting, a large number of parents and community members presented a letter to the board asking for the businessman’s resignation. In responding to this he said he had already informed the deputy review officer that he was going to resign – evidence that the collusion and communication between the review office and the businessman continued to the end. 

The education review office would seem to be hopeful latter-day education alchemists aiming to turn mindless classroom conformity into boundless imagination and creativity. The education review office genuinely wants to improve education but never at the risk of any loss of control and command. In a democracy, education can only be improved by sharing of control, meaning that a control and command education cannot succeed. The education review office has been shown to function on a closed system of belief; only one category of academic is referred to, and only one kind of education considered acceptable. It has constructed an education system in a vacuum, complete with its own punishment and reward system. The education review office being predisposed to believe uninvestigated complaints derives, I suggest, from two sources: first, finding trouble in schools, stirring it up, threatening to put in non-educationists to sort things out, is deeply satisfying to government politicians as it bolsters its propaganda that schools are not to be trusted – ambitious education bureaucrats pick up on this signal and act on it; second, being an education bureaucrat is deeply lacking in emotional satisfaction – as a result, education bureaucrats are always looking for someone to attach themselves to from which they can gain such satisfaction. If the review office function was to be made properly accountable, relations with schools would be more authentically genuine and satisfying, to everyone’s benefit (except power-obsessed politicians).

This little school, subject to prolonged outrageous behaviour, is still subject to a continuing vendetta from someone in the community, and from an agency still offering, it seems, at least tacit support to this person – but in all of this, the beleaguered school has been offered no protection (other than Kelvin Davis). Now the school, in a few days, awaits another assault. I call for this cruel farce to be halted – has the review office forgotten there are children being affected by its continuing pig-headedness? – and replaced by a review process of truth and reconciliation; and in a wider sphere I call for the review function to be changed so that curriculum is not made by edict from the review head office, and that the review office is made accountable through a proper and judicious process.

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7 Responses to Blood in the water: the review office goes into cover-up mode: it distorts, weaves, demeans, confuses, lies, and bullies Part 2

  1. kellyned says:

    I am speechless. How can we operate under such a corrupt system? And who is safe? My current principalship is going well, we have made significant progress under extremely challenging circumstances. Last night I was alerted to slanderous comments being made about me and the school by community members. What would be the result of this was passed to ERO? How would I defend myself against unsubstantiated allegations, which apparently have no level of evidence requirements placed upon them?
    As you rightly point out – the school environment is so complex (and mine the most complex of all) that if a critic wishes to find fault it could easily be manufactured, especially is you have a set of thousands of objectives to ‘evaluate’ against.
    A very wise, and since deceased principal colleague once said to me “At the end of the day, who of us could truly stand up to scrutiny?” He was right. Fault can be found if that is our desire.
    Kia kaha

  2. Kelvin says:

    Thank-you kellyned: Helpful, brilliant.

  3. John Carrodus says:

    If the CEO of ERO looked coldly at the facts ie how well ERO measures up to their own criteria of reports being (1) rigorous (2) transparent (3) judgements are consistantly high quality (4) findings are trusted, I’d suggest 75% failure of the above enough to trigger interevention.

    Whilst growing up in Morewa I discovered an enormous duck egg in the long grass. The smell of the contents when the rotten shell burst in my hands is something I will never forget. The same stench rose from the words on the screen as I read the above account.

    I will now pick my jaw off the floor.

  4. Kelvin says:

    John: your quirky way of saying truthful things has long been appreciated.

  5. Dennis Summers says:

    2 questions:
    1. Who reviews the reviewers?
    2. Who reviews the ministry?
    This question was asked of Maurice Gionotti in 1989, the ‘mid wife’ of ERO. He didn’t know and still noone knows.

  6. Melulater says:

    Surely there is a higher power for this school to refer their concerns to over the behaviour of the lead reviewer, the reviewer and then the deputy chief reviewer?
    I want to go back to the comments by the lead reviewer in reference to the curriculum. The fact that she abused the police constable, who delivers the police education programmes in schools Kia Kaha and Keeping Ourselves Safe, again demonstrates her lack of knowledge on the primary curriculum and its implementation. Anyone with a brain in education knows these programmes are taught in collaboration. The constable always covers specific lessons and the classroom teacher the other lessons.
    I’m always astounded that ERO send reviewers whose own teaching/leadership experience is in another sector to what your school is. What does a secondary teacher know about the primary curriculum expectations or how Te Whairiki in early childhood operates and vice versa. Reviewers should stick to their knitting and review schools in their own sector.

  7. Margaret Lange says:

    Well said. I think there are two issues here.
    The first is the ludicrous suggestion that we should not be using outside agencies to enhance our teaching. This demonstrates a real lack of understanding of holistic education. I use a willing parent who has been a secondary Science teacher to do the lead-up to the local Science Fair with my Year 7 & 8 class because I know that she is the expert in this field and I am not, and we all know of many examples of schools all around the country using outside expertise for the benefit of our children.
    The second is that I presume that all other schools in NZ have been told the same thing about using outside agencies.. If they are not, then there is no standardisation to ERO’s approach to the process of their reviews and this would allow too much room for reviewers to voice their personal opinions which will be dependent on their experience, intelligence, the sector they have come from and their mood on the day.

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