Review office does a U-turn: brave little seaside school wins for us all

An e-mail from a principal who did teacher training with the head of the review office.

Iona Holsted

Chief Executive Officer

Education Review Office






Kia ora Iona

I am not sure that you are aware of the content of the above references but they are of a nature that is so serious that they require a response as to the veracity of their content.

The claims that your organisation conducts systematic bullying of principals and schools is concerning and needs to be addressed either way with a public statement that unequivocally outlines ERO’s position.

The risk of losing relevance and the willing co-operation from Boards and schools as an outcome, is high.

Looking forward to your reply.



From: Iona Holsted <>

Subject: RE: Concerning Statements that need a Response

Date: 3 September 2015 8:34:02 am NZST

To: Principal

Kia ora

Thank you for your email and your concern for ERO’s reputation.

I am aware of the blogs.  The writer and the former board chair have a view that I do not share.

I can assure you that when the school raised concerns about how the ERO review was conducted it was fully investigated and appropriate action was taken.

ERO’s primary concern is that the interests of children are well served by schools.

We have had ongoing contact with the school and are currently engaged in a constructive review.

I do not believe that further public discussion about the views expressed in the blogs is in the interests of the children, principle, teachers or the board.

Ngā mihi

Iona Holsted

‘Thank you for your email and your concern for ERO’s reputation.’

The rather chatty tone from the principal in the initiating e-mail was probably because he did primary training with the now head of the review office (who by all accounts had only a toe-dipping moment in the classroom before venturing into other environments).

I must admit a hint of admiration for that wonderfully ironic opening line in which Iona (I hope you don’t mind the first name use, but I feel with this one short e-mail I have got to know you – Kelvin here) writes thanking her old classmate for the e-mail and his concern for ERO’s reputation. Iona, that line gives me some hope for your redemption.

It’s always interesting beginning an acquaintance with a new head of the review office, not a long list nor I’m sorry to say a very distinguished one.

In 1990, with the first one, Maurice Giannotti, when he was head ERO-elect, we shared fittingly, given the subsequent northern context of this posting, a two-day conference at the Onerahi Hotel in Northland – he was Mr Sunny-side up about what lay ahead, I howled at the moon (and in detail added ideas very like ones in the postings listed above). He wasn’t ruthless enough and was replaced by Judith. Oh dear! A very different kettle of fish. You, it seems, are set on becoming her successor. (The one in between had a Gilbertian feel to him: what are we going to do with him? always seemed to be the question which in comic fashion served to pave the way for an ever upward vocational pathway.)

This e-mail Iona is not my official response to what happened to the smallish school near the water; this is just a little tickle up in the time allowed me (sort of) by my wife who is demanding I tidy up the place to get it ready for sale over Christmas (four bedroom with a terrific view in Cambridge – anybody interested?).

And – not by the way – the significance of what has happened to this school goes beyond my concern for the teachers (for whom I feel a tribal affinity if you care to know a prime motivation), to the hundreds of schools each year who suffer something like it, or fear suffering something like it.

What the education review office has done to this school has been cruel and vengeful.

For structure for this throwaway posting, I intend go through your e-mail response to your old classmate sentence by sentence.  (And if you are wondering – he has turned out a fantastic principal with the courage of a lion and the strength of principle – to get the form right as didn’t occur in your e-mail – of an education Luther. ‘Don’t’ you dare call out the dogs of war out on him.)

Yes – loved your first sentence; a classic.

‘I am aware of the blogs.’ 

Yes – well the education U-turn of the century to occur as described below will make that pretty obvious.

Your ERO officer in the initial visit went into the school and behaved like Salander’s sister.

But this brave little school generated a torrent of protest, refusing to lie down.

Behind the scenes, this Aotearoa Camilla, I have been informed, received a furious ticking off, but to the complainants nothing – the infallibility of the review office had to be maintained at all costs.

Everything that had been written down by this bureaucratic wild thing on her visit to the school was withdrawn.

Then the review office swung into action to implement the standard response to any school that doesn’t submit, that dares to speak out: big guns are trained on the school to impose an Action Plan on the threat of intervention. The Action Plan being an exquisite Kafkan torture of widespread use.

This became the second review visit.

In the case of our brave little school that did, the interviews with the principal and ex-principal (now board chair) were brutal. Authoritarian in nature because the officers knew the accusations being directed were false but acted as if they didn’t know; as part of this process, in something close to evil, they tried to turn the principal against the ex-principal. This turning of one member of the school community against another is classic vile review office behaviour often involving for the purpose unwarranted accusations from teachers, parents, board members, even children; also often involving burrowing into the Complaints File back to antiquity. 

The day before the big guns visited the school, Kelvin Davis asked a question in the House; a general question about the review office complaints process. He also put in a request under the OIA for information about how the complaints process had been undertaken with Aotearoa Camilla. This, of course, has been stalled.

But in this second visit, the cover-up visit, the bullying-to-cover-up visit, the review office continued undeterred. It knows if it loses the power to laden the education system with fear; it will be unable to function in the way it is presently structured.

Then in late August the school got in touch with me.

With the two postings listed above my responsibility was to establish a context, then to lay out the whole disgraceful process for scrutiny.

The key tactical point made, was that if everything from the first visit had been withdrawn, on what basis was the Action Plan imposed?

‘The writer and the former board chair have a view that I do not share.’

Note the ambiguity of the sentence. Iona – your name has a lovely euphony, means brown bear in a den doesn’t it? I say nothing – you do not contradict the facts just the views. I stake the accuracy of the facts; and I’m not too fussed about being said to have a different view. But I’m intrigued about the reference to the former board chair (the ex-principal), he was given a terrible mauling (brown bear?) on transcendentally wrong information – in my view if legal action was taken, the review office would rush to settle at the speed of Usain. Why did you pick him out Iona? he agrees with everything I wrote; is very grateful – but nothing of what I wrote is his views. Get over your ERO fixation on this gentlest and most decent of human beings. As far as the school is concerned it was a team of one mind, but the views are mine – as for the specific information I saying nothing.

‘I can assure you that when the school raised concerns about how the ERO review was conducted it was fully investigated and appropriate action taken.’

Oh goody! Then all will be revealed in the OIA request from Kelvin Davis and the media. Indeed, you might come out of your den to speak to the media, or are you in hibernation? (Brown bears hibernate in winter, and all this took place in the first days of spring, so get your act together.)

When you say ‘appropriate action taken’ Iona, is that a reference to going back into the school on a vengeful search and destroy mission?

‘ERO’s primary concern is that the interests of children are well served by schools.’

There is something sinuously sinister about that statement Iona. I shiver with the menace.

You see, to be something very different and honest, it should read: ‘ERO’s primary concern is that the interests of children are well served.’ That is served by everyone. Your carefully constructed mantra is a way of victimising schools (and deep down you know it), of making schools entirely responsible for children’s learning; learning that is bound to be marred and impeded by the philosophy and behaviour of your pernicious organisation.

Schools don’t do what they want to do Iona, they do what you want them to do, at the behest of the government.

You sit down with your bevy of government-aligned academics, completely cutting teachers out of any say, and lay another few hundred objectives on schools, and say do this, and do it this way (yes – the nature of the objectives means there is only one way of doing it).

ERO and neoliberal education has dominated New Zealand schools for 25 years where is the progress?

Where is the evidence that cutting teachers out of genuine decision-making is the  way to progress?

Where is the evidence that education driven and controlled by measurable objectives, and policed by a government agency, is the way to progress?

Have you ever wondered at the paradox of charter schools being expected to flourish because of light bureaucratic control and state schools because of heavy?

In the first edition in 1990 of my magazine (Developmental Network Magazine 1990-1991) I wrote: ‘Teachers are unsettled by the possibility of curriculum and administrative ideas being able to be passed quickly down the hierarchical chain without those ideas requiring teacher involvement at all stages of their development. The nature of the education system should be to protect teachers from hastily conceived ideas – no matter their potential benefits. Good ideas are only good if the process for their development has been good. The last thing teachers want is the kind of efficiency that has someone in the hierarchy having an idea , and then using the chain of command to force it on them without due process.’

See, I knew about you Iona at about the time you were starting your teacher training.

‘We have had ongoing contact with the school and are currently engaged in a constructive review.’

I was in Brisbane having treatment early last week and I learnt the third review team had told the school that they weren’t at all interested in the Action Plan, that if it was anything it was between the board and the principal; also that a member of the second review team was floating around the nearby town in bizarre style.

Both of these happenings meant that the review office had done a wheelie that was a disguised U-turn.

I felt huge relief. The education review office had recognised the game was up, and sensibly backed down. It was a victory for the brave little school that did.

But don’t you see, in a strange way Iona, you have let the cat out of the bag. You talk of a ‘constructive review’ when the review was only just beginning. In other words, the review team as a matter of tactics had been instructed to back down. It also leaves as a riddle how you would characterise other reviews (negative?).

The second review team, however, was bound to continue to play the strange game of avowing they knew nothing of what preceded their visit. This was strange because a reviewer from the second review team (the Action Plan one), something of a drama queen, was  also, in a kind of way, in this third review; she was in and out of the school as well as being ensconced, as part of her duties, in a motel in the nearby town. I know it all has the feeling of Keystone Cops but all will be explained.

In Brisbane, I twigged the significance of this rather larger than life, drama queen reviewer, as a good thing, as part of the U-turn. (I am well-informed of many reviewers.) She was sent to be a lightning rod for the anticipated community dissatisfaction with the review office. No one, it seems, visited her in the motel. This was probably because no-one advertised it, so no-one knew about it. No matter. The community was indeed highly hacked off with review officers but all it wanted to see was the back of them.

I suppose the review office could have tried to keep on bullying the school, probably Judith would have (so a little tick there Iona), but no apologies to the school, no transparency of process with the complaints. But I know you know Iona that things are closing in, that a certain fate was inevitable, and you were stalling until you could say that while there had been mistakes they had now been dealt with, the school had been visited in a constructive way, and all was settled.

But it isn’t going to be left there Iona, too much bad stuff has occurred, too much revealed. The school will get back to its children, healing the hurts of its teachers, but the school’s stand was never just for itself, it was always for all schools.

I have no doubt in a small way the events that have unfolded at this school will be salutary with the review office a little more careful in its manner and balanced in its approach, but only a structural change in which the review process is made truly accountable and review officers appointed who can work to aims in schools not measurable objectives (thereby allowing room for variety and imagination) – will achieve what needs to be achieved.

‘I do not believe that further public discussion about the views expressed in the blogs is in the interests of children, principle [your spelling], teachers or the board.’

Very revealing Iona. It isn’t the facts about how the review office behaved that most worries you; it is the views on the nature and structure of the review office.

There was an interesting little conclusion to the visit. On the second visit, near the end of it, to have one last go at putting pressure on the principal to turn against the ex-principal and his wife, the matter of the principal having been appointed from secondary was used to accuse him of lacking an understanding of primary school pedagogy. And now, right at the end of this third visit, seemingly out of the blue, it was brought up again. But it wasn’t out of the blue, it was the motel sitter now returned to the school, having one last go.

Can’t the review office see the irony in this? Here is an organisation that makes a point of having its officers working out of their previous teaching environment, explaining it as a means of introducing new ideas – but really as a way of brutalising, homogenising, and cocking a snook at the manifold and often subtle essences of the various school sectors.

There will be no significant improvement in New Zealand school education until there is structural change in the external review process. May the courage of a small seaside school contribute to this.

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5 Responses to Review office does a U-turn: brave little seaside school wins for us all

  1. Melulater says:

    It is time for all of the education system in New Zealand to be reviewed fully, including the work of the ERO, including its processes and reason for being. One of the points of Tomorrow’s Schools was to get rid of bureaucracy. It seems that has fallen by the wayside as in the last 20 odd years, escalating in the last seven in particular, bureaucracy has multiplied layer upon layer and there are many upstarts demanding they should be paid attention to and too many cooks spoiling the brew.

  2. emily nelson says:

    Good to lay out the neoliberal paradox so plainly Kelvin – paring back bureaucracy and intensifying surveillance. I’ve often wondered why the charter school success conditions and the opposite conditions for state schools hasn’t been called out more often. How can the dismantling of public education in New Zealand hide in plain sight so effectively?
    Thank you for the continuing advocacy work you do Kelvin, foregrounding the little schools that do speak truth to power.

  3. John Carrodus says:

    You are half correct kelvin. There will be no improvement..end of. The needed structural change you talk of is impossible in a near vacuum, especially when it resides as a single entity between the eyes. No light will escape and it will only end in a whimper.

  4. Dugald says:

    Hi Kelvin
    I have over recent months been reading your postings. They reach into the heart of what is wrong with our struggling little education system, laying bare the awful results of neo-liberalist intervention. They make me both sad and angry at the same time. having worked in the system as a full time teacher since 1965, and still working as a part time reliever, I have seen and am still seeing the effects of schools being squeezed, pummeled and ground down by the machinery of a nasty and self-serving administration, one that is hell-bent on being in control at all costs. But then, I don’t need to tell you that, do I?

    Having read your recent postings on the little seaside school I have been sadder and angrier than ever before. If anything in our world is more unconscionable, then I need to hear it. My god, what do these people think they are doing, think they can get away with? This story needs to be headlined for all to see, but then that would mean good journalism, and don’t get me started on that one!

    Kelvin, you must continue to pursue your campaign against the dark forces of kontrol (intentional spelling), for how else will people know what happens. Unfortunately people do not see through Mr. Smile and Nod and his cut-throat band of far right cronies. They are lulled into a some kind of soporific nirvana by lies and shallow assurances.

    I remember you Kelvin, when I was teaching in the Waikato in the ’80s, first at (now defunct) Taihoa School and later at Waerenga School. They were good times for me in the first instance, but not the second as country districts can be difficult to live and work in, especially if your philosophies don’t align with the establishment.

    Keep up the pressure on these determined bullies, and keep on highlighting the holes in the system. How one converts critical comment into systemic change I don’t know, do you?

    With kind regards,
    Dugald Martin

  5. poled says:


    The John Banks’ of the political world put a chokehold on, squeeze tighter and tighter and at the same time tell the victim to breath more easily. They then complain to all who will listen that the victim is not doing well, not showing the variety and imagination mentioned elsewhere (another hard squeeze) and praise the possibility and potential in someone running free to achieve.

    I wrote and asked him about that. He was just playing some psychopathic political game, and while he was a cretin he was perfect in following Tolley and being with Parata.

    I heard Peter Hughes speak, thought he fitted in well too and wondered whether his knighthood will be as worthy as Beeby’s.

    Iona is carved from the same tree as them. Her introduction about concern for ERO’s reputation was appropriate because what followed merely confirmed the reputation is well deserved and showed her intention to see it continue.

    Well done Kelvin and the principal who wrote to Iona.

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