National's Communities of Learning scheme a $100m waste of money - principals

By John Gerritsen for RNZ

An organisation representing hundreds of primary and intermediate school principals wants the Government to scrap a scheme that is costing $100 million a year, most of it in extra pay for teachers and principals.

The Principals Federation says Communities of Learning or Kahui Ako are not raising children's achievement and the money would be better spent elsewhere.

The scheme was created by the National-led Government in 2014 with the goal of reducing competition and raising student achievement. It sees schools form groups of 10 or 12 schools with shared goals such as improving children's literacy, and pays teachers and principals extra to lead that work.

Most schools are in the scheme at a cost to the Government of about $110m a year, most of it extra pay for nearly 3000 teachers and principals in leadership roles, and for back-up teachers to give them the time to do the work.

The future of the programme has been in doubt ever since the Labour-led government took power at the end of 2017 and last year it put a halt on the formation of new clusters.

Almost universal support for ending scheme

The president of the Principals Federation, Perry Rush, said it was time to disestablish the clusters and spend the money on more urgent needs.

"We've spoken with 800 principals, over 98 percent of those principals are calling for the dissolution of Kahui Ako," he said.

He said principals agreed collaboration between schools provided benefits, but not to an extent that justified spending more than $100m a year.

"The strong call from the sector though is to reinvest what is a considerable sum of money in much more important issues, such as pastoral staffing in schools, the need for counselling services, but also in learning support," he said.

Rotorua principal wants to keep scheme

But the lead principal for the Rotorua East Kahui Ako, Lorraine Taylor, said the scheme should stay.

She said it enabled a level of school, iwi and community cooperation that would not otherwise happen.

"We've got some really fantastic work happening and all of that is lifting achievement across the cluster," she said.

Taylor said Kahui Ako were not simply a cluster of schools, but a way of creating a community organisation that included schools, iwi, and local early childhood centres.

"If you are only looking at a group of schools working together in the same way they've always worked, then you do have a problem," she said.

She said she agreed the funding could be used for purposes other than teacher pay, but it was useful for setting up a Community of Learning.

PPTA president Jack Boyle.
PPTA president Jack Boyle. Photo credit: The AM Show

Secondary Principals Association vice president Vaughan Couillault said its members' views were mixed, but it was time to review the scheme.

"There are high-functioning Kahui Ako across the country that secondary principals are members of and they're getting the real value of it. There are equally people who aren't getting value out of it. I would say anecdotally more of the conversations I have about Kahui Ako when people contact me, aren't very supportive of the current model."

The president of the Post Primary Teachers Association, Jack Boyle, said it was too soon to call for an end to Communities of Learning, but he too said it needed a review.

"Certainly what we would like to see is some progress in terms of review and analysis of whether Kahui Ako is working, under what conditions and what are the barriers to it working," he said.

Educational Institute President Liam Rutherford said teachers and principals wanted to collaborate, but they were divided about whether Kahui Ako were the best way to do that.

He said the immediate problem was the Government's moratorium, which prevented more schools from joining the scheme.

Rutherford said that was unfair because some Government funding was routed through Kahui Ako.

"Where the real inequities in this issue are is that we do have parts of the system that can access additional funding and then we've got parts that can't," he said.

He said the union would prefer funding focused on giving teachers the time to work collaboratively, rather than paying some teachers more to lead that work, and more inclusion of early childhood centres.

Education Minister Chris Hipkins said he was expecting advice from the Education Ministry in December about options for changing the Kahui Ako system.