If the road to hell is paved with good intentions, then the system of school interventions designed to help in times of trouble is going bad with the best will in the world. The system was set up in 2001 so that “when evidence of concern or risk is identified at a school the most appropriate action from a range of options” is used to support a school. But schools see it differently. “We’re having to pay out in order to be dealt to,” as one North Island principal put it. He must work with a limited statutory manager (LSM) after the school failed to send in its National Standards data. The school received a good ERO report but it failed to file its National Standards data after a senior staff member fell seriously ill. The data has since been filed.

Gagged

Nonetheless, the small decile 2 school is now paying out tens of thousands of dollars it can ill afford to an LSM. Like all staff with an intervention at their school, the principal is effectively gagged. He has been told by his board not to speak out” on pain of the manager continuing to stay on. “It’s costing us the equivalent of two teacher aides, but we can’t complain in case the LSM tells the ministry we’re not ready for the intervention to be lifted.”Managers, advisors and commissioners are appointed by the Secretary of Education, but schools must pay for them out of their own money. Some LSMs are charging $100 an hour, with reports of annual invoices of up to $90,000. In addition, annual expenses in the tens of thousands may be paid by the ministry. There have been reports of principals receiving one-line invoices for large sums, but rarely seeing the appointee.

Reform needed

As an NZEI Te Riu Roa field officer puts it, “There are definitely situations where having an LSM or a commissioner is a good idea” particularly in rural schools and small communities where there’s a relationship breakdown and things go toxic. “An impartial person from outside the community can move a school forward. But there are too many horror stories. A reform of the whole system is needed.”Principals around the country agree. They say that the ministry appoints LSMs or commissioners and if it funded them as well a better system of checks and balances would likely result. They want more detailed plans, timelines, goals and exit strategies for the interventions. “When you undertake ministry-funded professional development you have to sign in and sign out. There are feedback forms. But I’ve no idea what an exit strategy looks like for our LSM. I don’t understand why they are here, and they are not performing,” says another principal with an LSM. Official figures indicate 27 schools have had an LSM for one year or more. Some LSMs are said to be working at three or more schools, and some may not even have an education background. Most are retired principals or ministry officials, but principals report talking to LSMs who are farmers or businessmen” whose experience comprises having been on a board of trustees.Kura kaupapa Maori also appear to be disproportionately affected. Some 65 schools around the country are subject to an intervention. But around 10 percent of kura are under an intervention, compared to just 2 percent of mainstream schools. This may be related to the small size of kura, often in struggling communities, where outside help maybe needed, although other factors appear to be in play.

Manaakitanga

“We’ve had three LSMs so far,” says the principal of a small kura. “They’ve been here for five years. The first two were Pakeha and couldn’t get their head around the fact that we were Maori. They’d question why our budget for morning teas was so high. When a student joins us from kahanga reo, the whole kahanga comes and we manaakitanga them. That’s just how it is. “The latest LSM is Māori and she’s great” the first thing she said to us was,˜Your job is to get rid of me’. But I still don’t understand why we had one in the first place. We weren’t allowed to see the memo of understanding between the ministry and the LSM. We did see the reports” and the LSM would say they’d done this and that with the community or they’d made a plan for something, but these were things we had always done.”

Former LSM Toni Waho, now head of Te Rananga Nui o Nga Kura Kaupapa Maori, also reports that inappropriate advice from Pakeha LSMs has been detrimental to some kura, and he’s very critical of the cost. “I don’t know how schools who are deemed to require an intervention and who don’t have money get on. “No school is going to put money to one side in case they have to pay for an intervention. And the solutions are expensive. They usually involve bringing everyone involved in the care, education and well being of the students together, and spending time together” and time costs money.”The head of a principals association noted that too often the ministry puts in place “systems people” when the problems more often require the rebuilding and mending of relationships. “When I started out as a principal, you were expected to make mistakes” and you had support from the inspectors and rural advisors.

“I started at a rural school and told the parents off for giving their children too much help with the pets on pet day. They kicked up, because as I found out, if they won at pet day, the pet went to the local show, then the national show. It was a big part of their income. “The inspector came in and ticked me off and then he ticked the parents off. Then we all got on fine. “Today, a principal is expected to come in knowing everything. If the senior advisors who’ve been shunted into working on National Standards were used, as they should be, to support new principals, we wouldn’t have many of the problems.”

Education Minister Hekia Parata has suggested the government will take over schools using interventions if students are failing National Standards.