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Decentralization in New Zealand

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In 1989, New Zealand embarked on a dramatic decentralization of its education system, part of a much larger set of changes across all public services in the country. Each school was given a large degree of independence, including having its own charter, governing board, budget, and control over staffing and facilities. This was one of the most radical decentralizations in the world; it drew a great deal of international attention in its early years as other systems considered such a move.

More than 20 years later, based on several visits to New Zealand, conversations with many of its leaders, and reading quite a bit of the research about the system, it is possible to draw some conclusions about the New Zealand reforms and their potential implications for other places (keeping in mind how dangerous it is to assume that copying education policies will lead to similar results in different places). Noted New Zealand education researcher Cathy Wylie, who has studied the reforms since their inception, drew this conclusion:

“We remain unique in having stand-alone schools that operate on their own, without being part of a school district, or a local authority. And we cannot point to any great systemwide gains in student performance or learning, new approaches to learning, or greater equality of educational opportunity that have clearly arisen from taking the radical path” (2009, p. 4).

In theory, the New Zealand model requires schools to compete with each other for students and funding, with the idea that competition will drive improvement. In practice, however, much of New Zealand is still quite rural with a large number of small schools separated from each other by consider-able distances, so competition is limited in much of the country. The reforms also had some unanticipated consequences. For example, collaboration on shared services such as special education became more difficult.

Although the first rounds of elections of governors for schools were contested, many schools have difficulty finding enough people willing to serve as governors, and actual elections for governing body members are uncommon. Not surprisingly, school governing bodies vary widely in their capacity. Moreover, New Zealand principals work harder and spend more time on nonacademic matters than school leaders in most other countries because they’re responsible for all aspects of the school including transportation and its physical plant (Wylie, 2009).

Student Learning

However, the most important outcome must surely be around student achievement. New Zealand has been, and remains, a high-achieving country in international assessments. The country has skilled teachers and school leaders, and New Zealanders have a strong positive ethos toward education as well as a generally positive and practical view of the world.

On the other hand, New Zealand has a high degree of inequity in education outcomes, connected mainly to social class and ethnicity. As everywhere in the world, students who come from poorer families tend to have significantly poorer education outcomes. However, in New Zealand, there is a particular challenge around Maori and Pasifika students, who come from the smaller islands in the Pacific Ocean. These groups make up, respectively, about 20% and 10% of all students and are growing rapidly so that they may become a majority of the school system in the foreseeable future. Maori and Pasifika achievement levels are on average much lower than those of European-origin New Zealanders (referred to as "pakeha"). New Zealand doesn’t conduct its own national assessments, but the best available data show that achievement levels don’t seem to have changed very much in recent years, and that achievement gaps at all levels remain very large (Robinson et al., 2009), even within schools. Indeed, in a finding all too familiar to U.S. readers, there is evidence that Maori and Pasifika student achievement is lower than pakeha students even after controlling for socioeconomic status, and that this is related at least in part to educators’ lower expectations for these students. New Zealand students also report comparatively low levels of feeling safe in school.

An interesting initiative has been the development of the National Certificate of Education Achievement (NCEA) at the secondary level, starting in 2002. The NCEA framework allows a wide range of learning experience, inside and outside of high schools, to count, at least in principle, toward secondary school qualifications. The full potential of the NCEA model hasn’t been unleashed, as almost all credits still come from regular courses offered by secondary schools, but the advent of NCEA has led to a steady increase in the proportion of students obtaining a secondary school qualification. However, completion is still strongly related to social class and ethnicity, both across and within schools; large numbers of Maori and Pasifika students still struggle to complete secondary education.

All of this suggests that there is potential for significant improvements in outcomes by focusing on more consistent, high-quality practice in schools and, in particular, by focusing on reducing achievement gaps. Moreover, New Zealand has done some terrific work to learn about effective practice, especially in minority education. Indeed, for a small country, New Zealand has an outstanding education research effort, with a great deal of high-quality work focused on the challenges of better and more equitable outcomes, and strong connections between key researchers and the school system. The Ministry of Education, working with New Zealand’s universities, has sponsored a wide range of projects in areas such as literacy, numeracy, and Maori education, some of which have produced very impressive outcomes. The Ministry has also sponsored, for the last 10 years, the Best Evidence Synthesis program, which has produced several wonderful syntheses of research on key issues such as leadership (Robinson et al., 2009) and teacher professional learning (Timperley et al., 2007). BES is a world leader in efforts to connect research to policy and practice and has developed a powerful approach to systematic reviews for doing that work.

Poised for Changes

New Zealand has both the knowledge and the potential to improve outcomes and reduce inequities.

Making changes of this kind across an entire school system is never easy, but in New Zealand the difficulties are compounded by the high degree of decentralization and the unwillingness to build a national approach to improvement. While the Ministry supports various pilot projects—some of which show very substantial benefits to students—it’s unwilling or unable to push the adoption of these programs in all schools. Similarly, the findings of the Best Evidence Syntheses, though powerful, have often not been turned into national policy. Schools regard themselves as autonomous and resist anything that looks like imposition from the Ministry. The current government’s desire to have schools report student progress against national curriculum standards—even without having a national test to do so—has met strong resistance from schools.

For a visitor, the situation is very frustrating. A country that has many positive elements to its schools and the evident capacity to improve outcomes for all students seems, from this reading, to be unwilling or unable to make a coordinated and systematic effort to take advantage of those attributes. From an international policy perspective, the New Zealand story suggests that a decentralized and competitive system is not enough to improve student outcomes or reduce achievement gaps, even in a small country with a skilled teaching force.


  • Robinson, V., Hohepa, M., & Lloyd, C. (2009). School leadership and student outcomes: Identifying what works and why. Wellington, New Zealand: Ministry of Education.
  • Timperley, H., Wilson, A., Barrar, H., & Fung, I. (2007). Teacher professional learning and development. Wellington, New Zealand: Ministry of Education.
  • Wylie, C. (2009). What can we learn from the last 20 years? Herbison Lecture presented to the New Zealand Association for Research in Education, Rotorua, New Zealand.

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