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Impact of education reforms

Project Leader(s): 

This longitudinal NZCER project monitored the impact of the 1989 education reforms known as Tomorrow's Schools. These reforms shifted substantial financial and administrative responsibilities for managing schools to elected boards of trustees. The research project repeatedly surveyed principals, trustees, parents, and teachers about the impact of the reforms on primary and intermediate schools.

See NZCER's latest National survey for a project with similar scope
Read a paper comparing New Zealand's experience with Edmonton's (Canada)

Below you will find details on:

  • Main aims
  • Summary of NZ education reforms
  • Project timeline 
  • Major findings

The impact of education reforms from 1989:
Main aims of the research project

  • To provide a comprehensive current picture of the impact of the education reforms at school level, and to show how principals, boards of trustees, parents, and teachers feel about this impact.
  • To compare the current picture of the impact of the reforms with earlier pictures over the decade since 1989.
  • To evaluate the reforms in their own terms, in the light of their initial goals.
  • To gather information which may inform current policy debates in the education sector.

The impact of education reforms from 1989:
Summary of New Zealand education reforms

The changes to education administration in New Zealand which began in 1989 were part of the radical public sector reform started in 1984, after the election of a Labour government. This reform focused on more managerial autonomy, within tighter accountability frameworks. Public sector policy and operations were separated. There was a move to contracting, and to measuring performance in terms of specified outputs. In some areas, such as health, elected boards were abolished. Service providers competed to win contracts from the government as funder.

The education reforms were rather different. They also focused on individual units - schools - acting autonomously. But there was also a desire to increase the home-school partnership, and to improve educational opportunity and achievement for disadvantaged groups, particularly Māori children and children from low-income homes.

The Department of Education was reduced to a much smaller Ministry of Education, and the regional Education Boards were abolished. New agencies were set up. These included the Education Review Office to monitor schools, and the New Zealand Qualifications Authority.

In 1989, parents at every school elected boards of trustees who were made responsible for operational management. Board members included the principal, a teacher, parents and other people from the school community,

Schools also wrote their own school charters. These charters had to include equity objectives.

National government reforms from 1990:

Under the National government, there was more emphasis on competition between schools. School neighbourhood enrolment zones were abolished on the grounds of increasing parental choice. School funding was increasingly based on per-student formulas.

National Education Guidelines were issued in 1993. They consisted of national educational goals, national curriculum statements, and national administration guidelines. New curriculum statements began to come out for 7 subject areas (languages (English and others), mathematics, science, technology, social sciences, the arts, and health and physical education) and for 8 sets of essential skills.

Three books give detailed accounts of the reforms and their political context:

Butterworth, G., & Butterworth, S. (1998). Reforming education: The New Zealand experience, 1984-1996. Palmerston North: Dunmore Press.

Fiske, E.B., & Ladd, H.F. (2000). When schools compete: A cautionary tale. Washington DC: Brookings Institution.

McQueen, H. (1990). The ninth floor. Auckland: Penguin Books.

The impact of education reforms from 1989:
Research project timeline

NZCER obtained funding for the project from the Foundation for Research, Science and Technology (FoRST).

A stratified random base sample of 239 schools (10.5% of all New Zealand non-private primary and intermediate schools) was chosen. This sample was broadly representative by type of school, location, roll size, proportion of Māori enrolment, state or state-integrated.

Questionnaires were posted to principals, trustees and teachers, at the 239 schools, and to parents at 26 of the schools.
Response rates: principals 75%, trustees 70%, teachers 75%, parents 44%.

Survey repeated with same base sample of 239 schools.
Response rates: principals 87%, trustees 65%, teachers 68%, parents 64%.

Publication of first report, The impact of Tomorrow's Schools in primary schools and intermediates: 1989 survey report.

Survey repeated with same base sample of 239 schools.
Response rates: principals 78%, trustees 68%, teachers 73%, parents 64%.
NZCER conference on Self-Managing Schools, 28 June 1991.

Publication of second project report, The impact of Tomorrow's Schools in primary schools and intermediates: 1990 survey report.

Publication of third project report, The impact of Tomorrow's Schools in primary schools and intermediates: 1991 survey report.

Survey repeated with same base sample of 239 schools.
Response rates: principals 79%, trustees 62%, teachers 62%, parents 62%.

Publication of fourth project report, Self-managing schools in New Zealand: The fifth year, covering the 1993 survey.

Survey repeated with same base sample of 239 schools.
Response rates: principals 76%, trustees 57%, teachers 66%, parents 52% (of 1297 parents sent questionnaires).

Publication of fifth project report, Self-managing schools seven years on: What have we learnt?, covering the 1996 survey.

NZCER obtained further funding from Ministry of Education.
NZCER conference: Effective School Self Management, October 1998.

A new stratified random base sample of 349 primary and intermediate schools was chosen to match the changing national school profile.

Questionnaires were posted to the principal, 2 trustees, and 1-3 teachers at each school, as well as to a sample of 1745 parents at 33 schools.
Response rates: principals 75%, trustees 54%, teachers 53%, parents 51%.

Publication of the sixth project report, Ten years on: How schools view educational reform, covering the 1999 survey.

The impact of education reforms from 1989:
Major findings of the research project

This summary of the main findings covers main gains, funding, staffing, parental involvement, competition, impact for Māori and low-income children, innovation, decentralisation.

Main gains since 1989

  • New partnerships between boards of trustees and school professionals were usually working well and benefiting students.
  • Boards were becoming more representative of parents. Women made up 52% of the members. For the first time, women were as likely as men to chair their board.
  • Parent satisfaction remained high at around 80%, the same level as before the reforms.
  • Those who worked for schools took enjoyment and pride in their work. This appeared to override the burden of higher workloads.
  • There was a strong interest in continuing professional development and a growing focus on integrated school development.

However, these gains came at a cost. The main issues for professionals, trustees, and parents continued to be resource-based.

Other major trends between 1989 and 1999


The longer New Zealand schools self-managed, the more they found their government funding inadequate.  By 1999, 87% of principals and 65% of trustees said it was inadequate, compared with only 20% of each in 1989. Boards of trustees spent most of their time on funding and property.

Government funding per student declined over the decade. The Ministry of Education estimated that schools lost 10% of their purchasing power.

By 1999, funding per student had caught up. Per-student funding was 4.4% higher than in 1990. But this may not have made up for cutbacks and under-spending, 1990-1997.

School fund-raising increased markedly. The increase in locally raised funds was more consistent and much larger than the increase in government funding.

By 1999, 38% of schools raised more than $15,500, compared with 10% in 1989. Though NZ school education is legally free, 74% of schools asked parents to pay a voluntary fee, and 69% of these asked for more than $20 a child, up from 29% in 1989.

Staffing and workload

Staffing was seen as inadequate by 48% of principals and 40% of trustees in 1999. This was better than 1996, but worse than 1993. The larger the school and the lower its socio-economic profile, the more inadequate its staffing was seen to be.

A majority of schools, 54%, were employing more staff than they were funded for in 1999, compared with just 11% in 1991 and 29% in 1996. Schools paid for the extra staff by using locally raised funds or operational funding. (Operational funding is provided to cover costs other than teachers' pay.)

Class sizes had fallen. Only 13% of classes had 30 or more children, compared with 33% between 1989 and 1993. One in five teachers (21%) said there were fewer than 20 children in their class.

But workloads had risen because of the reforms. Principals worked 60 hours a week by 1999, and teachers worked 51.5 hours.

Parental involvement

Parental involvement declined rather than increased, as the reforms intended. This seemed to be mainly due to the growth in mothers' employment, linked to the need for two incomes in many families. In 1999, only 11% of parents wanted more say in their child's school.

Competition between schools

Competition increased markedly. In 1999 31% of principals felt their school was competing with others, up from 21% in 1996.

More parental choice led to increased ethnic and socio-economic polarisation, in primary as well as secondary schools. Māori parents were less likely than Pākehā parents to get their first choice of school for their child.

Impact for Māori and low-income children

Schools in low socio-economic areas and with high Māori enrolment were likely to have gained least from the reforms, and may even have gone backwards. The problems for these schools included:

  • falling rolls (when primary rolls were generally rising)
  • additional administrative costs
  • fewer voluntary resources to draw on.


The new National Curriculum Framework spurred some innovation. For example, most schools introduced social skills programmes and problem-solving approaches. This innovation would not have come about simply by decentralising administration to school level.

Barriers to innovation involved lack of resources - time, money, teaching resources, and professional development. Overall, what people in schools appeared to need most was:

  • more non-teaching time
  • access to external support to help their own school development efforts
  • local, regional, and national avenues for sharing approaches to commonproblems.


The reforms increased autonomy at the local level, in terms of local decisions.

But people in schools wanted the government to focus more on resourcing, workload, and school support issues rather than on further changes to property or regulations.

Most professionals felt that the education sector was excluded from shaping government education policy.

The project was funded by the Foundation of Research, Science and Technology (FORST) and also by the New Zealand Ministry of Education.