Budget 2018 – Vote Education and the fate of Innovative Learning Environments and Flexible Learning Spaces

The New Zealand Labour-led government that came to power in November/December 2017 signalled several areas of change, and education is one of its key priorities. One area within education that did not seem likely to change, however, was the policy of pushing ahead with the construction of purpose-built, flexible learning spaces, and the construction of schools as Innovative Learning Environments. The Budget, released today, saw education as one of the ‘winners’, with a total increase to $12.26b, up from $11.85b in 2017. This allocation to Vote Education includes well in excess of $300 mil to build new schools and classrooms.

It is of some interest to note that the performance of the education appropriation will be measured against three criteria, one of which is the “percentage of State school buildings with property-related elements of Innovative Learning Environment assessments showing functionality score of ‘3’ or better”. The ‘assessment’ referred to is a Ministry of Education ‘Innovative Learning Environments assessment tool that Boards are required to complete before a school’s ten year property upgrade.

This tool is one I have previously analysed as being an exercise in manufactured consent – that is, “here is a range of colour options, look at them, and remember you can have any colour, as long as it’s black”. It provides questions such as:

“Does the classroom design allow teachers to work co-operatively with teachers from other classrooms or specialist disciplines e.g. are there moveable walls between spaces or access to a shared space?”

The so-called FLS standard or criteria items are ranked as ‘Core’, ‘Moderate’ or ‘Advanced’, with the latter two representing the desirable situation, as evident in new builds in New Zealand and in examples internationally. The item quoted above ranks as ‘moderate’, thus indicates where the Ministry wants its schools to be. As this document is compulsorily completed by schools when having their buildings evaluated as part of the ten year property plan of each state school, the contention that consent is manufactured should now be clear.

Now returning to the explanation in the 2018 Vote Education document: it indicates a score of 3, 2 or 1 as desirable, where a ‘1’ is a school that meets the “requirements for Designing Quality Learning Space (DQLS), Health and Hygiene (H&H) and Flexible Learning Spaces (FLS)”. Precisely what the FLS standard is may be understood by reading the ‘assessment tool’, and includes flexibility, transparency and the potential for collaborative work (in addition to other physical building requirements). So, money will be considered well-spent when more schools conform to the FLS criteria than those that do not.

The take-home message is that the new government looks set to continue the schools’ building programme that was getting into gear under the previous National-led government, and teachers, parents and broader community stakeholders who may be less keen to support this approach to school design may find their position steadily narrowed.