By Kelvin Smythe
It was 1990: an article from the first edition of Developmental Network Newsletter – a memo to myself
I stood outside the departmental offices in the Hamilton Education Board, barred from returning, apparently to protect the supplies of HBs and paper.
For me it had all started with accounts of how neo-liberalism and the associated managerialism were affecting school systems in England and America, especially America. Accounts I had read but more powerfully heard from academics at research conferences, the most telling and impassioned being from Ivan Snook.
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It was early 1988 and I was standing at a bus queue at Wellington airport when I heard my name called out; it was Noel Scott, now an associate education minister, previously a district senior inspector of schools while I was in the primary inspectorate across the Waikato River.
‘Hop in,’ he said from his chauffeur-driven car.
He was excited and whipped out a bit of cardboard from his pocket (in my mind it was a flattened cigarette packet, but that might be apocryphal) and he proceeded to set out in diagrammatic form something he called Labour’s plans for education. Talk about being in at the birth; the conception of course at the Treasury.
‘What do you think?’
I was aghast. ‘The secondary school system imposed on primary schools,’ I thought.
I said, ‘No, no, no – it will kill the primary school curriculum.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘The primary school curriculum develops in subtle ways with an almost hidden connectedness – those plans will kill it.’
‘But this is about connectedness.’
‘It’s about controlling the curriculum not developing it.’
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And so events unfolded.
I was chosen to go to Wellington to hear Russ Ballard, interim head of the department of education, an agrarian scientist I think, and heard him emphasise that those presently involved in education would be excluded from active involvement in developing Tomorrow’s Schools because their actions were sure to be governed by self-interest.
A suited young man from Treasury interviewed me as were all inspectors, furiously taking notes.
David Lange swept through the offices in blustering style (Lange, in looking back on his career, was hardly ever to refer to Tomorrow’s Schools.)
Around the country, I was being asked to speak about Tomorrow’s Schools. My most memorable occasion was speaking to Northland principals at the Onerahi hotel: Maurice Gianotti, designated to be the first chief executive of the education review office, spoke the first day, me the second. Gianotti delivered a pleasant and idealistic vision of what would be achieved from schools being freed to make more decisions for themselves; I howled to the moon along the lines of the article that follows.
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I now had to consider my future.
It had to be outside the formal education system because I saw no hope of the holistic curriculum philosophy finding a place.
I decided to set myself up, nominally as an education consultant but really as an education advocate for the New Zealand primary school philosophy – to try to maintain a foothold in what I knew were to be the terrible times ahead. A new edition of Developmental Teaching and Learning was published; also a new edition of the Feeling for Approach to Social Studies (later I was to help to write and popularise Science Alive); and I decided to put out a magazine to be published three times a year.
From that publishing and philosophical base I intended to travel round New Zealand for as long as I was welcome.
It was a lonely philosophical and vocational position to be in. Classroom teachers, though, were to be my comfort and my audience. I hopped into my car and oh the places I’ve been!
I believed that change was necessary, especially in freeing up the running of schools, but I foresaw, for structural reasons, an inevitable reduction in the free exchange of ideas – a reduction that would be destructive to the kind of connectedness that was central to the development and health of the primary school curriculum – connectedness without a free exchange of ideas being control by another name.
The propaganda for Tomorrow’s Schools was wall-to-wall; opposing voices were hardly heard. Oh what nifty manoeuvres were performed to prevent a rigorous examination to occur.
And at the heart of the justification for the changes were the wonderful things Tomorrow’s Schools was going to do to lift Maori education performance.
That then was the context for the posting that follows: ‘Network asks: Who can teachers rely on?’It may seem strange, it did to me considering the article years later, that it does not feature on the cover. I had heard
this BNZ television advertisement asking: ‘Who can you trust?’ Yes, I thought, in an education world awash in hidden or partly submerged agendas who can teachers trust? Who can teachers rely on I pondered? As a result, the article was not written to be prophetic but as a kind of thought-clearing memo to myself.
Network asks: Who can teachers rely on?
The television advertisement goes: ‘Who can you bank on? Who can you trust?
And concludes: ‘You can rely on us.’
These thoughts were prompted by a pamphlet from the ministry of education delivered to letter boxes around New Zealand. The pamphlet had a picture of a smiling, wide-eyed young girl, and a heading that stated, ‘It’s time you knew what’s going on at your local school.’
What a sly heading. It can be read a number of ways, but the real intention, as made clear enough inside the pamphlet, is that with parents in charge you’ll really get to know what has been going on, and you’ll be able to straighten it out.
This is so typical of the propaganda that accompanied the Picot implementation.
The pamphlet, however, was not from the Implementation Committee but from the ministry of education.
The previous supports for teachers seem to be disintegrating.
Can teachers rely on the new education bureaucracies for a fair go?
The pamphlet was propaganda – it looked like propaganda, and read like propaganda.
Will the bureaucracies be instruments of government to an extent they have never been before?
When will the propaganda campaign stop?
Teachers, in the Picot implementation, had their voices drowned in a propaganda campaign of unparalleled proportions.
Non-facts, weasel words, anti-teacher and anti-teacher union innuendo, emotive images, simplistic arguments, and misrepresentations of what went before and what was to come were piled onto a debate which was, in reality, a debate that wasn’t.
On National Radio, the morning after the announcement of the Picot proposals, Ivan Snook from Massey University used some overseas research findings as the basis for criticising what he had heard; an academic on the Picot committee [Peter Ramsay] demurred and said he looked forward to debating those findings at some future date.
This debate, however, like the wider debate, never occurred.
Consultation, in technocratic fashion, became an instrument of control. Consult widely, ignore largely – and use the fact of having consulted widely to legitimise the fact of having ignored largely.
To have done all this to that remarkable institution – the New Zealand primary school; to that group of high integrity – New Zealand primary teachers, was a disgrace.
The failings of New Zealand society were somehow made the failings of New Zealand schools. In other words, the failure by adults to succeed in what they wanted to do in the wider sphere was blamed on schools, which eventually meant New Zealand children had to bear the consequences of adult failure. For example, the failure to continue with compulsory superannuation, the main election plank used by Robert Muldoon to gain power, and fear-mongered by the conservative media, had nothing to do with schools, everything to do with right-wing mythology and the quest for power. Schools, however, are bearing and will bear the scapegoating social and economic consequences of this monumental failure of adult imagination and judgement.
The consequential economic failure had the ironic and unfair effect of rewarding the creators of that failure, bringing a rich catch to the cast of the New Right net: in the net were the 1960s’ liberals lured by the power of the power-to-parents’ slogan; those who saw opportunities for women and Maori in the dissolution of existing structures; academics with what I consider distorted research; and others from tertiary institutions who saw an opportunity for greater administrative and ideological control over schools.
A key to all this was the many who had shifted from the liberal tradition to the libertarian one and in doing so left themselves vulnerable to the beguiling arguments of the New Right: a case of Simon Walker meet Ron Trotter – the cement between the old liberals and the New Right being the desire for minimalist government. After all, to the old liberals, weren’t governments the old enemy?
The old liberals have allowed themselves to be deceived as governments never willingly relinquish any of their power, they simply make adjustments to the manner of its expression.
Network readily acknowledges that there was a need for change in the education system – for instance, more budgetary control to schools, more school say in appointments, the abolition of personal gradings, simpler administrative procedures to set up te reo schools, and more women and Maori in the bureaucracy. A willingness to accept such changes was widespread in the teaching profession. No great upheaval was needed. It was political not professional will that was lacking.
What has been imposed on education is a technocratic administrative model which is grossly unsatisfactory for an education system. A model which, when all the costs are added up, will be more expensive to run, and less effective in providing the foundations for high quality education. The sense of loss, especially when measured against what might have been, is great.
Education has been trivialised and politicised. The media in the years ahead will have a field day as the multifarious symptoms of an unsatisfactory system are revealed. Teachers will now have to spend more time pleasing the wants of parents and politicians, and less on meeting the needs of children. Education will become more image and less substance.
Picot is a philosophy, not a particular set of administrative ideas. A philosophy yet to unfold in its entirety. Allowing liberal-libertarians to tinker with a particular set of ideas (for instance, the ostensible shift of some powers to schools) during the implementation was a small cost for the ideological right to pay. It had other fish to fry.
The Picot implementation was an example of the technocratic way of going about things – the resort to the New Right philosophy, a Treasury Report, State Services Commission control of proceedings, and a thorough use of the propaganda powers available to the governments. The main thing present-day governments ensure in any debate about important education policy is that there isn’t any.
And always you should note, the origins of the main ideas deriving from technocratic administrative theory are from overseas. Giving highest value to ideas from those origins increases the power of the technocrats – firstly, it is their administrative theory (not one developed from teacher knowledge and experience) and, second, they are the ones who get paid study trips overseas or claim they know what is occurring there.
Picot was an exercise in the failure of imagination. It was a signal display of a lack of confidence in New Zealanders to generate ideas for their own further development. As we know it was a wilful display from ideological self-interest.
The sad outcome has been that the New Zealand primary system, one of the best in the world, has had fixed on it the failed ideas of decidedly inferior systems.
The Treasury Report was a key expression of the ideas that gave impetus to Picot. The Report was a combination of radical chic, libertarianism, the ideological right, and calculated buffoonery.
The calculated buffoonery is best observed in the way the Report writers looked at education statistics and research, disingenuously accepted at face value the differences in learning outcomes amongst various groups of children – and proclaimed schools a failure. Ipso facto, the education system should be turned on its head.
In other words, the Report writers took a concern from the radical perspective – how children from poorer households were failing – and used it to advance the ideological right one. Academics and radicals who, naively, left such ideas hanging out there will eventually come to see they have been hoist by their own petard.
The effrontery of the Report is breathtaking. The Treasury has contributed more than most institutions to the social and economic inequities that prevail, and then berated schools for not redressing these inequities when expressed as education outcomes.
New Zealand children, teachers, principals, and education administrators – male or female, Maori or pakeha – are caught in the same harsh, hierarchical accountability system. The welfare of all in education is bound up in each other’s. Some may have thought otherwise for a time. But the reality is surely becoming clearer – a sense of professional unity is required if education is going to get back on the right track again.
One of the keys to this getting back on track is to lay bare the deceptiveness of a particular Picot weasel expression – that of parental involvement and co-operation being central to what Picot is about. What Picot is about is control and hierarchical accountability. The minister watches the ministry and review office, they watch the boards of trustees (which includes the principal), the boards of trustees the principal, the principal the teachers – and everyone watches one another.
All schools are hostages to the fortune of this situation. It is just a matter of time before those at the top of the hierarchy push for dominating control and arbitrary decision-making.
Network says to the ministry of education: The Picot propaganda campaign is over – or should be. The New Right has had its way. Now leave schools in peace for awhile so they can get on with the job of limiting the damage.
Teachers should be able to place a good deal of trust in their bureaucracies. They have until now – but now could be very different.
Network hopes that with good will, and some beneficial structural changes, that over the years ahead, the ministry and review office can say with credibility: ‘You can rely on us.’ But I’m not betting on it.