I have a nightmare: Cathy Wylie’s education conclusions

I mull things over in the night which, when you get old, plenty of time is provided for, and a nightmare was upon me. The nightmare is that Labour or the Greens may pick up on the conclusions Cathy Wylie makes in her book Vital Connection. These conclusions are an education train wreck –the travelling to them a generally feel-good experience but beneath it all stirs an uneasy sense of something not right. And that uneasy sense of something not right culminates in the education train wreck referred to.

The nightmare is that Labour or Greens adopt those train wreck conclusions and we have Labour repeating the disaster, admittedly in a somewhat minor key, that was Tomorrow’s Schools.

I need to say here that I have no definite evidence that Labour is going to do this. I could go to any number of insiders and ask, but if I did, and the nightmare was confirmed, it would be churlish and unethical to then attack the policy – so I am relying mainly on intuition and gossamer hints.

A glance at Tomorrow’s Schools and its introduction is instructive to the matter at hand. The policy was managerialist in nature, with attention to children and the curriculum always promised as coming but never to arrive. It was introduced behind the facade of giving schools the freedom to make decisions for themselves, but the freedom was soon found to be a fraud, restricted to matters extraneous to the classroom and curriculum – Tomorrow’s Schools’ managerialism being neoliberalism’s education expression. Labour, its cabinet ministers, and mps were utterly unrecognising of Tomorrow’s Schools’ neoliberal basis – falling into the policy because they were bereft of ideas appropriate to education in a social democracy in education as they were, at the time, in most other policy areas. Tomorrow’s Schools was not a policy that went wrong, simply one that was revealed for what it was.

This is self-referring but I want to contrast my response to the introduction of Tomorrow’s Schools with Cathy Wylie’s and Labour’s. Cathy Wylie says in her book that she found Tomorrow’s Schools ‘promising’; Labour froze out from their education deliberations any academics, or critics from the school sector; as for me, at the age of 52, I left the formal education system and my disestablished position as a senior inspector of schools, to write and take courses to protect our holistic philosophy.  My conclusion is that Cathy and Labour have a tin ear when it comes to education theory.

Cathy is something of a hero to primary schools – her reporting on developments in Tomorrow’s Schools since its inception has been honest, brave – and hugely welcome. Cathy’s near iconic status, though, makes her theoretical weakness and the conclusions that resulted all the more fraught.

In a book about Tomorrow’s Schools, Cathy manages never to mention neoliberalism or managerialism. We are simply told in the three paragraphs allocated to the matter that the education reforms were based on a wider restructuring of government services. This restructuring she adds ‘was designed to appeal to self-interest, offering decision-making freedom, but also to guard against it through separation of roles and the casting of relations as contracts with specified measures of performance.’ And that in a 300-page book was more or less that.

The bulk of the book was filled with lovely stuff that saw much merit in the organic way the former education system functioned, the way power was shared both horizontally and vertically, the connectedness that pertained then and is largely absent now – with particular praise for inspectors and education boards for their role in the connectedness referred to. It was to these matters that Cathy was to address what I call her train wreck conclusions. The real-life inspiration for those conclusions, she makes clear, coming from the Edmonton education system.

Cathy’s key solution to the problems she sees in the working of Tomorrow’s Schools is ‘a national network of around 20 education authorities responsible to a national director who is part of the senior leadership team in the Ministry of Education.’

So what do we have developing here? If Labour is intending to act on Cathy’s conclusions we will have Labour introducing a managerialist solution based largely on an idea brought in from elsewhere. And the idea likely to be introduced in near finished form. Remind you of anything?

Yes – Tomorrow’s Schools also, for goodness sake, a key part of the current government’s IES proposal – the restructuring of the ministry in the districts and the implication of clusters. (Clusters, as well, loomed large in her presentation at the recent principals’ moot and have also been put forward by NZCER as a solution to student transience.)

The good intentions with which Cathy surrounds her conclusions will not be enough. A magic wand cannot be cast over the powerful expressions of the managerialist philosophy embedded in our education system and wished away. The nurturing and mediating characteristics Cathy seeks to establish, require first that the managerialist philosophy be confronted. But that philosophy is given no name therefore no coherent analysis and no coherent response. To recommend another organisational layer as the way to resolve the task she has set herself is just harmful tinkering.

Yes – as a former inspector of schools, I feel the pull of nostalgia in her conclusions – but I know something that grew and functioned organically cannot be reinstated with managerialist change no matter how well intended. What is needed, to set in motion organic growth, is providing schools with greater legislative and regulatory curriculum freedom, greater protection from bureaucratic demand and imposition, and a greater part in knowledge development. In a nutshell, I recommend the ideas expressed in the networkonnet manifesto to be found on the pages of this website. https://networkonnet.wordpress.com/2014/05/28/the-networkonnet-manifesto-sign-up-to-have-your-ideas-heard/

Having written this posting as a warning, and produced with Allan Alach the curriculum-focused election manifesto: one that recommends system change concerned only with the curriculum – its development, implementation in schools, evaluation, and supervision – what more can I do? So I hope sleep is less fretful.  (I will continue to vigorously lobby political parties though.) And if we hear that Labour has no intentions at all to go down the Cathy way – well no harm at all – it was an opportunity to put forward a few ideas I wanted to get out there anyway.

[PS: A request for you and your teachers sign the networkonnet manifesto.]

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4 Responses to I have a nightmare: Cathy Wylie’s education conclusions

  1. John Carrodus says:

    The sweetener to these moves ( if they come to pass) will be the issue of BOT’s being a group of people, often amateurs with good ( sometimes not so good !) intentions who really have not grasped the basics of what trusteeship is about …. being replaced by a semi professional body for governance of local area state schools.

  2. joceje says:


  3. Kelvin says:

    Ann Mace, Rata Street School

  4. Lester says:

    I share (and have previously shared) Kelvin’s worries about Cathy’s idea of having 20 education boards with a Ministry of Education comptroller-general overseeing them. Cathy is an expert survey researcher, and she provides us with a lot of most valuable information. But her ideas are just that: her ideas. They are not necessarily the metal of good research.

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