The NZ Herald education editorialist is oh so wrong

There is something disconcerting about the Herald education editorialist (I have no idea of his name); something reminiscent; something that stirs associations.  That he is a virulent education neoliberal is obvious and will be demonstrated, but there is something more. And that something more I sense is that he may well have been a teacher, and even more significantly a secondary teacher. There is that sublime ignorance secondary teachers have toward primary; an utter unwillingness to accept that primary, while being less stressful, is a very different game – a far more complex one. I am not talking about John Roughan here – I have learnt the difference between John Roughan and the education editorialist.  I have grown quite fond of John – yes – he sees education in a mildly fantastic Ayn Rand way (at a guess, he is the kind of person I marched with in ’81 to be turned disillusioned with big government), but he plays fair, not with the sense I get from his counterpart, of being in truck with, say (and I fantasise), John Morris and company having cosy meetings at the Northern Club.

There are some of us who remember a 1960 Minhinnick cartoon that had a paving stone labelled ‘The Play Way’ being lifted to expose a mass of insect life. That was the Herald’s cartoon depiction of Beeby’s education vision of individualisation, variety, the aesthetic, and the way the affective and the cognitive can work together. This primary school philosophy described was to deliver world-class status for primary education, though all the time battling against the stereotype so powerfully but distortedly presented in Minhinnick’s cartoon. Minhinnick, though, and Herald editorial writers were conservative educationists not neoliberal – while they posed a challenge to progressive education, they did not threaten a serious diminution of public education and an undermining of the quality of education. Those conservative educationists, if they were to survey the scene today, would recognise immediately, and not hesitate to draw attention to, the way current education practices are undermining children’s ability to think, write, read widely, do real maths, and study history and science. They would have recognised immediately the swindle that internal NCEA exams have become, the vocational destructiveness of children being guided into soft career lines, and the wild west nature of how national standards are determined.

I am sure the editorial education writer finds confirmation for his views from the ‘recovery’ of Selwyn College. Pretty much all that happened, though, was that the College was turned, as nearly all secondary schools are, to get children through NCEA in any way possible, using the methods referred to above. The ‘success’ Selwyn has achieved is no more than nearly every other college is achieving, or could achieve, by implementing the Aotearoa version of ‘No child left behind’. With the College back on the examination treadmill, community tensions would have quickly reduced, and the ‘reputation’ of the school restored.  Before the editorialist and others dismiss me as a woolly idealist, I want to say, I recognise the need for secondary schools to get children through examinations, and have never supported secondary schools wandering too far away from doing this. Given parental expectations, I scoffed at Jane Gilbert’s computer-based futurist education ideas. Any movement away, I said, should be glacial and co-ordinated. Having said that, it would be interesting to follow up on the Selwyn students who came through the previous system to learn their views of Selwyn and the nature of their subsequent life experiences.

Now the matter immediately at hand. The article in the Herald, 23 July, 2014, headlined ‘Poll backs plan for better teachers’ is a disgrace.

This poll follows the catch phrase from an earlier editorial that describes Labour’s education policy as quantity and National’s as quality. In that editorial, the writer accuses ‘Labour [of] subscribe[ing] to the unions’ dogma that every trained teacher is as good as the next and that all pupils need is more of them so classes can be smaller.’ This is horrendous – an editorialist doing a political hatchet job on Labour (as well as the unions). Does the writer really believe this? Do the facts support this? I challenge the writer to find any evidence anywhere that this is the case. Do the other editors find this acceptable?

In the case of the poll, what we have here is an opinionated editorial viewpoint spilling in unprofessional style onto the general pages. The poll question says: Labour has promised to lower class sizes by hiring 2000 more teachers instead of spending $359 National would spend on trying to improve teaching standards. Which of the following best fits your view?

I am now speaking directly to the editorial writer and to the other editorial writers – in the paragraphs that follow; I am going to stick to logic, not opinion. If by logic, I establish an irrefutable case, could an editorial writer in a subsequent article or editorial correct the matter, getting the balance and logic right?

The lower class size policy is not exclusive from improving teaching standards; to place it in opposition to improve teaching standards is wrong – and emotive.

Labour hasn’t promised to lower class sizes by hiring 2000 more teachers; the promise is to hire 2000 more teachers to improve teaching standards and is stated as being so. 

The lowering of class size announcement is a formula: the policy will also allow greater specialisation in schools and better services, for instance, programmes to build home-school relations; programmes for children with special needs (including high ability children); specialisation in science, mathematics, te reo Maori, music, drama, and the arts.

The use of the $359 million dollars by Labour also has to be seen in the context of the other use of that and other money: one hundred  special education teachers; establishing a comprehensive school advisory service to share best practice with powers to second teachers and school leaders for a period up to 3 years; establishing a College of School Leadership to act as part of the school advisory service – seconding up to 100 existing school leaders as part of that to be as mentors and trainers; developing non-managerial career pathways for teachers who want to stay in the classroom; scrapping national standards to focus teaching on the full national curriculum; and making it easier to establish Schools of Special Character to encourage more innovative programmes.

I don’t intend to expand on the predominant primary school view that the government’s $359 plan is top-down, bureaucratic, and disruptive. There is some acceptance that it might suit secondary better with its established subject-matter curriculum and generally fractious departmentally-based organisation – but not much. The primary stance is likely to be, if secondary schools prefer the $359 plan, they should set it up amongst themselves.

The education editorialist, it seems to me, is out of kilter with the current ethical and professional standards of the Herald. My memories of the paper from yesteryear suggest that in comparison it is a much less partisan paper. In his destructiveness, the editorialist seems to me a throwback, though his brand of neoliberal virulence is very different.

But I may have a fellow editorialist in at least partial agreement.

A few weeks ago the education editorialist wrote: ‘Labour policy on donations misses target’ and sub-headed: ‘Only ideological zealots are likely to be impressed’.

Guess who he was to unintentionally post-date as an ‘ideological zealot’? None other than his fellow editorialist and regular writer on education, charter school enthusiast, biographer of John Key, and my suggested Ayn Rand fantasist and even fellow Springbok tour marcher  – John Roughan. In his regular Saturday writing his article reads ‘Labour chalks up a big tick on fees’ and sub-headed ‘Offer of $100 instead of fee can lift poor schools and leave the rich free’. Honestly – you have to laugh. Admittedly, in its donation plan Labour avoided any Ayn Rand transgressions – but good on you John I. Z. Roughan.

I believe that neoliberal ideologists like the editorial writer are using education for wider ideological purposes. That, however, is another posting. What they don’t take into account is that at the butt end of their pronouncements are caring teachers and hopeful children. Children, teachers, and parents deserve better. With the currency given to neoliberal arguments, how as a society are we going to become an intelligent democracy? I believe, however, that just as bureaucratic democracy reached its limits in the post-war years in England, so neoliberal democracy in the 2000s in the western world is reaching its. The virulence of neoliberals in education I see not as a sign of neoliberal strength but weakness. That, also, is another posting.  In the case of the bent poll and the rabid preceding editorials, landing all that on a clearly terrific education manifesto, the Labour Party, teacher organisations, and children and teachers, is a disgrace and calls for some kind of correction.

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One Response to The NZ Herald education editorialist is oh so wrong

  1. Melulater says:

    I dread opening/reading any Herald article on education, or Labour for that matter, due to the poor standard of journalism and the obvious neo liberal bias towards John Key.

    It’s time we emancipated Auckland from the rest of New Zealand. Let Auckland be their own city state and move the Beehive up there. Then the rest of NZ can be free of their GERM infestation and get on with the rest of what makes NZ good without them.

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