My definitive view of the cluster system

The cluster system being proposed by the government is ground hog day to Tomorrow’s Schools. As with the cluster system, Tomorrow’s Schools also exhibited some attractive qualities. The main one being increased freedom for principals and school communities to make decisions on school management and, from there it was hinted, the curriculum. But like a jockey eyeing a gap, only for it to close, so did the gap for greater freedom. In the case of the cluster system, the main attractive quality suggested is the opportunity for schools to co-operate at the local level. But as for Tomorrow’s Schools, so for the cluster system, that attractive quality will only promise to deceive. The outcome of any particular education change is bound in the nature of its origins and the context within which it works. Tomorrow’s Schools and the cluster system share remarkable similarities in origin.  As for context, Tomorrow’s Schools’ main attractive quality was accompanied by a host of antithetical changes; for the cluster system, the main attractive quality will be placed in a context hostile to co-operation.

Tomorrow’s Schools was dropped on New Zealand schools by a naïve prime minister, besieged by his own minister of finance, and looking for a form of political expression and legacy; its basis was the neoliberal managerialist philosophy – ironically the same as being followed by his finance minister –promoted by Treasury. The origins of the change, therefore, were political and bureaucratic. There was never any real consultation; the propaganda was intense; an idealistic school education future was promised; there was a skilful co-opting of academics; and catchwords were promulgated around the idea of power to schools. The process for the Tomorrow’s Schools’ changes is almost exactly the same as the one being followed for the cluster system.

A key characteristic for both changes was, and is, that teachers and their organisations were largely sidelined on the specious grounds of the need to avoid professional capture.

With Tomorrow’s Schools, I looked at the philosophical basis of the changes, the origins, and the processes used to it bring about, and knew immediately that it would lead to kind of situation we are in today; and I am now looking at the cluster system with its considerable similarity in origins and processes, and predicting a future of more of the same.

The Tomorrow’s Schools imbroglio began 25 years ago, and here we are about to go through a similar cycle – admittedly on a smaller scale. In a sense, though, the situation is even more fraught, because the education situation into which the cluster system is being dropped is very different from the Tomorrow’s Schools’ one. The education situation for the cluster system is already highly top-down, bureaucratic, prioritised on control, and the curriculum already narrow, shallow, formalistic, measurement-bound, and misdirected.

National standards, as the curriculum expression of the bureaucratic and control basis of the education system, are seriously affecting the curriculum and reducing the ability of teachers to teach flexibly and imaginatively. As well, the application of the concept of provider capture to sideline teachers from genuine participation in genuine decision making, means teachers do not have the freedom to originate knowledge, and to interact with, build on, modify, and counter academic knowledge. Without teacher knowledge having a secure place in education, any education change will fail.

As for Tomorrow’s Schools, the cluster system was dropped on schools as a near complete concept, with only details up for discussion. The idea of co-operation in clusters has possibilities but, to make it work for children, the idea needed to have begun in genuine discussion with teachers. If it had been, a very different cluster plan would have evolved.

Again, as for Tomorrow’s Schools, the cluster system has been about the advantages for the adults; in particular, providing teachers a vocational pathway, from there it seems the advantages for children trickle down. (For Tomorrow’s Schools, the attention was to the advantages for the principals and boards of trustees.) Associated with that is the curriculum being presented as neutral, in the sense that the curriculum will be what the expert teachers deem it to be (of course, what the expert teachers deem it to be will be what providers contracted by the government deem it to be).

Also again, as for Tomorrow’s Schools, the cluster system being proposed provides the opportunity for the government to impose its world view of education on schools. That world view being that education change should be seen as something done to teachers not with them; that the education effects of poverty should be seen as of lesser importance (than something called ‘quality teaching’); that the way to motivate teachers is through money and fear; and that education change needs to be accompanied by more bureaucracy.

If the cluster proposal had begun with consultation with teachers, the first thing primary teachers would have said is that it cannot work if national standards are in place. National standards are not something teachers can avoid to any significant extent, free themselves from – they may try too, but they are everywhere, all encompassing. They are the beginning and the end of the curriculum. Their education toxicity infiltrates everywhere. They circumscribe, diminish, and eventually extinguish attempts to break free. National standards are a philosophy both of the curriculum and of management.  No government committed to control can eliminate or even reduce the place of national standards. They are, the raison d’etre of government by control and the means by which. They are the means to control principals and teachers and keep them off balance; to direct the work of their bureaucrats in the field (education review office); to ensure the curriculum is measurable and something that those in government and the bureaucracy can understand; and to express their education world view.

The distorting effect of national standards on the curriculum is a travesty. In writing, for instance, using the e-asTTle writing test as indicative, to make writing measurable, children in, say, expressive writing,  are marked on the number of adjectives and adverbs used, the number of figures of speech, no matter their appropriateness, and a number of surface features – not the sincerity, fluency, and effectiveness of the writing overall. Eleanor Catton would do poorly in e-asTTle writing. Every curriculum area is affected similarly, some like mathematics and social studies even worse. But, under national standards, no-one is listening, and to some extent the travesty is obscured by chatter about digital technology.

In other words, primary schools cannot function successfully with national standards; and an education control government cannot function, without.

National standards are the means by which a control government claims it is mitigating the education effects of poverty, thereby excusing itself from addressing directly its causes; and in justifying national standards as being necessary for children in difficulty with their learning, by sleight-of-hand bringing them in for all children, which, consistent with government’s education world view, is what it has always wanted to do. The outcome is that the most under-taught children in New Zealand schools today are children from high decile schools. They should be taken to the moon but, instead, they are mired here in national standards. With national standards children are condemned to generations more of writing without inspiration, reading without books, mathematics without application, science without wonderment, social studies without feeling, and the arts without depth – but no-one will notice because education is moving to another beat and no-one is looking.

For teachers to be at their best, to be able to be imaginative, to get children to think flexibly, to develop teacher knowledge, they need a sense of ‘space’. But with national standards, whenever teachers contemplate breaking from the mould, there is agitation. If professional development is offered to teachers and it is not on the basics or varies from the orthodox – teachers exhibit the White Rabbit phenomenon of unfocused anxiety: ‘I’m late! I’m late! For a very important date.’ But what that important date is, or its purpose, is never made clear.

As for Tomorrow’s Schools, the cluster system falls in a different way on primary schools than it does on secondary schools. Tomorrow’s Schools was about primary schools – hauling them into line and narrowing the curriculum. Tomorrow’s Schools hardly touched secondary schools with their size protecting them from the bureaucracies; as did their departmental organisation, their subject-based curriculum and exam environment.

It is much the same for secondary schools in relation to the proposed cluster system. My comment, though, is that the main thing secondary schools need is a better ratio of teachers to students to provide stronger guidance and tutoring to vulnerable students so that the fraud of internal marking can be replaced by genuine learning and passing, and students can be encouraged to face the challenge of more difficult NCEA units. Perhaps, secondary schools could be far-seeing enough to appreciate that in supporting primary schools to be freer to meet the needs of children, secondary schools would benefit from having better taught and more motivated children passed on to them.

There are many reasons for primary schools to oppose the cluster system, but the dominant one is the inevitable increase in the normalisation of national standards in the primary school education system.

There has developed over 25 years a process for neoliberal education change – the idea for any change originates in the bureaucracies, especially the Treasury; the ministry calls for ideological support for that change from selected local and overseas quantitative academics; overseas research supporting that change is airily referred to; the concept of avoiding provider capture is acted on; there is a co-opting of a very wide range of education organisations to form an advisory group, thus diluting the influence of the main organisations; teachers, principals, and academics supportive of the change are also selected to join that group; sometimes public submissions are called for but only cursorily attended to; an intense propaganda campaign is undertaken, all the time relying on the editorial support of New Zealand’s two main newspapers and the inability of television to handle education at anything but a superficial level; and, finally, parents are made promises that will not be even close to being met, in effect being given the run-a-round, while all the time teachers are suggested as being failed and not to be trusted. Then there is an initial period of Hawthorne success accompanied by intense propaganda, a period of bureaucratic leniency, then a tightening of the screws as the control environment hostile to co-operation exerts itself, followed by a growing awareness of failure and falling education standards, but all the time being vigorously denied by the bureaucracies.

As the farmer thought as he leant over his farm gate and watched two trains heading for a crash: ‘This is no way to run a railway.’

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7 Responses to My definitive view of the cluster system

  1. stephen dadelus says:

    Brilliant essay. All primary teachers could well do to read this. The article is well balance and presents a strong argument why the sector should fear the good intentions of politicians and the dangers hidden within IES! … “time Danaos et dona ferentes”.

    A very significant and timely piece of work Kelvin.

  2. John Carrodus says:

    In your fifth paragraph, you nail the skin of the beast to the drying wrack, Stretched tight and dry, the bones fat meat and guts connective tissue hearts and brain are gone. Once cured, the old skin will be stuffed with the new robot cluster machine that is cold and mechanical on the inside, all soft and furry to parents and voters at first glance on the outside. The new heart and soul will be clinical outputs measured in National Standards. The new connective tissure will be automatic compliance of all schools to the central server administered by clones buzzing in and around the clusters like a swarm of wasps. Anything not towing the line will be attacked until it complies or dies.

  3. Barrie Wickens says:

    Right on the button,nail and head Kelvin. The one group that should stay out of education and the health sector as well, are politicians. As NZEI teachers and principals get ready to vote for or against the IES plan (rubbish plan), National Standards are right there sitting on our shoulders like a hawk waiting for something to move. The writing is on the wall and the only real way to rid us of the IES plan is at the election booths. The key message is get out and vote. Vote in those parties that promise to scrap IES.

  4. Jules says:

    Last night I attended a Tick for Kids Political Panel evening hosted by NZEI Auckland Branch and the Minister of Education was at this meeting. I got the chance to ask a question of the political panel and I asked a question with regards to IES and asked why they weren’t investing the $359 million in ensuring every classroom in every school in New Zealand had a Teacher Aide to support the teacher and students to raise student achievement. All the Political parties agreed with me however our Minister of Education threw back at me that they had increased the Operations Grant by 2.5% every year for Support Staff. Unfortunately I was unable to reply to this however I thought to myself every year when I am setting the budget with my Principal and the Board I am fighting to keep the hours and the Support Staff we have. The 2.5% increase isn’t enough to employ Support Staff that is paying for the hike in the power bill, water bill or anything else that comes our way. The IES is a stab in all our backs not only Teachers. Support Staff have been forgotten about around this however Support Staff could lose their jobs if we have school clusters. They may not need me at my school to do No Pay as they will employ somebody to pay the whole cluster. It is obvious this Government doesn’t care about anybody but their rich business friends, We need to get out and vote and change the Government to ensure our children, grandchildren, nieces and nephews have a future here in New Zealand.

    • Kelvin says:

      Well done Jules – you had the courage to say your bit. We want the support staff to benefit from Labour’s $2.00 rise in the minimum wage and we want more of them.

  5. Jenny Andrew says:

    It is not generally realized that teachers are fighting for the children, not for themselves; fighting a national standards based education system that will create competition between teachers, parents, students and schools, competition measured by markers unimportant to the growth of students’ personal learning strategies, resourcefulness, independent thinking……
    A system that will change the national character.
    Do we want compliant New Zealanders!!
    Thank you for all your work, Kelvin. Your recent overview clarifies the tight control package concept of the mooted changes.

  6. Kelvin says:

    I’m proud of the principled fight of primary school teachers and principals. I believe in them.

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