National: Smoke and mirrors? Part 1
This posting (Parts 1 and 2) will explain why Nationals heavy-handed ‘tail’ and assessment policies will not only fail in their specific objectives but also have a serious effect on an already tense and unsettled teaching environment. Primary school education I will point out is heading for an era of under-funding and over-hype. National’s education policies, I say, need to be seen in the context of a pulling back on real social spending so that real tax cuts can be offered at the end of each election cycle. (This pulling back will, in itself, I point out, also have a detrimental effect on numeracy and literacy.) These and other policies are portrayed as tawdry, populist, and a failure of integrity and imagination, with Anne Tolley the perfect accompaniment – reliably platitudinous. Schools are already assessed up to the gunwales; they already know what to do, and where they don’t, the last thing they need is more pressure from the review office for even more assessment, bureaucratic intervention. Other major characteristics of Tomorrow’s Schools are described as the problem not the solution – and we are already reaping what we have sown.
No matter how it is described, the policy of forced intervention on certain identified schools will name and shame those schools and have a chilling effect on all. Review office personnel are described as a mainly lacking in mana, unsuited to giving curriculum guidance, especially in early literacy and numeracy, though no doubt they will hide behind their mantra of ‘trust us, we know about assessment’. I do point out, though, that as we move to more of a command education system, there is, if we look at England, a partial solution – heaps of money; but if we try to run a command system on our smell-of-an-oily-rag one, we are heading for even bigger trouble. The posting also makes some intentionally ambiguous references to the likelihood that if you make teachers do assessment tests they don’t want to do, are fearful about, or disagree with, the results will be unreliable.
In recent months a number of networkonnet readers have written to me expressing alarm about John Key’s plan for regularly assessing children against national standards and urging me to get involved in the debate. I have not done so to any great extent because, over the years, both NZEI and the Principals Association have vigorously and successfully opposed the idea. As well, my sanguinity has been further reinforced by my confidence in the present leadership of both organisations. As I join the fray in relation to this issue and others, my regard for both the organisations and their leadership is undiminished, what has increased is my alarm at the details of the self-described ‘Crusade’ as revealed in the National Party manifesto.
A few of these introductory paragraphs were written before the election but I pulled out of completing the posting because, realising that National was going to win, I wanted to complete it in the context of the post-election mood, and with reflections on John Key’s character as they were revealed. His character, I believe, is accurately reflected in National’s education policies, and will also be decisive in how those policies are expressed in action.
The way National has constructed its policies to address the literacy and numeracy ‘tail’ is deplorable (leaving aside the modicum of value in the miniscule financial allocation) and will do long term harm to primary education as a whole. Key, in typical National Party-style under Key, has applied a ragtag of populist policies to perennial emotive spots in education. While various rabbits are being pulled out of the hat, we need to keep a close eye on what really is happening. Key is following the same populist, emotive path in other areas, say, the economy, housing, environment, climate change, and law and order. This kind of populist thing, by definition, is good politics in the short term, but catches up with us all in the long.
In a nutshell, I see John Key as ingratiating and shallowly eclectic – when I see him on television I always have the feeling that just behind him, just out of view, there is a row of second-hand cars; others, I know, will see him as a genial fellow worthy of their trust. The useful thing for politicians about ragtag populism is that it is a lot cheaper than implementing a real and cohesive policy. It is a cynical use of smoke and mirrors. To spell it out in the wider policy arena, John Key will only make minor changes to Labour’s economic settings, but will try to get away with a cheap pass in some portfolios, education in particular, to be able to fund tax cuts at the end of each election cycle. Education sector leaders and participants must not let themselves, the profession, and the children be short-changed in this way. They have to make a political neglecting of education in real terms more painful than the political gains to be made in real tax cuts – in other words, they must vigorously campaign on the sure-to-arrive crisis in education and over the full election cycle.