Neoliberal education is a system of trickle down power: let’s not be diverted by neoliberal stunts

Hekia Parata is making a flurry of pathetic education announcements because she can, and because she needs to: she can in the sense that the achievement performance of schools is good enough – courtesy of all the high stakes inflation provided by you (in a general sense) – so why not parade being on top and in control? but there persists an inchoate sense that all is not well in school education, that New Zealand school education is a leaky boat and that the announcement diversions are Parata assiduously bailing.

I am finding Parata’s new policy announcements, even though some are harmful to schools, boring. What’s new? what remnants of a decent education are there left to ravage? where have all those protesting the announcements been the last eight years, indeed, the last 26 since Tomorrow’s Schools? All the policies in the latest set of announcements, like all the policies since the government took office, are about undermining public education both on ideological grounds and on hammering a sector that has the capacity, though much reduced, to campaign for increased expenditure in education.

In this case, as in all the others over 26 years, some of the policies will be modified, most will be continued as is, the fuss will reduce, only to start up again sometime soon when the government wants another diversion.

Meanwhile, the quality of education is declining, particularly Maori and Pasifika, for whom, ironically and cruelly, most of the diversions are staged.   

The only thing that interests me is taking the government’s education policies down permanently on the basis of theory and philosophy.

At some time an investigative journalist is going to get hold of the overblown formal test results and shatter the smugness that pervades those who control the school education system or have found a comfortable place within it. The system, you see, is only working for those who control the system. It is a neoliberal economic model converted from enriching certain groups of adults to empowering certain groups of adults to control education systems.

In 1990, in my Developmental Network Magazine, I can remember sitting down with the intention of committing myself to my key prediction for Tomorrow’s Schools, I wrote:

The education of children is problematic and value-laden. For the integrity of the education system, the various groups within it need to be free, willing, and able to argue and even, at times, obstruct the ideas and actions of other groups. There never has been and never will be a set of aims and related processes that have met, or will meet, the needs of all children within a system, or be agreed to by all those within a system.

Power should be shared throughout the education system, and various checks and balances be in place to stop it becoming too concentrated. It is only in this way that children will gain some protection from the vagaries of educational and political ideas and the human drive to control and dominate. The powerlessness of the young, the fact of them being young, makes school-children tempting targets for those who want to turn schools into battlegrounds for competing visions of what society ought to be.

Teachers are unsettled by the possibility of curriculum and administrative ideas being able to be passed quickly down the hierarchical chain without those ideas requiring teacher involvement at all stages of their development. The best ideas for education come from teachers and those close to teachers. The part of the education system that is important to teachers is the part close to them. The part further away has the capacity to do much harm, but little capacity to do much good. The nature of the education system should be to protect teachers from hastily conceived ideas – no matter their potential benefits. Good ideas are only good if the process for their development has been good. The last thing teachers want is the kind of efficiency that has someone in the hierarchy having an idea, and then using the chain of command to force it on them without due process.

And what I warned against has come to pass as it had to, given the economic model used.

For the moment I am going to concentrate on two intertwining ideas: that the neoliberal philosophy does not work for education in any other sense than empowering those who control the education system in the interests of the wealthy entrenched; that power is filtered down by the minister, the ministry, and education review office to the various layers, but at the bottom of the hierarchy, where classroom teachers and children are positioned (with their organisations hamstrung), virtually none does, and the system actually works against them, teachers and children becoming mainly cyphers.

The pattern of exploitation of teachers and children depends first of all in removing any genuine representation in policy-making. Teachers and those close to children, who do the direct work with children, who have a particular perspective on how children learn and their needs, are excluded – ostensibly because they couldn’t be relied on to serve the interests of children, only their own. That is the basis for the neoliberal exploitative education model. Just as neoliberal economics has trickle down money, neoliberal has trickle down power.  It seems teachers and others close to children are a sub-species of a most unusual kind in that they are vulnerable to an uncontrollable self-interest while the other groups above them are drawn from a species entirely immune to self-interested behaviour.

In the trickle down of power education system, there are gradations of power, all based on the persons or groups not being close to children and teachers , and on a promise to maintain the exploitative hierarchy, the central instrument of which is the measurement education system. Management by measurable objectives eases the way for external and hierarchical control over schools, laying the basis for an exploitative model of education.

Whereas an education system working for the broader needs of children requires shared policy-making involving those close to children and with an intimate knowledge of how children learn; an education system working for a narrow, measurement control education system requires top down education policy better involving those with little or no intimate knowledge of the children concerned.

Let us start from those closer to teachers and children. Those principals who proclaim loyalty to the control education system will be rewarded and made to feel secure.  The loyalty most richly rewarded has a totalitarian edge to it in being an emotion close to expressions of love. Then there are the private curriculum providers who make themselves safe by handing down the approved content and procedures, sometimes unobjectionable, but always within the aegis of the  measurement curriculum and, in effect, reducing the space for teacher initiative and imagination.

Then there are the boards of trustees working to a concept called governance; it is a concept that makes sense in the business world, but only in education if the purpose is hierarchical control. I have heard governance explained many times, in all kinds of situations, but its foundations are inimical to the interests of teachers and children as I see them, the shades of board and school separation being flimsy and near invisible, lack robustness. Schools need community representation but the model needs to be very different.

Horribly complicating the functioning of boards, and a step up the hierarchy, therefore further away from children, is the School Trustees Association (STA), mainly funded by the government and dependent on it for its allocation of hierarchal power.

It is always interesting to contemplate that the one part of Tomorrow’s Schools that was quickly dispensed with – supporting  the theory of this posting – was the Community Forum, no doubt because its members were too close to schools and too difficult to control (unlike boards of trustees).

Then there are the selected academics and organisations who, because of their show of love for the minister and the neoliberal system, become rewarded with contracts and appointments to various bodies.

The importance of the academics being provided with neoliberal power is difficult to overstate: the organisational move that would most benefit children, and especially Maori and Pasifika children, is the one that drives the neoliberal power distribution into overdrive to oppose, is reduced teacher-children ratios – that is because it would be costly, beneficial, and reduce the advantage private schools have over public schools. The academic who has most benefited by his downplaying of the advantage of reduced teacher-children ratios has been John Hattie. His research is has been proved hopelessly wrong, as has all his meta-research, but he continues to receive his liberal allocations of neoliberal power. 

Then there are the two organisations at the top of the neoliberal hierarchy, the minister and the ministry, and the main instrument of that organisation’s power, the education review office. None are accountable: the ministry stacked with media people, a minister who is a liar, attended to by a media whose default position is to believe the ministry; and the education review office as the main instrument of filtering power to schools who show love for the system and punishing those who don’t.

Schools are ineffably sensitive to any education system change. What appears the tiniest change at the top can escalate to severe dislocation for teachers and the curriculum at the bottom. In most Western countries, those in charge of education systems have devised a neoliberal system of separating the administration of the education system and role of principal, from teachers and classroom practice. This is done by having those in administration inculcated in the values of the centre so that the values and purposes of schools don’t get in the way of the values and purposes of the centralised agencies. People are purposely chosen for administration on the basis of no experience in education, or no experience in that part of education, or being highly amenable to the centre’s values. From the centre’s view, this has the crucial advantage of desensitising those undertaking actions to the effect of those actions on schools, of demeaning the value of the knowledge held in schools and the professionalism of those involved, and of aiding the process of the filtering of neoliberal power to those adjudged worthy of it.

It is neoliberal power we should be attacking, not diverted by the latest neoliberal stunts.

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11 Responses to Neoliberal education is a system of trickle down power: let’s not be diverted by neoliberal stunts

  1. Phil T says:

    The most basic fundamental od education is not matter what goes on behind the scenes the outcomes are almost always based on the relationship between the child and teacher. So why wouldn’t you value the teacher as the most integral part of the system. I can remember the good teachers who influenced me 50 off years ago and watching my own children going through the schooling system it was patently obvious that the teacher was the person who made it happen. 27 years ago our daughter went off to school as a shy young girl who while very bright would never put her hand up. Her first teacher saw in her something special and changed her into someone who was confident and soaked up everything that was put in front of her. I still have a big ex Southland Rugby player who tells me everytime I see him that my daughter was the one who taught him to read at intermediate and he was forever grateful. That chain of events was down to that first teacher and her ability to see individual kids for what they were. My daughter went on to become a teacher but sadly after many years has given it away because she felt the stress was to great. Nothing to do with teaching but the constant battle of the paperwork. When I am with her sometimes an ex pupil will walk up to her and have a chat and she is always proud of them and what they have done and I am proud of her.
    Right wing politics is about controlling the outcomes rather than encouraging good outcomes. They don’t want policemen and woman having discretion, they don’t want councils being democratic and education needs to be controlled so they can define the outcomes.
    It will take time but the wheel will turn. When we realise that the person in the rest home is crucial to our wellbeing but on the minimum wage yet our bank manager who is irrelevant to our daily lives is on a million dollars a year we will begin to think perhaps something is wrong.
    The most important person in you childs life outside the family is the teacher so we should be saying what can we do to make it better for you. Not trying to dictate how we think they should be taught. The idea of online learning floats their boat because it does take out the teacher/ pupil relationship and its just plain crazy. We are social animals and we need social interaction. We struggle now with robust debate and the ability to talk face to face with each other on all levels. Do we need to learn to sit in rooms and communicate via the WWW. People forget loneliness is a terrible think because it is foreign to our makeup.
    As a long time Labour Party member I just wish they would begin the discussion on stopping this rubbish from spreading.

  2. Brian says:

    Well Kelvin it is great to see that finally you get to the nub of the latest raft of educational changes and trends and call the Minister and the ministry for what they are. Frauds who are meddling in education. Lipstck is lipstick!!!
    Education is all about creativity for children and teachers. It is our role as principals and leaders to ensure that every resource provided to schools is used to provide the optimum environment for that creativity to establish, grow and flourish. It is the teachers role to allow children to create understanding from that creativity in a nurturing environment.
    Education is not about sector control advantage or specific one size fits all learning outcomes via digital online collaboration, co-constructed by learning partners in order to avoid being accelerated as priority learners and thereby meet key performance indicators to be published as public achievement information. Just so they the Minister and therefore the breed at the ministry can get back on the Treasury seats for another term and merely rotate as they spend time with their own digital divice. god save us from such drivel. god save education

  3. Vern Stevens says:

    Spot on Kelvin the people at NZEI should have to read and digest its truths on a daily basis likewise PPTA. This stop work meeting we have ahead of us is great but far too little far too late.

  4. 111peggyb says:

    Kia ora Kelvin. This is exactly what we have been exploring the NZARE conference today at the University of Canterbury. As you quite rightly point out we are still talking about the same old, same old 30 years on. Our inability, as a society, to embrace divergent thinking, take risks and develop new strategies and policy leave us recycling dominant cultural theory which invariably perpetuates the hegemonic systems, structures, policies and processes that protect the rich and ‘spared like butter,’ the inequalities in our education system. Time for a change – enough is enough!!

  5. Kelvin says:

    Thanks Peggy. I use to love those conferences. Must start going again. You sound in great form for the 12th. All the very best.

  6. macninz says:

    Hi Kelvin. This is such an informative and important post that it deserves to be shared in the widest possible manner. As you predicted it has all come to pass and not in a good way. Where is the next Clarence Beeby to come from? (“enabling every child, each citizen to reach their potential”)

    • Bruce says:

      I think this a most powerful argument for principals and teachers to face up to the real problem in education – and in every aspect of public service.

      Principals and teachers have to appreciate how much the neo- liberal ideology has all but destroyed the best of primary education and any potential for the system to move to a truly personalized one – fulfilling the vision of Dr Beeby.

      I must say I am increasingly disappointed by the lack integrity of so many principals who place too much emphasis on looking good as represented by National Standards and NCEA results. And disappointed that schools have fallen into the trap of ‘gaming’ their results creating ‘shonky’ results and that this focus has narrowed the curriculum and limited the educational success the Standards were supposed to ensure.

      And I am disappointed that so many schools have been blinded to the problems we face by MLES, ILEs and FLES – schools that look good equipped with information technology. Such schools , to be successful, need to focus on pedagogy that ensures all students can achieve work of the highest personal quality.

      And I am disappointed the teacher organisations have not fought for teachers and students and rather have focused on compromising to make the best of what is being imposed.

      Everything relates back to the neo-liberal ideology that has underpinned politics since the 80s.

      The only thing that will stop the destruction of our public school system is to change the government.

      Great read Kelvin. Not sure the principals in our schools deserve you. When will they wake up and fight back.

      • Kelvin says:

        Thanks for your comment. As you will know, after posting a writing, it is such a boost to have it appreciated, and in this case so generously and insightfully.

    • Bruce Hammonds says:

      I wrote you a long supportive comment but somehow messed up when posting it.

      Your posting is right on the button.

      If only principals could see as clearly .

  7. Roger Young says:

    Good article Kelvin You have outlined the basic flaws in current educational ideology.
    It is such a shame that New Zealand’s primary school education has taken such a hammering from this neo-liberal bashing it has received. As pointed out it is also a shame that the union and principals have fallen into Hekia’s line.
    It is difficult to understand why the Government looked around the world for a failing system and found the world’s worst education system to follow. Blindly. And all because there was a profit to be made by some already wealthy corporations.
    The children at the poorest end of the chain are the ones suffering the most and as you point out the sad thing is the spin keeps harping on about lifting Maori and Pacifica achievement while not intending to do any such thing.
    There is no channel for anyone , teacher principal or parent to challenge the dopey things schools are doing and nowhere to ask for the great system that NZ had developing prior to this national government.
    Kelvin you must keep up the good work alerting people to the dangers these neoliberal are bringing onto us all.

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