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.