Networkonnet education manifesto for the 2017 election

As much as New Zealanders dislike the idea of theories especially in education, if we are to solve the problems we want to solve in education, we must recognise the present education system (interlinked as it is with the current economic system) as being neoliberal. Neoliberalism in education (national standards in curriculum and top-down in structure) must be confronted with its opposite, a democratic, participatory education system.

For a democratic, participatory education system, production and validation of knowledge should be shared amongst a number of groups. When the Treasury gathered information about the pre-Tomorrow’s Schools system, it saw this participatory characteristic as a weakness, being inefficient, and set out to destroy it, when, in fact, it was its strength.

One of the reasons why New Zealand primary school classrooms functioned as well as they did was because of the checks and balances inherent in the system. Those checks and balances derived from the relative co-operativeness in the way groups related to one another. No group could carry out its functions without the support of a number of others, and no group could force its will on another. Ultimately, though, it must be acknowledged that what the government wanted, the government got, but what the government wanted could be modified by educating the public to influence the government – success in doing that being the measure of teacher organisations. But that basic consideration aside, university lecturers, department of education, district inspectors, those delivering advisory support, publishers, school committees, research organisations, service organisations, and teacher organisations – all those groups were to some extent dependent on other groups for carrying out their functions. In the absence of the inevitable conflict and control behaviours generated by a strict hierarchical system, those groups were able to remain mindful of the need to negotiate in a spirit of goodwill to be able to proceed.

The present education system is failing mainly for ideological reasons; to stop it failing that ideology must be recognised and confronted. In being an expression of neoliberalism, the present education system has had the effect of making society more inequitable and putting the public education system at risk.

In considering the networkonnet manifesto readers will find it is based on a democratic philosophy expressed as governing ideas. The present government is working to an education philosophy, introduced from outside New Zealand, one characterised by a deep centralising of power and informed by a certain grouping of experts; this manifesto is developed from our own education philosophy which took shape in the late ‘30s and is largely Deweyan in nature.

The propagandising and spinning education of education ‘achievement’ that dominates our current system, the scapegoating, disenfranchising, privatisation, and financial and spiritual impoverishment is not government whim or a series of unrelated actions, but ingrained ideological policy as part of global capitalism and a shift against democracy.

Networkonnet manifesto

Governing ideas

The key idea in the policy recommendations that follow is that the education system should be based on valuing variety – and fundamental to this, the idea of collaboration and shared knowledge development (this is being a system structural feature not something appearing at the base of it). It is not just accepting variety or tolerating it, it is valuing it – valuing it as part of living in a democracy and as the best means to help children’s learning.

Education in and for a democracy is based on the following ideas:

  • Education is not an absolute practice – it only makes sense relative to its social context
  • The organisational structure and administration of education cannot be separated from the curriculum
  • Teaching and learning are not reducible to mathematical formulae
  • Education should be co-operative – work on the basis of agreement amongst those involved
  • Learning occurs best when teachers have substantial control over what and how they teach
  • Children gain a multiplicity of meanings, personal to them, from information they receive and experiences they have
  • Learning occurs best when children’s affective processes are considerably involved
  • Learning occurs best when children see learning as having considerable intrinsic value
  • Learning occurs best when children have considerable control over their learning.

Valuing variety would mean changes to regulations and supervision to enable a wide interpretation of the curriculum – within broad guidelines – in school charters and evaluation practices. Eventually the present curriculum document would need to be revised to concentrate on principles and aims, leaving schools to decide how to interpret those – at the moment National Administrative Guidelines (NAGS), the demands of the education review office (using national standards), and curriculum decisions from other parts of the bureaucracy have, in the totality of their demands, displaced the curriculum document, and exerted a stultifying control of classrooms.

The Lange government, through Tomorrow’s Schools, introduced into education a philosophy antithetical to Labour Party philosophy. (Most Labour mps find this hard to accept, holding on to the idea that Tomorrow’s Schools was, in fact, about giving more power to schools.) But the neoliberal philosophy was allowed to work its way through to full expression, an expression that was antithetical to giving power to schools (schools were given increased responsibility; the bureaucracies increased power).

In education the neoliberal philosophy is expressed as managerialism.

The basic tenet of managerialism is that any issue in education, including the effects of poverty on education – indeed, especially the effects of poverty on education – can largely be resolved by management changes to do with the organisation and direction teachers. This always involves overstating the role of the teacher in learning so that when schools fail to overcome sufficiently the education effects of poverty, schools are blamed, providing an excuse for shaping schools into even more extremes of neoliberalism’s own ideological image.

An implication in this top-down philosophy is that there is someone knows and that person who knows is a political leader informed by a certain category of academic.

The present education system is substantially a command one – a command one based on excluding teachers and parents from genuine participation in policy making, also on fear, control, propaganda, and corrupted statistics.

The education system needs to be democratised.

One very important effect of bringing in parents and teachers into policy making would be to broaden the curriculum to counteract the trend of an ever narrowing one.

A managerialist-based education system requires a curriculum that is amenable to command and control, also one that can be understood by politicians and bureaucrats – that curriculum is a fragmented one organised for measurement.

New Zealand primary education has a culture of being holistic, in other words, not fragmented for ease of measurement and control. (Many of the most important things in learning are immeasurable – in a measurement-based education system those things are neglected.)

A measurement-based classroom is allowed in a holistic-based education system but a holistic-based classroom isn’t in a measurement-based system (an important point in considering an education system based on valuing variety).

The present primary school education system is governed by fear and bureaucratic command, and protected by propaganda and corrupted statistics.

The contract system is important to the government control of universities: a key way to restrict academic freedom of speech.

Within schools, the major source of fear and control comes from the education review office – it is unaccountable and used in a variety of ways to generate fear and ultimately obedience; it is really the review office that determines the nature of the curriculum.

The heavy use of statutory managers is another source of fear, control, and indirect propaganda.

People outside the education system have little appreciation of the extent and depth of the fear, control, and use of propaganda that exists within it.

Perhaps the key idea to be developed should be that just as a healthy economic system needs a free exchange of ideas so does a healthy education system.

All parts of the education system need to be freed so that all parts can share in the generation of knowledge: teachers, curriculum advisers, academics, parents, and government education agencies.

Teachers should be freed to colonise the curriculum (that is, make the curriculum work) and to establish their knowledge in the form of successful established practice. And teachers and schools should function within fairly wide curriculum guidelines. Academics sought for advice should come from groupings much wider than the current headlining quantitative academics; in particular, that means advice should also be sought from qualitative and curriculum academics.

 More specific policies as an outcome of governing ideas

A call should be made for a grouping of countries to join together to develop an international testing system that functions transparently and concentrates on a broader view of the curriculum. (However, the government should stay in the present international system until that is achieved.)

National standards should be removed and with the money saved used to re-establish the National Education Monitoring Project (NEMP) formerly based at the University of Otago – more money than before should be allocated and the previous directors asked to advise on its establishment, functioning, and staffing. NEMP was a collaborative institution much admired and appreciated by schools. The National Monitoring Study of Student Achievement (NMSSA) is based at the University of Otago should be integrated into the re-established NEMP.

The 359 million dollars intended for the government cluster policy should be spent directly on helping children in classrooms, not on giving large pay increases to a few teachers and principals. The suggestion is that the money saved be spent on reducing junior school class size and increasing secondary school staffing to set up a tutor system to personalise learning and guide children through the secondary school testing maze.

In a whole series of ways, policies and increased funding to meet children’s special needs should be another priority. There should be a substantial lift in support teacher numbers as well as moves to make support teacher staff better paid and to provide them with a greater sense of permanency. Funding for this should come from a severe reduction in ministry and education review office staffing.

Savings from the abolition of national standards should be used to fund home-school relations in relation to the curriculum and student behaviour. There should be improvement in special needs services including making Resource Teachers: Learning and Behaviour (RTLBs) more accessible and less bureaucratic. Their role should be extended to work more closely with families – an improved version of the former visiting teacher positions. (The best home-school reading programme for lower decile schools, one already in operation in miniscule way, is Jeanne Biddulph’s Reading Together programme which binds home and school together in a harmonious and joyful way.)

There should be increased funding for the school operational grants; improved staffing ratios (gradually introduced) to give flexibility to schools enabling them to provide more individual attention to children’s learning needs, including some appointments for specialist learning (for instance, science, or maths, or drama) as set out as an emphasis in a school’s charter.

New funding should be provided for the teaching of Maori language in schools; all schools would eventually join but, in the beginning stages, schools would volunteer. Appointments would be made by the school with local whanau and iwi. A formalised structure should be established for appointment, conditions of work, review, and oversight. And a national system for teachers of Maori language should be established to enhance professional development and collegiality. Smaller schools would share a teacher.

An important idea to understand is that the government, in implementing national standards, ostensibly to lift learning in lower decile schools, has used the opportunity to achieve its long-held objective of a narrow 3Rs curriculum for all children. Improvements in staffing and support teachers and in other areas should be described as being there to help the learning of all children, not just the ones who are struggling  (children of all abilities are being badly served by the present system).

Reading Recovery should be increasingly well funded.

The sabbatical system should be restructured, increased in funding, and the opportunity extended to all in the school.

A Committee of Inquiry into making education more collaborative for successful learning should be established – though this should not mean changes to education won’t begin immediately (Committee of Inquiry for Collaboration for Better Learning).

School charters at the moment are a major source of control and bureaucratisation – school charters should be freed to allow schools to develop programmes, within broad guidelines, that suit them. (As discussed above.)

The education review office should be radically restructured (in effect abolished), renamed to better express the implications of that restructuring, and integrated into the ministry at all levels from head office to the districts. The neoliberal prescription of separation of administration (ministry) from evaluation (education review office) is specious and in being so a harmful bureaucratic entanglement to the system and the functioning of schools.

It might be called the School Evaluation and Development Section (SEDS) and the people within it called School Evaluators (the term Evaluators acknowledging the value basis for school judgements).

SEDS should be staffed by teachers and principals of the highest quality; deliver its work in schools in a different way, mainly suggestive; and be made accountable (it should also be made fully compliant with the Official Information Act).

There should be a SEDS Appeal authority appointed to hear appeals from schools.

A cross-sector SEDS advisory board should be established.

SEDS should concentrate on work in individual schools, not producing across-school reports – those reports should be done on contract by universities on the basis of proper research design.

The School Trustees Association (STA) should be restricted in its work to providing direct services to members. The School Trustees Association should have written into its constitution the need for it to act and be seen to act independently of the government. As well, a much greater proportion of its funding should come from schools, which should have an allocated amount provided for them to organise their own counselling and legal services or as they choose to subscribe to STA. (The restructuring of STA will have beneficial and positive implications for how boards of trustees function in schools.)

The statutory management system should be restructured: a more comprehensive conciliation system before statutory management occurs should be established and perverse incentives removed. In particular, the cost of statutory management should fall on the ministry not the school.

Schools and colleges of education should develop a better balance between general education courses and ones directly related to classrooms (though both should be considered equally important) – this might mean rehiring some academics who possess both academic and classroom knowledge. (I know that this would seem too late for the direction schools and colleges of education have taken but given the changed philosophical and political circumstances, the directions should be urgently reconsidered and compromises made within structures established or being established.)

The SAF (Student Achievement Function) should be removed with money saved being allocated to other and wider forms of advisory support.

As one part of the school advisory function, a permanent advisory service should be re-established and attached to universities to function within broad guidelines (an independent advisory service is an important source of practicable knowledge). A place for private advisers should be allowed but that should not include a system of licensing or government approval.

EDUCANZ, controlled by the government as it is and providing another unwanted layer of bureaucracy, should be abolished, and a Teachers Council controlled by teacher organisations established to concentrate on teacher professionalism and the safety and welfare of children.

The major teacher and principal organisations should be represented as of right on all policy, curriculum, and administrative groupings. (Smaller organisations should be represented in a dispersed way throughout the system or where they have a strong particular case for representation.)

The ministry should develop a number of basic models for school architecture ranging from a school of mainly single and double rooms to one of mainly large spaces. When a school is being partly or significantly rebuilt the school community, after discussion and consulting various sources, including other schools, will be provided with choice and able to make an informed decision.

Charter schools should be funded and administered on the same basis as other privately-run schools and the money saved allocated to meeting the education needs of low decile schools.

Any clusters continuing on a voluntary basis should have access to a small fund dedicated to their maintenance.

How to bring parents into education on a national basis is a difficult one: my suggestion is, on a regular basis, NZCER undertake surveys or research as the focus for parent discussion (within schools) – the outcomes of this discussion to be reported to a parent national body to consider and sometimes develop matters further.

A broad curriculum should be encouraged in anticipation of the outcomes of the results of the Committee of Inquiry (see above).

An important part of that broad curriculum is an understanding that attention to the 3Rs is mutually supportive with attention to flexible thinking – an understanding that should be acted on from children’s first days at school.

The greater freedom for schools to shape their curriculum within broad guidelines will have major implications for the work Colleges or Schools of Education, advisory services, and SEDS.

Computers:  while computers are important to the lives of children in their transactions with the world, and will be central to their lives as adults, doesn’t mean computers should be central to their lives in school education. Making computers central in school education would be to place computers above all other parts of education to damaging consequence to those other parts and to children’s developmental growth. The place of computers, if a new and more significant place is justified, should be as part of valid and thoughtful education change drawing from the vocational to the pedagogical to the philosophical not, as the case now, from ideological groupings, profit-interested industry, vote-seeking politicians, and computer-education enthusiasts. As children get older, direct vocational matters should assume a greater significance, and so should computers as part of that, but there is far more to education than direct vocational matters (as important as they become) for instance, the ever-continuing preparation for the broader life. All this should be part of the big (but much wider than just computers) education discussion. However, what we should know above all, and we should hold on to as something real and solid amidst the ephemeral and flux, is that the fundamentals of children’s learning – if purposes are humanistic, enabling, and democratic – remain substantially the same. The best way to prepare children for the future is to meet their needs in the present.

The curriculum area of mathematics should be given special attention: a curriculum committee to report in three months, meanwhile, conferences should be organised around the country and extra finance made available to schools working on innovative ideas. (Bobbie Hunter from Massey and University and Jodie Hunter her daughter are doing some excellent work in junior maths with implications for older children.)

The Beeby statement I like is the one he made in 1942 following a meeting with the South Canterbury NZEI management committee: ‘There seems to be a common desire on the part of teachers to ask the Department for detailed instructions regarding such things as the changes that are taking place in infant education, rather than to embrace the freedom the Department has given and to participate co-operatively in the working out of up-to-date practice in the infant room.’

 This proposed manifesto is to stimulate discussion. If you have further ideas or another way of thinking about things, please write to me or add to Comments section. My writing of this manifesto has been quite rushed, but I am resisting the urge to fiddle around with it or even check for grammatical solecisms and the like. I have decided to get it out there and await your help and judgement.

By the way, if you like it, or even just quite like it, you could send it to people or organisations that come to mind.

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5 Responses to Networkonnet education manifesto for the 2017 election

  1. 111peggyb says:

    Kelvin, I spend my days now reading educational research and writing my own version of the reality of the political nature of education in a neo-conservative era. Education is now reduced to a mere commodity, to be bought and sold by powerful and faceless corporations run by men who in the same way bought and sold their own souls for profit. Your writing is world class and your ideas both innovative and compelling!

  2. Kelvin says:

    My American academic friend wrote:

    “As much as New Zealanders dislike the idea of theories especially in education, if we are to solve the problems we want to solve in education, we must recognise the present education system (interlinked as it is with the current economic system) as being neoliberal. Neoliberalism in education (national standards in curriculum and top-down in structure) must be confronted with its opposite, a democratic, participatory education system.”

    AMEN! And I loved the bullet list, thank you Kelvin!



  3. Bruce Hammonds says:

    Really enjoyed reading your manifesto Kelvin. Just a thought do you think you could add an executive summary with a few points we could remember when involved in conversations?

  4. Stephen says:

    Kelvin, anyone interested in why your theme of democracy and state control is crucially important should read Michael FD Young: Knowledge and Control: New Directions for the Sociology of Education.

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