Neoliberalism and its education expression
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. Inherent in that philosophy is the idea that someone knows and that person is a political leader informed by a certain category of academic. The propagandising and spinning 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.
The Deweyan philosophy and its expression
The networkonnet manifesto is developed from our own education philosophy which took shape in the late ‘30s, is largely Deweyan in nature, and therefore characterised by variety, democracy, and participation.
Education in and for a democracy is based on the following Deweyan 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.
The key idea is the first: education is not an absolute practice – it only makes sense relative to its social context. This leads to the policy recommendation that the education system be based on valuing variety – and fundamental to this, the idea of collaboration and shared knowledge development. 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 conduct children’s learning.
Suggested policies or policy directions
- 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.
- A call could 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. NEMP was a collaborative institution much admired and appreciated by schools. The previous directors could be asked to advise on its establishment, functioning, and staffing. The National Monitoring Study of Student Achievement (NMSSA) also based at the University of Otago could be integrated into a re-established NEMP.
- To reduce distortions in testing and examination programmes official benchmarks could be removed.
- The 359 million dollars intended for the government cluster policy could be spent directly on helping children in classrooms. 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.
- Increased funding to meet children’s special needs could be another priority. There might 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 home-school relations in relation to the curriculum and student behaviour could be increased.
- Accompanying this 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.
- There could 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 could be provided for the teaching of Maori language in schools; all schools would eventually join but, in the beginning stages, schools could 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 could be established to enhance professional development and collegiality. Smaller schools would share a teacher.
- Greater attention could be given again to children with high or special abilities (increased attention to this group of children often has the further effect of enriching the education of all abilities).
- Reading Recovery, it is suggested, could receive increased funding.
- The sabbatical system could 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 could be established – though this should not mean changes to education don’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 could 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 could be a SEDS Appeal authority appointed to hear appeals from schools.
- A cross-sector SEDS advisory board could 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) could be restricted in its work to providing direct services to members. The School Trustees Association could 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 could 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 could have beneficial and positive implications for how boards of trustees function in schools.)
- The statutory management and commissioner 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 could 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) could be removed with the money saved being allocated to other and wider forms of advisory support.
- As one part of the school advisory function, a permanent advisory service could be re-established and attached to universities to function within broad guidelines (an independent advisory service is an important source of practicable knowledge). Private advisers should be free to provide a service unrestricted by the need to be licensed or have 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 could 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 models could help a school community to make an informed choice.
- Charter schools should be funded and administered on the same basis as privately-run schools.
- Any clusters continuing on a voluntary basis could 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.
- 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 could be given special attention (including a changed curriculum document): a curriculum committee could be established, meanwhile, conferences could be organised around the country and extra finance made available to schools working on innovative ideas.
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.