On the steps of parliament: protest against ERO

Timed for the opening of parliament 1996: New Zealand First in coalition with National

On Wednesday, 11 December, I pointed my car down my driveway in Cambridge, turned right, and right again, and headed south.

It was my appreciation that the present represented a defining moment in primary education – either education was going to be controlled by ERO through bureaucratic managerialism, or by all major participants in the spirit of democracy. As a result, it was not so much the present I was fighting against, but the future I was fighting for.

The flux caused by the MMP elections and the coalition talks; the feistiness of the present Principals Federation executive; the concern about education directions in academic circles; the indications by the news media they were starting to understand the situation; the greater willingness of schools to take a stand; and the general alarm caused by ERO’s continued efforts to increase its powers – all combined to make this, from my perspective, a decisive moment. I had decided to give two months to the anti-bureaucratic campaign (ABC). The petition had been launched, and the returns were coming in strongly. I had hoped schools would, in their deliberations, rise above matters relating to whether they had just received a good ERO report or not, and see the role of the review office in the overall education culture; see the review office as at the centre of promoting and imposing the bureaucratic demands so widely complained about. The evidence, gratifyingly, was that schools were, indeed, seeing the wider picture.

After launching the petition, my task, as I saw it, was to keep the issue, to the forefront, and to keep in touch with key people in education. My tactic each week was to develop a news release then sit in front of my fax, and fax for hours. In a way it was like fly fishing, you cast your line out a large number of times, and, every now and then, you have a strike. I can assure you, though, no matter how small the catch, I never threw one back. So I’d start with the big fish of the TV and metropolitan newspapers, then radio, the magazines, then moved on to the provincial newspapers and, time permitting local and suburban newspapers. I learnt a lot about the news media in the process.

As in any campaign, the purpose is to get the message right, and then to find different ways of saying the same thing. Whether I got the message right, I don’t know, but I certainly found a lot of different ways to say the same thing. The message I tried to communicate was of a crisis in education – a structural crisis deriving from Tomorrow’s Schools allocation of increased powers to layers of bureaucracy at the expense of teachers’ sense of control over things important to them. And that a structural crisis could only be resolved through a structural response – tinkering would not do. For this reason, in respect to school reviewing, I favoured the idea of schools having a range of accredited reviewers to choose from. Such a change would free up education in all sorts of ways.

Anyway, as I pressed on to Wellington, that was all behind me.

About four weeks before I had received a call from Derek Gordon of Dunedin whose professional name as a storyteller to schools is Derek Bringwonder. He expressed his alarm, derived from his experience of visiting schools throughout New Zealand, at the harm ERO was inflicting on New Zealand schools. In other words, he had developed the same point of view as me from a different perspective. Derek also expressed wider concerns about the relations between the governed and those who govern – ERO’s behaviours simply being a prime example of those concerns.

‘I’ve heard about your petition,’ he said, ‘is there anything I could do to help?’

‘Thanks for the offer, I’ll think about it.’

Two days later it came to me: those pages at the beginning of Hard Times in which the character Gradgrind insisted on reducing human behaviour to numbers, that would be just the ticket. I contemplated the matter for a few days – the idea had the capacity to be the most appalling flop, and would I have the energy? What appealed to me and tipped me in favour of ringing Derek was the opportunity to make a public statement about my concerns. For better or worse, whether the ABC petition was a success or not, I wanted to have the feeling that I had given it a lash – the best I could.

So I rang Derek. We delegated responsibilities: he would brush up on Hard Times, do the banner, arrange for a Dickensian costume; I would try to entice along a small audience, gain the attendance of some parliamentary spokespeople, try and interest the news media, get permission from the clerk of the house for a protest on the steps of parliament, and organise material to hand out to those present.

The following was part of the invitation to the members of parliament and others.

Kelvin Smythe

Developmental Publications Ltd

PO Box 4082, Hamilton

An invitation

On Thursday, I2 December, at 12.20 p.m., a small meeting will be held in front of parliament allowing Derek Bringwonder, storyteller, to make a personal statement about the need to nurture the human spirit, and about his concern, developed as a result of working in schools throughout New Zealand, at the harmful effects on schools and teachers of review office practices and philosophy. (He will, as part of this, be dressed as Charles Dickens’ Gradgrind, and orate the philosophy of that character from Hard Times.) 

I am delighted, as the organiser of the education anti-bureaucratic campaign (ABC) and petition, to support Derek Bringwonder in these purposes.

If you could be there as an expression of your own support, it would be greatly appreciated. It will go ahead rain, hail, hurricane or shine. If you do think you can attend, please let me know.

Best wishes

Kelvin Smythe

One of the difficulties was to find a day and a time when the members of parliament would be able to attend. We chose Thursday, 12 December, as a tentative date. But would that conflict with the swearing in of the new parliament? The swearing in date moved around, and sure enough, after all those weeks of coalition talks, the swearing in was Thursday, 12 December. I suggested to Liz Gordon, the newly elected Alliance member, that that might be for the best as it meant that at least they’d all be there, and that would be good; she said no, there’d be lots of other things going on, and that would be bad. However, Brian Donnelly said the swearing in would be over by 12 p.m. – as a result we adjusted the time to 12.20. When I visited National’s Tony Steel in his Hamilton electorate office he said he’d do his best to be there, and Trevor Mallard’s secretary said Trevor had noted it in his diary. Liz Gordon said there was no need for another fax, she’d be there if she could.

So here I was heading to Wellington rather fearfully. Would my 20 or so invitees be there? Would the spokespeople be there? Would the idea be a good one in concept, irrespective of how everything else went? What would the weather be like? Though, on this, I was ambivalent. I rather liked, what was to me, the romantic notion of a howling gale, Charles Dickens and me and, of course, a back-turned Richard John Seddon, and no-one else, standing out there in howling wind and rain. We would proclaim to the elements.

I booked in at a hotel near parliament, then walked down to it for a reconnoitre. As most people know, traffic goes round parliament in a frenzied circle. I had fears that tomorrow, in transporting the sound system in my car, of getting on this merry-go-round and not being able to get off. But there was the entrance near the cenotaph and a road looping gently to the paved area in front of the main steps with Richard John Seddon facing away. So it was back to the hotel for a sleep – of sorts.

The coalition talks had come and gone. Information I was receiving indicated the review office was, indeed, a coalition issue, but there had not been, and there still wasn’t, any confirmation of this. I feared the worst – that in the rush to complete the talks, the matter would drop off the negotiating table.

I went to the door to get the Dominion. On page 3 was an article about the coalition and what had been agreed. I ran my eye down the list, hoping, but not expecting, to see the review of the review office listed.

But there it was, linked in with another review, and with the briefest possible reference. Now, how do they express this in the media? I was visibly moved.

After years of plugging away, on the morning of a protest to be made on the steps of parliament – there it was in black and white. Wow! This was only a first step, the review office would fight a wily fight, but this was a moment to relish.

I drove round to the hotel to pick up Derek and his wife Pamela. When he opened the door, top hat, red vest, black formal pants, and all – I felt immediately at ease. Hey! This had the makings of a memorable day.

In picking up the sound system I found there wasn’t room in my car for an office chair I’d brought down for Derek to stand on if he needed some height to perform better. No – he didn’t need it. What to do with the chair? To this day I like to think of it still sitting in the entrance way of the shop I dumped it in.

We made our way through the iron gates and parked on the parliamentary forefront. The day was fine (though breezy), so no Lear on the heath heroics. The parliamentary officials checked our permission papers; pointed us to our assigned place; assured us the sound system would be fine as long as we didn’t point it directly towards parliament; and, were generally very helpful. We set up the banner, the sound system, composed ourselves, and waited.

The parliamentary scene to the north of us on the steps was one of remarkable vibrancy. The first time mps clearly identifiable by their cheerful, expectant expressions, the old hands by their here-we-go-again demeanour. Especially notable were the new Maori mps with their families and elders, hugging, laughing and singing. TV and radio reporters were everywhere. The chief justice and entourage swept past us in full regalia.

Then all was quiet.

12 0’clock.

Was our timing going to be awry?

Invitees started to arrive. At 12.10 there was a small gathering at the doors of parliament, a gathering that grew in size, then pushed pseudopodia-like down the steps. I saw Brian Donnelly detach himself from the group, then Tony Steel appeared, and so did Liz Gordon, finally there was Trevor Mallard, looking very heroic, propped up as he was on this occasion by a walking stick. Also there were some teachers and principals who had absented themselves from school to be there and some office workers from nearby government offices.

Donald Matheson from the Education Review Magazine was there, as was Penny Deans from TV1 though minus a camera which might or might not turn up. (It didn’t.)

I stood on the steps of parliament, welcomed the group, and began my address.

The life of a campaigner for progressive education campaigner in regressive education times is that good news never comes. Well, this morning, for me, the good news did come. It came in the way of a two-line statement in the Dominion that the review office will be reviewed, I know this is only a step along the way, that the head offices of many varieties will conspire to protect another head office, as will stubborn Labour mps and anti-teacher National ones, but today is a day for quiet satisfaction.

There is a crisis in school education, a crisis that goes well beyond vulnerable schools in vulnerable parts of our society – it is a crisis affecting all schools, everywhere. It is a crisis of quality, confidence, and future direction.

This is a defining moment in school education – schools are either going to be run in a partnership between teachers and their community on the basis of professionalism and democratic participation; or by bureaucrats on the basis of managerialism and regulatory enforcement. Is the locus of control going to be in our communities or in the bureaucracies?

The bureaucratic iron chain must be broken.

Whoever controls evaluation, controls education. The review office in evaluating schools, is controlling them.

And on I went, with many of you having read what I would have thundered.

I then introduced Derek Bringwonder:

 However enough of all this, why try to tell the story when we have one of New Zealand’s best storytellers to tell it for us. I introduce Derek Bringwonder to present Gradgrind from Hard Times.

Derek Bringwonder came forward and made his personal statement through Charles Dickens. The relevance of what he had to say being quite remarkable. Looking at the faces of the people listening you could see connections were being made.

You are to be in all things regulated and governed, said the gentleman, “By fact’’.’

‘We hope to have, before long, a board of fact, composed of commissioners of fact, who will force the people to be a people of fact, and of nothing but fact.’

‘You must discard the word Fancy altogether.’

‘You have nothing to do with it. You are not to have, in any object of use or ornament, what would be a contradiction in fact. You don’t walk upon flowers in fact; you cannot be allowed to walk upon flowers in carpets. You don’t find that foreign birds and butterflies come and perch upon your crockery; you cannot be permitted to paint foreign birds and butterflies upon your crockery. You never meet with quadrupeds going up and down walls; you must not have quadrupeds represented upon walls.’

‘You must see,’ said the gentleman, ‘for all these purposes, combinations and modifications (in primary colours) of mathematical figures which are susceptible of proof and demonstration. This is the new discovery. This is fact. This is taste.’

And so Derek Bringwonder continued. As Derek performed I was able to sit down and savour the occasion. People were drifting over with their lunches, the sun was shining, our group was fully engaged, there was laughter and interest. Hey! This was rather fun.

Derek received a great ovation.

Liz Gordon indicated she would, in what would be her first speech as a sworn-in member of parliament, like to say something. As you can see from the photograph, she was in wonderful form.

As I moved forward to wind things up, who should appear on the high steps, but Lockwood Smith? I could see him trying to work things out; then it clicked. He turned and shot off.

I thanked everyone for coming along, there was a clap, and it was all over. We were reluctant to go, standing around in small groups discussing this and that.

After lunch with Derek and Pamela, I shook hands with them, and we said our farewells. Then, in a mixture of relief and satisfaction, the long drive back home.

Postscript: Brian Donnelly, of the New Zealand First Party, and minister in charge of the review office when New Zealand First was in coalition with National, promised much but, in the end, was outmanoeuvred by the bureaucracy. The review of the review office was stacked with Labour and National conservative politicians and hangers-on, including Hekia Parata’s sister, Apryll. When giving my submission, I looked at her and wondered: Who is that? Well, now we know.

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2 Responses to On the steps of parliament: protest against ERO

  1. kellyned says:

    Let’s all hope that ERO gets a proper reviewing this time around!

  2. Shirley Knuckey says:

    Great news especially re the ERO. ’12 Questions’ in the back of the Herald today brought tears to my eyes – so positive was Professor Peter O’Connor about real education and helping children (and not always children) blossom to find positive creativity that unlocks the treasure to be found in each one of them.
    Tracy Martin – you should be in the Labour Party – although NZ 1st ,to be fair, is anti-corporatisation of our schools.
    First we have to change the Government!

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