The morning after and personal reflections on resistance (if you will forgive me)

The main instrument governments have used to dismantle public education is the education review office; it is the organisational apotheosis of the coercive neoliberal education ends. If public education is to be freed, given renewed health to pursue democratic and holistic ends – more than anything else, more than the removal of national standards, more than increased funding, the supervisory function of schools must be radically restructured.

The review office is pure dread: the relationship of school to review office is one of unpredictability and lack of accountability leading to an overall relationship based on fear that is often sublimated by schools furiously conforming to, even going beyond, review office expectations. But in the complex, value-laden environment of education, there is always more a school can do, so there is always pervasive that dread of being guilty of grievous error, of something else that needs to be done, of who knows what. Unpredictability of review office behaviour can derive from the personality or mood of the review officer, a principal being prominent in the newspaper, a principal being associated with a different philosophy of education, or even just showing hints of it, a letter about the school residing in the review office’s secret file – there are multitudinous ways for the review office to put a school on the rack – and there is no accountability. But the most dangerous part of the review office’s way of functioning is its anti-democratic way of deciding, without consultation with parents, teachers, or any representative consultation group, what curriculum areas should be emphasised, how teaching should be organised to minute detail, and how schools should be administered. The official curriculum in New Zealand primary education is now a document interpreted for meaning by an unaccountable centralised grouping (review office, ministry, and Treasury) with the latest word often being spread through review office school visits. This centralised group invariably taking out of the official curriculum those parts making the curriculum easier to measure as a means of extending bureaucratic control.

Through the time of Tomorrow’s Schools from 1990 to today, I have resisted the philosophy of Tomorrow’s Schools, leaving my position as a senior inspector of schools to expose the deceptiveness of the way that philosophy was introduced and the consummate idiocy of it being a Labour government doing the introducing. My main instrument of resistance then, as now, was the advocacy of the holistic as against the neoliberal fragmented control curriculum.

An education system should be built from the curriculum up, not the system down – meaning, in the present situation, the holistic is a weapon.

In 2010, I spoke to the South Island Intermediate and Middle Schools Annual Principals Conference (‘How corrupted is our education system?’).

And what I said in conclusion to that address is a summation of my philosophy of what characterises resistance in a democracy – no matter how hard the going, the prerogative of that democratic context was understood by me, and always appreciated. Perhaps, though, resistance requires some madness, I could often feel it rising but I subverted, and to some extent controlled it, into my writing.

I said, ‘There won’t be decisive change for the better until, sometime in the future, New Zealand faces a crisis, probably a combination of the economic, social, and moral. In that circumstance, we should be ready with some ideas, carefully considered ideas, for a better way of going about things. In the meantime, especially in education, power structures being the way they are, we must expect that education will be increasingly unsatisfying for children and disappointing for society (both economically and spiritually). This will be especially so in New Zealand which doesn’t receive the lavish funding, say, UK, Australian, or American schools receive; and poverty increases with its flow-on education ill-effects. All we can do, I believe, is slow down the decline by opposing the characteristics of scientific management, by exposing the myth of the academic expert, proposing alternative ways, and campaigning for a fairer society.’

I can remember sitting at my computer in the course of writing that paragraph and contemplating the questions: How is all this going to end? When is the next fundamental education change going to occur, why, and of what nature. I turned off the computer and pondered those questions for some days, and my response was that fundamental change was unlikely to occur from calm rationality, more likely when New Zealand ‘faces a crisis, probably a combination of economic, social, and moral.’ While such a combination of circumstances could lead to a lurch to something even more harsh and anti-democratic, it could also provide an opportunity, and this is what resisters dream about and do their best to prepare their world for, something enlightened and progressive. The point is that no particular fundamental change is inevitable and no particular circumstances the inevitable forerunner. The answer is just to maintain hope and keep battling.

History is not a story of what was inevitable; it is a story of what didn’t have to be. David Lange didn’t have to impose an education system to go with the economic system his minister of finance imposed (and Labour, in doing this, removing the natural opposition to it when National would have introduced it anyway); the members of the caucus might have had the courage and insight to oppose it; the teacher organisations could have opposed it and while they might have failed at first, could have set things up to succeed sooner; a strong leader could have headed one of the teacher organisations; we could have had one example of the media who listened (RNZ thinks it is listening but it hasn’t listened and doesn’t listen, and no newspaper listened – really listened); Labour eventually might have recognised the grievous error of its education ways and undertaken a thoroughgoing democratic restructuring ; and what if Brian Donnelly had held his nerve against Labour and National and appointed a different group of people to consider the future of the review office? (Attack! 126)

Someone in an official position or a teacher organisation could have come through and played the long game, which is the key to the philosophy of resistance, but none did, any resistance was issue-based (usually raised by the government) keeping the organisations distracted, busy, and feeling useful. In effect, the organisations became reliant on pleading with the government and being habitually acquiescent in the hope of the government occasionally dispensing a favour, while all the time the government was steadily dismantling public education.

Any of these would have changed history. I obstructed, ridiculed, and proselytised, waiting for a change to history; that was my game, one I never thought I would win in my time, but one for my own reasons, I felt impelled to engage in. (In respect to the reference to Brian Donnelly, I agitated for that through the magazine, a protest on the steps of parliament, addressing meetings, printing bumper stickers, running a petition, but Brian Donnelly capitulated and guess who was on the committee? Hekia Parata’s sister, and Margaret Austin for Labour, amongst other neoliberal education devotees.)

My resistance was not because I thought I would win, but because what I was resisting was wrong. And, at the risk of self-indulgence, there is that universal yearning for your life to mean something, I always proceeded in the belief that in the fight for right we are not alone, we are with all those people in the past who have fought for right, in particular the multitudes of lesser people, lesser people like me, whose example we don’t know, long forgotten if ever remembered, but who endure as a general cultural memory.

The foundation for my resistance was curriculum knowledge (largely gained by observing and listening to you), informed by a willingness to imagine. It has been both an elevating experience and disturbing. To know what is going to happen and not being able to decisively change events is sometimes knowledge you would rather be without.

In 1999, I spoke to a group of principals. My main message was that given the morally and ethically complex times ahead, principals, in doing what they had to do, needed to do that, but on the understanding that they retained, as part of their thinking, the idea that much of what they had to do was not in the best interests of children. They needed to make that distinction for their own integrity, and to be able to challenge that which was not in the best interests of children when opportunities arose.

That was the message of resistance I delivered to principals but increasingly their eyes showed incomprehension or dismissal (more the former); reactions seeming to be in pace with principals moving from the holistic curriculum to the national standards one. I could gauge the movement away from the holistic from the decline in interest in my courses for setting up holistic classrooms. One of the intriguing characteristics about schools is that amongst the much revered school values, independence is often omitted, and courage nearly always. Many principals know what they are doing is not in the best interests of the children but from my observation become determinedly non-imagining, allowing themselves to operate at the practical level and in the short term. The pressure from the education review office and the ministry based on fear is intense, and like all autocratic organisations sought more than conformity and loyalty, they sought love – and in all kinds of subtle ways principals found ways to communicate that.

Education in a democracy should serve democracy but, at the moment, it doesn’t, it serves, through neoliberalism, the corporate culture. Education should serve the values of democracy, the developing of the holistic talents of the individual, and employment prospects in an authentic and integrated way, but it doesn’t. These three aims are not by nature exclusive of each other but they are increasingly made to be. The New Zealand school education system is a microcosm of the developing corporate state: the use of the big lie, propaganda, false statistics, and the most efficient and effective means of control – fear. The effect in schools is narrowing the curriculum, divesting the arts and critical thinking, and creating citizens unable to think their way out of a paper bag, conformist, fearful, and with a belief that following commands from the top is the only way. Another effect is to undermine public education both because it is public and because of its potential as a source of competing ideas and values. The corporate powers that be, and governmental systems expressing those, use their control of the present to use predictions of the future to bolster their control of the present. Those in control emphasise a digital, corporate dominated future with an intolerant refusal to accept any other. They do not contemplate other futures, for instance, a breakdown in civilisation from climate change, a breakdown that could well strike in the lifetimes of school children today. Public education, on the other hand, should be about values, democratic values to prepare children for any number of futures, including one in which economic development is subordinate to environmental and humanistic imperatives and the attention is to a fairer sharing of less.

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9 Responses to The morning after and personal reflections on resistance (if you will forgive me)

  1. stephen dadelus says:

    Yes Kelvin its been a while in coming. At the moment I just have a sense of relief mixed with a great dollop of high expectation that children’s wellbeing and welfare will be genuinely at the centre of our primary education system. Good bye national standard by next week would be a special treat!!!!!!

    Have a great day Kelvin. You have worked so hard over the years and here’s hoping we all see the potential that this new government can enact come to fruition.

  2. Vern Stevens says:

    Yes Kelvin I quite agree, but changes that need to happen pronto that don’t cosy a lot of money. The dismantling of the undemocratically formed Education Council. Teachers must have a strong democratic voice on that, It should not be run by ministerial plants and lapdogs. The turn away from neoliberalism should also be immediately reflected in education even by some basic statements of intent. STA needs to be dismantled, and or pulled into line, as they are only really another branch of the MOE. As you say ERO needs a massive turnaround, with input from the sector.

  3. An Auckland reader says:

    Hi Kelvin,
    Well written as always! Thank you.
    Did you watch Mike Hosking last night? What a nauseating creep!! And now he has written a Herald piece which should never have been published in the name of journalism.

  4. kellyned says:

    Well said Kelvin. What a huge relief to, at the very least, have a break a break from the deeply flawed neo-liberal direction.
    I see the following as critical changes……
    • Kill Nat Standards before the end of the year
    • Strongly affirm that the NZ Curric doc is our driving and guiding document
    • Change the Ed Council make up so that is is teacher lead, directed and drive with (maybe) one ministerial appointee.
    • Merge ERO into the Ministry so that at least the direction being promoted by both organisations would be the same direction. The personnel for ERO would need to become a mix of permanent staff and twelve month secondments (for example)
    • Delete the new section of the Ed Act that allows the Minister to set ‘goals’ which aren’t really goals at all – more drivers for particular political directions and constructs.

    That would get us going

    • Kelvin says:

      Kellyned: yes that is my strategy: push for one big money thing, more teacher aides and more pay for them; and the rest push for changes that cost nothing but are hugely important to us professionally. Of course, if NZEI was willing to give up its useless CoLs, that could free up money for another big money thing like school funding.

  5. Roger Young says:

    Yes Kelvin You are tight on the mark again perhaps the discussions about the next government should have included you.
    You are right about the ERO Not only are they modelled on a style which I think they developed directly from the Gestapo operations handbook they insist on employing reviewers who have little or no experience in teaching and therefore can’t see what they are looking at.
    I hope that you are wrong with the change occurring at the next major crisis because of all the children who will suffer from a second rate education system meanwhile.
    And principals do need to stick their necks out a bit and fight for changes which improve teaching outcomes as opposed to the neo liberal ideas of ignoring education in order to make a profit. they are l]paid to be educational LEADERS and not members of a state run secret police force.

    • kellyned says:

      I agree Roger that we need to stick our necks out further. Unfortunately the leo-liberal way has been in place so long now that many of my colleagues know no other way. Others have chosen the easy path and fallen into line.
      At my place my staff have no doubt about what I think about things like Nat St – neither does my Board. I am at great pains to ensure the know they are looking at ‘junk data’. However that is a risk for me. (actually MoE contacts also cop it from me too!! That is even more risky!! Hence my pseudonym)

  6. Written by a Taranaki reader says:

    Ode to National

    You’re nothing but a passing memory…
    I reach out, graze my hands along your bitterness.
    Soft, floating, but never gloating
    Of your passing power previously deemed.
    You are nothing but a passing silence;
    The sort that stops one in his tracks.
    Wanting the taciturn lineage
    to gain whatever he lacks…
    You’re nothing but a funny sound
    The kind that I shall shut out just so
    I do not care about your soul.
    Do not grope at my robes or my
    Feet as you slip away;
    I bid you, as do all, just go.

  7. Steve Horne says:

    Thank you for your Warrior thoughts Kelvin.Much has been promised by Labour. They have to deliver and we as educators must fight even harder for what is truly best for children.

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