Other than the abolition of national standards, the last time I heard anything hopeful and inspiring about Labour’s school education reforms was when you said that creativity and imagination was about to return to schools.
Your minister of education categorically failed in the lead-up to the election to explain how and why New Zealand school education was in difficulty. He will think I’m picking on him, but I’m not, I’m pointing out stark reality. I have waited and pressed for this political opportunity for decades and Labour is fumbling it.
Politics is about politics, even, indeed especially, the politics of education. And by politics I don’t mean lying or exaggerating, I mean putting previous governments to honest but searching scrutiny. Where was the intensity and passion?
School education, especially primary school education, is in a spiral: where has been analysis of Maori and Pasifika achievement? Education is Labour’s nominated partner-in-solution to poverty (along with improved income) but it is a faltering one.
You are right, the outlook on creativity and imagination is a desiccated one. And under the previous government, in the basics, their supposed priority, primary schools slipped to the bottom of the Western world. But only a fainthearted peep here and there from Chris Hipkins. He was, I think, concerned about offending the teacher organisations.
Chris Hipkins should have been out there kicking up merry hell but he is utterly unable to do so, his personality, it seems, won’t permit it, perhaps he doesn’t feel the pain – he much prefers the cosy world of the teacher organisations.
The abolition of national standards was well accepted but their abolition did not have a dynamic impact because no context had been or was provided.
But I don’t want to dwell on that calamitous lack of a critical contextual launching pad for Labour’s reforms.
The announcement of the abolition of national standards came and went; followed by bits and pieces: one of those bits and pieces being when children can begin schooling (and fair enough) but where was the accompanying persuasive laying out of the argument for the return to long-established practice? Then the minister of education felt it incumbent to say schools can continue with national standards if the feel they want to – I agree – but why bring it up? Then there was a titbit about NCEA. All this and more is an ominous augury for what is to come.
Where is the overall strategy to go with the key reform of the abolition of national standards? Most teachers and principals have only experienced the paralysing hold of the review office and national standards. They are being abandoned. They need both practical and inspirational help to lift themselves out of the curriculum rut.
The overall strategy for Labour to follow is not difficult to establish: it is locate the key neoliberal educational policies and change them to democratic and progressive ones.
By definition, neoliberal education policies cannot be good for children or democracy, so Labour should track the main neoliberal drivers and replace them.
In this respect, above all, the review process must be restructured with each team for a school visit comprising a permanent member and principals and teachers trained for the purpose. You cannot have creativity and imagination fostered if the present personnel and the present review practices are persisted with.
The review process should also be brought into the ministry – separating policy function from the review one is pure neoliberalism.
A sharing of the control of knowledge is central.
Where are the advisory teams of top-notch creative teachers attached to universities? Surely Labour is not relying on those purveyors of commodified knowledge – the private companies?
The major teacher organisations are important in this. I know this might seem at odds with my warnings about Labour getting too close to the teacher organisations, but they are what we have and, who knows, their open involvement in curriculum policy might be formative for them and eventually beneficial to education.
A monopoly of education knowledge by bureaucrats and selected academics must be ended and university appointments and courses changed.
Communities of Learning, which originated with John Hattie and Treasury, were clearly being converted to neoliberal purposes (and will be again if Labour doesn’t act decisively); Labour must bite the bullet and abandon them or scale them down mightily, with the money saved being spent on drama and arts specialists working amongst a designated group of schools, also Maori and Pasifika languages, mathematics and science. (Teacher aides and children with special needs must also be a priority).
In a sense, it is not too late to rescue the reforms, but in contemplating the record and personality of the minister of education, it looks near hopeless. This warning, I know, will be dismissed as the declarations of a noisy, uncompromising commentator; while that may, indeed, be my personality, I invite my critics to contemplate my record.