Labour has made a timid, philosophically fragmented start to its primary school policy implementation; and one that looks destined to continue. From a consideration of its recent history we should not be surprised. It is a political party that ever since the Tomorrow’s Schools debacle (and the immediate lead-up to it, of course), while all the time putting itself forward as the party of education has demonstrated a lack of understanding of primary schools and what democratic education structures look like. It has taken decades to shake itself sufficiently clear of the neoliberal (Treasury-originated) philosophy to gain even a sliver of recognition that there was, indeed, a philosophy driving Tomorrow’s Schools, and one generally considered antithetical to Labour’s philosophy overall.
Readers of my postings will be aware of my predictions made in 1988 just before I left the system – all of which came true – predictions anyone in education could have made (though few did), requiring only an understanding of the curriculum, the real curriculum, and being an independent thinker. For those people it was as though written on a screen. But we were crushed by the Labour government, NZEI, NZPF, and the media.
Forty years before Tomorrow’s Schools, from a combination of favourable circumstances, New Zealand broke through to universal truths about primary school education. If 40 years seems a long time, I remind readers that the neoliberal philosophy has been in control for 27 years and, because of the dead-set determination of one government and the flabby-mindedness of the other, set to be a menacing presence for years to come.
Why hasn’t Labour undertaken a coherent analysis of why primary school education is in free fall and, in particular, why Maori and Pasifika education is in such a broken state? – the reason why is that a coherent analysis would require Labour to respond in a coherent way and, under Chris Hipkins, it doesn’t want to – Labour in education is still of the education establishment. It is still more with the education review office, the ministry, and teacher organisations than with teachers and children. I want to point out we are talking of children’s lives here. Labour has betrayed one generation of primary school children in which the vulnerable in particular suffered, and looks unlikely to be willing to undertake the hard thinking to avoid this happening to another? Labour has done well helping vulnerable families financially but is set to fail their children if and when they attend school.
Before the election I was walking to Clarence Street Theatre for a Jacinda election meeting and started chatting to a former Labour cabinet minister (I had published poems written by his ex-wife), in the course of which he said how grateful the Labour education caucus was for the contribution of a particular NZEI executive member. I sighed to myself, not because the ideas he put forward would have been bad, far from it, but because they would be lacking in philosophical coherence. And so it came to pass with Labour’s policy.
Where is the urgency: the understanding to recognise how trivial and misdirected so much of teaching in schools is?
Above all, NZEI needs to be reformed and made democratic. What an institutional disaster. An executive immune to challenge by its members; but an oh so willing partner to National in education injury. What has NZEI achieved in, say, school funding? In school funding per child, primary schools are well below the OECD mean across 33 countries while secondary schools are slightly above. And if we look at where that money is going, it is not, for instance, to children with special needs, but to a multiplicity of bureaucracies. As well, NZEI has tied Labour to hundreds of millions in continuing with communities of learning (they will be useful in a minor way under Labour but, on the return of National, it will be the end of primary education as we know it). What was NZEI doing? What were they thinking? Does NZEI automatically fall for neoliberal education policies because a label of collaboration or co-operation is attached?
Where, apart from media releases, was its part in developing a context for change? Too busy being cosy with the government. Where was the anger converted to political pressure?
We have plummeted in international test results, and if the arts and thinking and wider education are examined we would find that equally pathetic. All contributed to by successive governments, all with no intensive challenge by NZEI. Does it really think of the children? Did it compare the hundreds of millions of community of learning waste against what that money would have achieved meeting children’s special needs and more individualised teaching for children who came to school needing to catch up on learning capital?
Teachers since the change of government have been confused by the mixed signals Chris Hipkins has sent, and in the absence of a clear positive direction, they have retreated into their failed past. Labour (along with NZEI), having fallen dismally short in establishing a context for education change is, as a result, playing political scaredy-cats. It’s a shambles. National standards were abolished but Chris Hipkins felt it necessary to say that schools are free to continue with them if they like. I agree, I want schools to have choice, but such a prissy comment is a sure sign of a minister of education concerned more about political ramifications than benefit to children’s learning. Chris Hipkins should have said something inspirational about evaluation, for instance, that the only way for evaluation to really work for children is for teachers to further develop their curriculum understandings and from that gain increased clarity of purpose.
Above all, both NZEI and the government refuse to work from a coherent philosophical base – to do so, they no doubt fear, would lead them to being confronted with situations and decisions hugely uncomfortable to their establishment impulses and relationships.
- In the indecisive context being established by Labour, national standards, now orphaned from being national – as standards, are drifting around trying to find a home. And with easy success because teachers, in the absence of any alternative, are hunkering down with what they know, with the curriculum practices they know, with the standards they know (even if bereft of being national), and with assessment they know. Jacinda Ahern said be ready for an education system of creativity and imagination and for the special advancement of Maori and Pasifika children, but what do we have? fumbling and indecisiveness.
- The education review office is the essence of neoliberalism. As such it is the guardian and principal user of national standards – developing them, imposing them, interpreting them, and vocationally living by them. And with national standards gone, national standards by another name are being planned. But the Labour establishment is still standing by the review office. New Zealand First, however, has a policy of change; if Chris Hipkins is too committed to the review office he should give the job to Tracey Martin (indeed, while they’re at it give the primary school portfolio to her).
- National standards live in another way. Teachers, pathetically, and with NZEI support, can submit their evaluation material to a robot, resident in Wellington, named PaCT. But teaching and learning for myriad curriculum reasons do not need an extraneous process distorting relationships between them. It is another way national standards as standards are entrenching themselves.
- Then there is the establishment’s (in particular, NZEI, the ministry, the education review office, Labour, National, private providers, digital providers, and the Catholic education office) refusal to give away its new neoliberal institution – communities of learning. As with Tomorrow’s Schools it was sold as an exercise in collaboration but it was soon exposed as an exercise in brutal bureaucratic command based on the imposition of standards. The election has given pause to developments but national standards live on, scores of community of learning achievement challenges, based on national standards, have been submitted to the ministry, and accepted. National standards, or whatever, are alive and well; the system is laden with them; surviving in the deep consciousness of teachers, principals, education bureaucrats, and always looking for expression.
- I could go on, but I will stop with this one – the so-called digital curriculum. A curriculum development in which there were no curriculum experts present, only digital experts and enthusiasts but, even then, to rush it through, the digital providers were separated out and put in a room to complete.
Because I am so angry, I want to say this very quietly. Does the establishment grasp that school education is about children? I don’t believe deep down the connection for NZEI and Labour, as institutions, is resolute and heartfelt. How could they care about children and let the digital curriculum continue? The digital curriculum sets out digital steps and standards involving the use of other parts of the curriculum as its practice ground. It is an abomination. The digital curriculum is an example of why New Zealand primary education is shattered. In a later posting I intend to go through the particular reasons why it is – with computer learning misuse being one of the major reasons. If computers were banished from primary school classrooms for two years it would be a rocket boost for all parts of the curriculum. The putting of digital experts into a separate room minus any expert curriculum experts, classroom teachers, is a metaphor for why we are where we are. Adult needs and concerns above children’s, and an exclusion of teachers and anyone else who knows and cares about children and their learning.
The digital curriculum, you see, was not the digital curriculum, but the curriculum with the digital at its heart – like a cancer.
But then, this will be dismissed as just Kelvin Smythe being a mad dog again.
Oh well, good luck as you go from success to success.
Happy New Year to all my readers