Here I stand Part 3: By a series of circumstances, the truth of education in a democracy was struck

The File and this writing is predicated on the main aim for school education in a democracy being to prepare children for life in a democracy and to support and protect it. What else could the main aim for school education in a democracy be? But nothing like that main aim is ever even whispered by the hierarchical establishment (John Dewey having been lost in the mist of the education history), let alone declared, because the establishment, at this juncture, wants the main aim to be about employment and computers or whatever the power elite wants it to be.

In the 1940s, the New Zealand education system, by a series of circumstances, struck on the truth of education in a democracy which, of course, revolved around the education of the whole child. The social and political contexts for the gaining of that truth were favourable but its discovery was not inevitable, it took leadership; it took people to bring it together, to inspire, to effect clarity. Clarence Beeby was the director of education with a philosophical background and a strong commitment to broad conceptions of education; Peter Fraser was a slightly cantankerous prime minister who believed in the power of school education to make society more equal and to shift it in enlightened directions. They worked together to urge teachers to take up that broader conception of education; in effect they were considerably ahead of many teachers in their vision, sometimes resulting in them expressing their frustration at teachers’ unwillingness to change. The key person was Beeby who not only held those conceptions of education but also had a grasp of the practice to go with it. He is the model: those in charge of education in a democracy must value the curriculum, because all decisions from central policy to individual classroom planning need to be consistent with it.

The truth struck on by Beeby and Fraser, supported by a wonderful group of curriculum advisers, and taken on by a reasonable number of teachers and principals, was carried on best through the decades by senior teachers of junior classes (stjcs), establishing a tradition that is still marginally there today. The academics involved in education in the ‘40s and ‘50s were qualitatives who worked seamlessly with the curriculum advisers who were predominantly in the arts. In contrast, over recent decades, the academics involved in advising governments have been almost exclusively quantitatives, a good number from overseas, paid to fly in to confirm politicians and bureaucrats in the correctness of their system’s hierarchical structures.

Quantitative academics wield like a weapon the idea that the knowledge they produce is the unchallengeable truth, unchallengeable because it is evidence-based and in being evidence-based the sole source of education truth. When the numbers have spoken the world must fall dumb. In the value-laden area of education with its complexity of aims, the idea of evidence-based data being the sole source of truth is preposterous.  Most evidence-based data is distortingly confined data, lacking in magnanimity and cognisance of humanity. But in being the only data politicians and bureaucrats find useful for their hierarchical purposes, quantitative academics succumb to the power opportunities available and provide data to suit and, at times, rampant advocacy; while quantitatives take their place at the apex of education power, qualitatives are isolated and ignored and teacher knowledge nowhere. It has the feel of a pyramid scheme in which certain groups – the quantitatives with their government contracts; the politicians with their ideological satisfactions; the bureaucrats with their power; the private providers with their commercialised knowledge; and the corporates with their classroom intrusion for inculcation and riches – buy into the scheme, but don’t carry the penalty, children and teachers do.

No quarter is given to teachers as producers of knowledge, they are categorised as technicians and, as such, of little account.

At the moment New Zealand school education is firmly placed in the Western hierarchical model. In the ‘40s, though, it was within the Western shared-control of knowledge model and it was during that time the New Zealand education system developed the curriculum truth about education in a democracy. After the ‘40s, up to the Tomorrow’s Schools, it remained partly within that model. Certainly, New Zealand was visited and talked about as being different and was looked to as a source of inspiration and a break from the Western hierarchical model. At that stage, in international tests, New Zealand was at the top in reading and writing and middling in mathematics. Schools had considerable curriculum encouragement from those in the education bureaucracy to be imaginative and creative, often in opposition to strident calls by National ministers of education to return to the 3Rs. Towards the end of the ‘80s, evolutionary change was, indeed, needed (especially for Maori and Pacific Island education) but while schools and professional leadership were open to progressive change, the political leadership was either confused, that was Labour, or set on neoliberal ends, that was National. In the end, Treasury took advantage of the situation and convinced the Labour government that Tomorrow’s Schools was about freedom, when, in reality, as teachers found to their bitter cost, it was about establishing hierarchical structures.

Come the ‘90s, ‘new truths’ for education were produced. I accept that in the use of the word ‘truth’, it should properly always be contained in speech marks but I remain firm in my confidence of the Beeby truth as a truth, attached as it is to the expression ‘education in a democracy’. But in the ‘80s, ‘new truths’ were latched on to by David Lange, ‘new truths’ that accompanied the ‘economic truths’ of Roger Douglas. But in education in a democracy, an education truth that supports democracy is timeless, not bounded by technological or social change, so there can be no valid ‘new truths’. New Zealand, having had the good fortune to strike upon the education truth for democracy early, only required evolution of that education truth to circumstances as they arose, while remaining resolute to principles. The ‘new education truths’ of the ‘80s, because they were undemocratic in origin and purpose, by definition, are inappropriate for education in a democracy.

A note: because education truths based on supporting democracy, better harness the enthusiasms, ideas, and energies of its participants, an education system gets better value from those truths; an education system based on ‘truths’ less supportive of democracy, to keep up, needs more money to be spent on it. Recently, New Zealand primary education has had the worst of both worlds, ‘truths’ far less supportive of democracy and only 33 per cent of the OECD average in funding.

Whoever controls the knowledge, controls the system – the boon of controlling the system by the controlling of knowledge is its exquisite surreptitiousness. In all the decades of the media talking about education, not once has control of knowledge been discussed as a concept for how the education system works. That’s how exquisite it is for the controllers, and pernicious for the controlled. But teacher knowledge won’t occur under current education structures because the acceptance of teacher knowledge would be lethally disruptive to a hierarchical education system. When a government introduces hierarchical, anti-democratic education structures into an education system, the first light they put out is teacher knowledge. A hierarchical education system is of little ideological satisfaction to the hierarchical overlords if there aren’t substantial numbers at the bottom to be hierarchical over. Even though children’s achievement in international tests has plummeted and the lack of stimulus to imagination and creativity is an education disgrace, the hierarchical education establishment is largely indifferent, simply blaming teachers and coming up with non-solutions like communities of learning, different education targets, open plan architecture, special courses for teachers, and more computers.

Occasionally, the failure of some part of the system or curriculum becomes so overwhelmingly obvious that bureaucrats, fearing a weakening of their hold on the system, conjure up a breath-taking reversal of policy reminiscent of a totalitarian regime, especially with their point-blank unwillingness to acknowledge the centrality of their role in that failure.  A recent example, is the review office laying out the ‘new truth’ on the teaching of mathematics, well and good I suppose, but the ‘new truth’ is the exact reverse of the previous one. To back up the U-turn, the bureaucrats assemble some ‘evidence-based’ research which, in me, creates disturbing associations:  a collection and interpretation of unreliable numbers; a fable to deceptive ends; an idealised white picket-fence suburbia set for betrayal. And it never ends well, because the hierarchical system is a control system which means there is always a rapidly forming contradiction in the dialectic.

The main aim of a school education system should, by definition, be explicit and dynamic (but rarely is under a hierarchical education system because those controlling a hierarchical education system usually want to conceal the real main aim); it should be decisive in ordering what is in and what is out and allocating the various degrees of significance. Consider again the main aim I am suggesting: school education in a democracy is to prepare children for life in a democracy and to support and protect it. The question then becomes: how do you prepare children for life in a democracy and to support and protect it? The neoliberals and conservatives try to make their aim along the lines of preparing children for employment and a technological future and tie collaboration and creativity tightly to that. But the main aim allows only part of that. There is so much more to preparing children for life in a democracy beyond employment and technology, and note that the main aim also requires much more than passive, restrained compliance, it requires children to be active in supporting and protecting democracy. That means understanding democracy with all the monumental thinking and attitudinal qualities that demands.

Because in my writing I use words like ‘holistic’, ‘developmental’, and the ‘affective’; I recommend informality in programmes and flexible timetables; and I refer back to Clarence Beeby, Peter Fraser, Elwyn Richardson, and Sylvia Ashton-Warner, some interpret that as leading to a somewhat vague and soft learning. Just the opposite, I refer to the affective because if you are going to press the children hard cognitively, aesthetically, and attitudinally, you must gain their deep involvement. Commonsense tells us that as well as neuroscience. National standards have gone, leaving many classroom programmes as simply the same minus national standards – what is going to fill the curriculum vacuum? If the education review office retains its present structure with its capricious and judgemental review office reports on which principals’ futures depend, then, irrespective of advisers and some other changes, the matter is decided. (I do accept that the review office under Labour will be more enlightened but my interest in education goes well beyond the electoral terms of a particular government.) If the review office doesn’t retain its present structure, then the curriculum possibilities open up.

If this sounds as a lead into commercialisation, well too bad. But it ties directly to the theme of Beeby’s truths. I have produced a publication called The File which, in effect, amongst my system advocacy and such like, presents all the curriculum areas as a version of how Beeby’s truths might appear today. The publication is a beautiful object, in many respects handcrafted. It will be available in slowly produced batches from next week. I imagine it sitting on the staffroom table with teachers flitting through it, perhaps finding something of interest. (Total cost $50.00) To be very direct, my main purpose in producing it is for it to be my final statement, but if schools would like to purchase it, that would be lovely. The purchaser of The File will be sent further entries as they are written, so don’t think I’m at last shutting up.

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One Response to Here I stand Part 3: By a series of circumstances, the truth of education in a democracy was struck

  1. Steve says:

    So much to muse over in The Beehive, ERO, MOE and SOE offices. So much to debate in School staffrooms and education centres.
    So much to discuss after hours in our places of recreation. So much for all of us to reflect on.

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