The review office is the major structural reason why primary education is in decline, but there is a phenomenon that has had an even more baleful effect (unsurprisingly, it is directly connected to the review office in function and ideology). It is a phenomenon that has made many principals and teachers strangers in their own vocation but, while pervasive and powerful, not easy to isolate for effect or to eschew.
That phenomenon is the jargon-based organisation and leadership ideology that flourished and established itself as a public and corporate truth from the 1960s.
The effect on Tomorrow’s Schools education reforms, which were considerably an expression of that phenomenon, was one of alienation and dispossession. Tomorrow’s Schools was influenced by that phenomenon’s call for separation of function, especially between administration and practice, and practice and assessment.
Attendance at leadership courses and the burgeoning jargon dispensed by them now became key criteria for principal appointment resulting in a proliferation of such courses. Bureaucratic appointment similarly rested on organisation and leadership knowledge, with teaching experience and knowledge, especially in senior positions, given no weight. Education appointment priorities were turned on their head, serving to intensify the general failure of leadership throughout the system.
On the basis of appointments to the bureaucracy over the last decades, it seems bureaucrats with little or no teaching experience were favoured, presumably so their loyalty to the hierarchy would not be tested by such experience. The developers of Tomorrow’s Schools imposed a corporate structure on the administration and practice of education. Certain leadership manuals and books were treated like given doctrine but they, yes, I’m including Tom Peters here, invariably contained a very good narrative and a very bad truth. And the system structure became a rampant feast for the bureaucrats (no longer Janus-like, so why should they care) and quite a few principals – but a famine for teachers and children.
A fateful characteristic of organisation and leadership jargon is the position of superiority immediately assumed by those attending on the basis of the course name alone. For those participants there was a sense of initiation, of a shaman-like experience, of gaining special knowledge that set them apart from the uninitiated. In abiding ways, leadership courses were divisive in schools especially between principals and teachers, and principals and the real curriculum. For politicians and bureaucrats, organisation and leadership knowledge, in being generalised knowledge could, with equal calamity, be effortlessly applied across all education organisations by those who, in reality, didn’t have a clue about learning or school or classroom functioning.
If one talked or wrote about the curriculum, the real curriculum, tried to get a conversation going, tried to persuade others to take the curriculum seriously, tried to point out the intriguing complexities of the curriculum, it was a world that looked on blandly then moved on as if to say I don’t really understand what you are saying and even if I did I wouldn’t be interested. It was a world in which the curriculum, the real curriculum, was absent, replaced by leadership jargon intended to organise a curriculum to suit in the form of whatever was handed down by the hierarchy.
How many times over the decades have I written that an education system should begin with the principles of, for instance, reading, that ultimately, if the system is a child-centred one, extends to the secretary of education and the minister? There are three provisos for that quality of system to be achieved and sustained, first, the better the quality of those principles of reading, the better the decision-making of that minister and secretary; second, open, democratic structures are in place to encourage that better decision-making to occur; and third, the minister is willing to listen, and the secretary and most other appointments below have had successful classroom experience to be able to grasp the significance of what has been transmitted.
The year, 1990, the setting the Waipuna Conference Centre; the occasion an Auckland Principals Conference; I had an hour to say whatever I wanted to say. I launched into it in impassioned tones. I titled my talk: ‘Knowing who we are, knowing the new reality: then getting on with the real curriculum.’
The emphasis was on the characteristics of the New Zealand way. I talked of Clarence Beeby, Elwyn Richardson, Sylvia Ashton-Warner, developmental teaching, the balanced reading system (‘I can read’), drama (potentially life changing), the arts (responding to the environment as a place in the South Pacific), social studies (interaction of knowledge and the affective), science (investigative), mathematics (problem solving), and writing (sincerity). Particular attention was paid to the need to engage the affective as the basis for learning, to teachers having the freedom to pursue children’s interests freely and imaginatively; and to the availability of choice (carefully set-up following a series of open-ended activities) for children in their learning. At the end, I was satisfied with what I’d said and the reception received.
When, however, I was in the morning tea line, two principals in the coffee one headed directly to me; one of them spoke, the other nodded in agreement.
‘Kelvin,’ the principal said, ‘that was good, but we are past that now, the curriculum is not our real interest, administration is.’
This already in 1990.
The comment was tellingly germane to when the role of principals in relation to the curriculum changed. It was at that moment I fully comprehended that the role of the New Zealand principal had, indeed, changed and in a desperately wrong direction.
And 17 years on from that course … surprise … surprise.
A ministry publication, Kiwi Leadership for Principals, 2007, reported that ‘most principals had lost touch with the curriculum’.
In other words, had lost touch with the purpose of schools, and had replaced it with leadership and organisation ideas.
Since then, matters have only worsened. All largely unrecognised, of course, because to recognise it you need to know curriculum. In this lies the tragedy of New Zealand primary schools. The jargon of organisation and leadership had done its undermining worst. Only the steadfastness of some classroom teachers and a rapidly reducing group of principals staved off an even sharper decline in performance as demonstrated in international tests but even more marked to the informed observer in the wider curriculum. The 2007 ministry publication said school leadership in the future would have to be fundamentally different from school leadership in the present and then followed-up, forlornly, with even more administrative jargon. All futile, because the answer lies not in administrative jargon but the curriculum, the real curriculum. After having attended the first leadership course, what else is there to learn? Nothing … what is essential would have been delivered (after all, it is not complicated unless someone wants to make it so) and then for principals to take it from there.
I could go through every part of the education system and predominating classroom practice and find pervasive error. The present education system is unsuited in every respect for education in a democracy. It is proceeding in headlong pursuit of hierarchical, narrow, and technocratic ends. An analysis of what is, and what could be, in relation to an encompassing and dynamic system main aim, should be undertaken. A rule of thumb could be everything is askew below an appearance of normality. Fundamental and cohesive change should be undertaken with an emphasis on teacher knowledge and system respect for it. The present value system of what constitutes a good education system and good teaching practice is engrained in the values of Tomorrow’s Schools, after all, it has been in place for 27 years, and many teachers, principals, politicians, and bureaucrats know no other. Values take years to change beginning first with a recognition that change is even needed, to then being open to change, and finally to valuing and acting on that change. I fear a big bang approach to, or expectations of overnight teacher change. In the end, authentic and lasting teacher change finally takes place in private reflective moments. I don’t want change, no matter how good, forced on teachers and, in regard to the system, I don’t want only one kind of change to be tolerated. I want a democratic education system that, after the appropriate circumstances have been established, trusts teachers to do the right thing.