My four changes to fix a broken primary school education system: you will only guess one of them

The primary school education system is broken – if change isn’t fundamental, it will be yet another betrayal of teachers and children.

At the top we have Chris Hipkins. I have stopped issuing dire warnings about him because I recognise he means well but he is really an education technocrat who sees education as fitting various mundane parts of education together; it was just not in him to attack National’s legacy and thereby provide a roominess for change and an uplifting sense of direction. When Clarence Beeby, with Peter Fraser, struck upon the truth for education in a democracy, that truth becoming policy and part of our education culture was not inevitable, it depended on the words and actions of education leaders. 

There is something wanly apolitical about Chris, an inability not to see (or is it feel?) that what is occurring in education, as in economics and political power distribution, is an ideological battle, between democracy and power elitism. Those who cherish power do not compromise: they may yield, but only to eventually succeed.

The opportunity for fundamental change is so tantalisingly at hand – and we do have Chris and the Coalition to thank for that – but there seems no obvious way to reach the Promised Land.

If it was Pilgrim’s Progress, those few who are enlightened (as I see it), would have to face above all the obstacle of Technology Panic and its close relative Technology is the Future, and be up against it in battling for Meeting Children’s Needs as Children, suffering an Humanities Panic (but in this case justified), and aghast at realising there is No Curriculum Main Aim, not even an Inert one – allowing the Obstacles of Technology Panic and Technology is the Future to hold primary school education in its icy grasp.

Then we have the two summits. They will be bun fights saying everything and nothing, probably leaning to the Technology is the Future side (and jobs) but allowing some space for the broader education concept and children’s real needs.

The Advisory Group has some good people but a broken education system needs specialist attention. With Andrew Becroft in charge, the humanities stuff will be there, but the real question is about the balance and interrelationship between the humanities and the technocratic.

Then we have the Tomorrow’s Schools Panel. This potentially is the real McCoy for decision-making change. I have thought long and hard about it and have decided it could get something useful across the line.

Well, that’s enough about that, now to my four priority changes:

  • The education system through the main curriculum document should have a main aim, and that main be to prepare children for life in a democracy and to support and protect it:

The official main aim of a school education system in a democracy should, by definition, be holistic transparent, explicit, encompassing, and dynamic; it should, to the finest detail, be decisive in ordering what is pertinent and what is not (expressed as learning activities or a few objectives), directions to follow, and the various degrees of significance for education action or policy. A main aim, sincerely acted on, generates the power, cohesiveness, direction, and momentum both for the official main aim of the education system and the connecting official main aims of the curriculum areas. Holistic main aims whether for the system or curriculum areas, protect against fragmentation (such fragmentation often taking the form of a multiplicity of diffuse objectives) which can undermine, be used to undermine, the holistic in both learning and philosophical purpose.

Can anyone recall the main aim of the New Zealand Curriculum? Well, you can’t, because there isn’t one. It is a national curriculum without a main aim – instead, seven pages of competencies, visions, principles, and values – a document much praised by some but, for me, as slippery as an eel. Without that main aim, the government, the ministry, the education review office, and their contractors, laughed a cosmic laugh at teachers’ apparent satisfaction with the document. There was no way they were going to tie me slippery eel down, sport. It is a national curriculum set up to allow governments, hierarchies, and bureaucracies take education in any direction that took their ideological fancy – and the fancy they took was hierarchical, neoliberal, and damaging to teachers and children. And what an industry has been set up throughout the official education system explaining the various parts of the document, when that explanation should have been in the main aim that wasn’t.

The question now becomes: how do you prepare children for life in a democracy and to support and protect it? The neoliberals, technology futurists, 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 my main aim allows only part of such a direction. 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.

  • Maori language be steadily and immediately introduced into schools, at first by schools volunteering: 

As a matter of urgency, the teaching of the Maori language should be made part of the regular and official curriculum. It should not be described or discussed as ‘compulsory’ – we don’t hear English or social studies being described in that way. However, for coalition sensitivities, it could be introduced as schools volunteering for a Maori language teacher. Arrangements would need to be made for initial and continuing special training, and, of course, appointment would only follow with the full involvement of local whanau and iwi. 

There is no curriculum activity that would help prepare children better for democratic life in New Zealand and to support and protect it. It is a democratic right for all people who live in New Zealand (whether pakeha or Maori) in which one world view dominates, to have the Maori world view as a powerfully inherent part of the overall culture. 

  • Fundamental change of education review office be undertaken and it be reintegrated into the ministry: 

The education review office has been the main bureaucratic carrier of the Tomorrow’s School philosophy; also that while some of its functions were necessary for the working of an education system, its manner of performing them, whether necessary or not, was decidedly harmful to education in a democracy. The situation, though, is complex because there are good people in the education review office who do useful things in a kindly manner, serving in some respects to ameliorate a toxic environment but, then, as history informs us, destructive institutions to function in the way they want to function require some good people for a facade. The review office is pure Kafka: 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 Kafkan 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.

  • Teachers colleges be largely separate from universities, and have boards of control significantly controlled by teacher organisations, and other education groups (NZCER, for instance) 
  • A substantial advisory service be established, attached to newly established teachers colleges

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. I call this curriculum the real curriculum, the real curriculum for an education system for a democracy. 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.

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 economic, 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.

All the best.

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5 Responses to My four changes to fix a broken primary school education system: you will only guess one of them

  1. joceje says:

    The real aim of education must be to create a nation for every one.!

  2. Brendon says:

    Hi Kelvin

    Brendon Morrissey here from Kaitaia in the beautiful Far North. Your ideas in this posting are absolutely ‘on point’.

    Change is definitely needed in these key areas and you are correct about the danger of too much hui and not enough doey. The summits I’m sure will be advantageous from the point that many voices will be heard. It remains to be seen whether any real change to the way things are will really be put in place and those of us still in the trenches will still be in doubt of the longevity of these new ideas.

    Your point about the missing main aim of the NZC is duly noted and a source for further contemplation. Without this, you are correct in saying that the NZC can basically be treated in many ways by different groups depending on what they need to gain from it. That in itself is alarming. The addition of a main aim to our NZC should be the place to start for our new government and it would signify that real change is to come.

    Sorry I haven’t been a more active responder to your postings. Truth is, it’s been so hard to find time to read everything important. Like many Principals around the country, I have found myself ‘treading water’ because of the amount of the ever-increasing workload expected of us. I will endeavour to do better moving forward.

    Your postings are a source of excellent reflection and positive motivation for me personally. I appreciate the time you take to do such.

    Kindest regards


  3. Ced Simpson says:

    Kia ora Kelvin
    I strongly agree with the leading point of your manifesto: the curriculum lacks a coherent core vision, and I’m very sympathetic to your suggestion of “to prepare children for life in a democracy”.

    I’d take it a little wider. I think we need to contribute to a stronger shared sense of what the aims of the teaching profession are, and because we live in a diverse society in a globally interconnected world, I look to international agreement concerning the right to education, to which New Zealand contributed through Beeby. The two core aims or education in international human rights law are enabling each individual to develop their personality, talents and abilities to fullest potential, and to participate in and contribute to free society (locally and globally).

    The second is the idea of democratic, human rights-based citizenship; the first is the broad aim articulated by educationists from Dewey to Beeby to many of the participants in the recent NZ summits.

    A few years ago, in a workshop at an Auckland primary school, year 6 students considering a question we’d posed “What are schools for?” came up with a very succinct but powerful answer: to enable everyone to have a good life, in a good community/country/world.

    Ced Simpson

  4. Kelvin says:

    Terrific Ced and Brendon and right to the point Joceje.

  5. A Auckland icon says:

    A great read Kelvin …..I thought your description of ERO ( sadly) was just spot on!
    It is a complete change of culture in education we need so I hope the review doesn’t get sidetracked with a focus on structural change.
    There are some structures that need to change but the deepest change needs to be at a philosophical level

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