Friday, 6 November 2015

The rise of the neo-liberal agenda in New Zealand's education system

The current government is about to review the Education Act. This is probably a good thing, given how much has changed in the social, economic and political landscape. However, it is wise for all in education to look behind the curtain to understand more about what the intention is. I am cautious, because there are precedents to the stealthy creep of particular agendas that seem to be about delivering more and more into the hands of those who wish to make money rather than focus on the social and educational  health of its citizens.

I'm thinking here about the move to alter legislation to allow bars to open for Rugby World Cup televised games. So, at 3, 4, 5 am, people could congregate in bars to watch matches. Apparently this went well. Today, there is a call to loosen the strings on when bars can open because of this. This is after there were limits placed on access to booze because of the increasingly deleterious effects on people, the work of the police, traffic accidents and youth boozing. There is no mention of such issues in David Seymour's call, originally focused on a sense of patriotism for rugby. David Seymour is the sole Act Party member of parliament, representing a highly focused, neo-liberal view of the world. He is the voice of the far-right policies that, as far as I can see, the National Party wants to keep away from in public, to avoid scaring the horses, ie the public.

So what does this have to do with education? I suspect the same bit by bit whittling away of terms, conditions and principles. On the face of it, there are some possibly good ideas that Hekia Parata suggests. For example, new entrants starting school in cohorts rather than at their fifth birthday. I wonder what new entrant teachers think of that? Would having a whole new cohort start at once work? How difficult would it be for such a teacher to manage say, 10 students (who would be added to an existing class most probably) who start school for the first time? Such teachers seem to be remarkably silent on this.

As a starting point, the names of those appointed to the Education Act review Taskforce might bear some scrutiny. The Foreword by the chair intimates the focus when he says "Through our enquiries and consultation the Taskforce has concluded that there is a strong case to review the Act to provide a greater focus on student outcomes and more explicit roles and objectives."

One key thing that seems to be undefined, is what 'outcomes' mean. For example, all of the internationally highly regarded Best Evidence Synthesis reports begin with their own interpretation of 'outcomes'. A literature review on e-learning also undertook this in order to fulfil its brief on reviewing e-learning and student outcomes. It discussed outcomes in relation to both students and teachers. So what is the Taskforce's view of the term?

Other ideas also require some cautious investigation. For example:
Changes suggested include removing "unnecessary red tape" from school boards, possibly having some govern multiple schools. Parata said principals themselves had expressed an interest in leading more than one school, particularly where there might be very small rolls.(O'Callaghan, 2015)
I wonder what constitutes 'unnecessary red tape' if this is about school governance? How representative would school boards be if they govern more than one school? Whose interests are best served? Page 6 of the Taskforce recommendation suggests that Boards' roles might, for example,  include:
 – ensuring that school leadership has a focus on raising student achievement
– setting objectives for the school and monitoring results
– monitoring and planning progress in relation to a school’s charter and annual plans
– reflecting government priorities
– having sound fiscal and property management
– being a good employer
– ensuring school leadership maintains student and staff safety.

Some of these are absolutely fine for a Board to undertake. But  what about 'setting objectives for the school and monitoring results'? What might that mean, be interpreted as, or result in?

Another idea I urge caution on is this:
Schools that were "doing well" could have more freedom and extra decision-making rights, but having a "graduated response" to underachievement by schools would mean earlier intervention for those not doing well, Parata said (ibid)
What does 'doing well' mean? In relation to what? Who sets the terms for 'doing well'? How is 'doing well' measured? What would be put in place to deal with schools defined as having 'underachievement'? And what is this going to be based on? Will the goalposts shift each year or each term of office? Will it allow any Minister of Education to make unilateral decisions about schools and schooling and teaching (as has been a past feature of Parata's stewardship, for example) and expect compliance?

What might these changes portend for the health of the education system, and those who teach in it? Will it give more power to Boards to expect a business model in its school, possibly undermining or in contradiction to, a pedagogical one? How might this affect how teachers are expected to behave - as professionals with professional expertise, or as technicists, who do what they're told and 'perform'?  Will it lead to more rampant privatisation of what is a public good? (regardless of what Treasury might deem it to be). I have a lot of questions and very few answers, but I am worried about the directions it might take, and what elbow room it give to further neo-liberal inroads into education.

I'd love to hear others' ideas on this.

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