Bryce Edwards: Rolling back “neoliberalism” in our schooling system

Bryce Edwards: Rolling back “neoliberalism” in our schooling system

Equality, fairness, and cooperation look set to become the priorities underpinning the operations of the schooling system. They’re the values that are explicit in the radical new proposals to overhaul education and roll back the “neoliberal” Tomorrow’s Schools model that was imposed in the 1980s.The status quo, based on competition and a business model is deemed to have failed, creating inequality and poor outcomes.

This column rounds up the arguments in favour of this view, and in support of implementing the recommendations of the Tomorrow’s Schools Independent Taskforce. It follows on from yesterday’s column – The Case against major school reform – which gave the other side of the story.

The case in favour of major school reform was put very strongly by Peter O’Connor in his column yesterday. He condemns the status quo as being all about producing winners and losers, and exacerbating the class system in New Zealand society – see: End of the Tomorrow’s Schools neoliberal experiment.

O’Connor is an educationalist at the University of Auckland, and a spokesperson for the Child Poverty Action Group. He welcomes the proposed new reforms as being a “very real philosophical shift”, which if implemented would amount to one of the biggest rollbacks of all the neoliberal market reforms of the 1980s.

He argues that the new recommendations say “schools must be involved in levelling the playing field rather than tilting it even further towards the rich and privileged. The task force recommendations puts social justice and the battle for the rights of the most marginalised at the heart of its proposed reforms.”

Rightwing and self-interested voices opposing the changes are simply an indication, according to O’Connor, that the reforms are worth implementing. He even embraces some of the rightwing critiques as being accurate: “David Seymour was right when he said the review was an attack on the autonomy of schools. The old fashioned 1980s idea that schools should be autonomous competing business units deserves to be dismantled”.

Another educationalist – and former Alliance MP – Liz Gordon has an equally negative evaluation of the Tomorrow’s Schools model, and views the latest proposals as “a wonderful breath of fresh air” – see: Yesterday’s schools.

She explains the origins of the reforms under David Lange: “Exactly 30 years ago, a taskforce headed by a supermarket magnate, and urged on by an ideological Treasury and rampantly privatising Labour Government, came up with a report on schooling that led to the Tomorrow’s Schools reports. These reforms, owing nothing to good educational practice and everything to Friedmanite economics, have done their best in the resulting period to destroy our society and environment.”

Gordon is particularly dismissive of the Board of Trustees model, labelling it “inherently flawed” and drawing attention to an OECD report that labelled them “self-perpetuating oligarchies”.

Peter Lyons, an economics teacher at Saint Peter’s College in Epsom, says the competitive model has created too many losers and not enough winners – see: Education reforms chance to bring back fairness to system.

Lyons explains how the status quo is based on rightwing market ideology, and has failed: “In the 1990s, New Zealand’s schooling system was dominated by a market-driven philosophy. Competition between schools would ensure greater efficiency and improved performance. Winner schools could even ‘take over’ loser schools just like in the real world of business.”

But he argues that it hasn’t worked in practice: “there are some tragic flaws in this ideology. There was never a level playing field to start with. Winner schools have far greater access to additional funding. This may be through international fee paying students, wealthy alumni, affluent fee paying parents or even black tie dinners that can raise an additional $100,000 in a single evening. Winner schools could then poach higher quality staff or top performing students and sports stars.”

Carol Anderson is another education practitioner with plenty of experience of different sides of the schooling system, and she provides a useful reading of the new proposals, focusing especially on what they would mean for the current boards of trustees – see: How the education reform proposals might affect schools, trustees and parents.

Anderson, who is a lawyer at Education Law NZ, explains the role of the boards, suggesting they currently have too much responsibility, which produces problems: “Since 1989 New Zealand school boards have had to deal with more extensive and demanding legal, educational and financial responsibilities than school boards in other education systems around the world. In practice, the extra administrative burden has fallen largely on the principal, detracting from their role as educational leader of the school. The Tomorrow’s Schools system currently provides widely varying quality of governance. The Task Force considers that it has led to serious educational inequality”.

Her very good article explains how the reduction in responsibilities of the boards is meant to help the schools. And she also provides many useful clarifications of what the proposals might mean. For example, she says: “a closer reading of the report shows that there is potential for more flexible arrangements. Contrary to the impression created in the media, the full report makes it clear that while the Hub will have overall legal responsibility, it will have the flexibility to delegate some of those responsibilities back to individual schools.”

Another informative overview of these issues is provided in John Gerritsen’s Taskforce suggests huge school reform. Interestingly, he also reports the responses of the President of the School Trustees Association, Lorraine Kerr, who believes “the plan to take responsibilities away from school trustees was not necessarily a bad thing in the view of trustees.” He quotes her saying, “For boards, all those things that distract them, the compliance, the accountabilities and even the employment issues will hopefully sit over here so that boards can think about why they were there in the first place and that was around helping to improve student achievement.”

A significant focus of the proposed reforms relates to school zoning. Previously, school zones were viewed as a barrier to student choice and to school performance. But the zoning rules may be boosted and better regulated under the new model – to ensure that students can attend their local schools, reducing the ability of the schools to pick and choose their students. The current rules have been labelled as “racist and unfair” by the taskforce.

As if to reiterate the current problems with zoning, John Gerritsen reported yesterday that “Schools are illegally refusing to enrol children by saying their classrooms are too full or insisting on permanent addresses for families in emergency housing. Attendance services and the legal help organisation YouthLaw said the problem was increasing, and one school was trying to insist that children live in its zone for a year before they could enrol” – see: Schools illegally refusing to enrol local children.

Furthermore, in the weekend, more allegations of competitive behaviour by the schools came out, with Katarina Williams reporting that the Minister of Education, Chris Hipkins believes there is a problem. He is quoted saying “We don’t want school principals’ remuneration, in the future, to be based on their ability to poach kids from other schools” – see: Education leaders concerned school heads boost student rolls to line their own pockets.

Hipkins also announced in the weekend that he wants to fast-track one of the taskforce’s recommendations – getting rid of decile system funding, to be replaced by an “Equity index” system – see Colin Williscroft and Jonathan Milne’s Census problems force ‘frustrated’ Minister to urgently overhaul school funding.

According to the taskforce, the current decile funding system is a blunt and inappropriate instrument, and it simply produces further disadvantage for many schools and communities. Hipkins acknowledges this, with the above article reporting his belief that the flash new buildings were going to the wealthy schools. Hipkins says: “One of the challenges around property that we’re grappling with is that most of the new property money goes into areas where there’s population growth, which tends to be the higher socio-economic areas…. At the moment I think the school system contributes to the growth in inequality”.

The decile funding system was already ear-marked to be replaced by the last National Government, but due to current problems with census data, Hipkins has ordered that the new system be brought in as early as two years’ time, instead of five years’ time.

Finally, the Chair of the taskforce making the recommendations is educationalist Bali Haque. And earlier in the year he wrote an illuminating opinion piece about how he saw the current schooling model. This piece provides, perhaps, the best – and most ideological – arguments for reform – see: Tomorrows Schools review must deal with the market’s failure.