Monday, June 11, 2012


John Roughan says you’d need a certificate in education to know why school league tables are a bad thing. And because he doesn’t have a certificate in education, he can but wonder what could be possibly be wrong with creating ‘winners and losers’ and introducing open, transparent competition between state schools.

An entire worldview is compressed in that single statement. Not just a political position, but an ideological one as well, a whole approach to understanding society and its institutions. That is often the case with statements about education, seeing as schools are a model of society, and the student a model of the citizen. But in the area of education there is a peculiar view that still prevails, according to which these models should be better than the societies that we have, better than the idea of citizenship that we have settled for. Those who hold this view maintain that the task of schools – and most especially of public schools – is not just to produce employable workers, but also well-rounded and socially responsible persons; and not just to help the smartest or most advantaged children to reach their full potential, but to strive to teach everyone to a comparable standard according to their need and capacity. This is not the only view of public education, as Mr Roughan’s column sharply reminds us, and we may wish to test it against the history of this great liberal and later socialist institution. However it is in this domain that ideas about social equity that have largely disappeared from the public discourse remain the strongest. Therefore the public school as an idea and in practice is one of the few grounds in which it is still possible to not only defend but also strengthen and extend those oppositional models.

The Kauri Timber Company Ltd: School seats, school desk and gates [1906]

Which is why retooling public education is one of the priorities of neoliberalism. The setback that the conservative New Zealand government suffered last week – prompting the vehement reaction of our principal newspaper’s assistant editor – is a minor one, insofar as reducing teacher numbers to invest in teacher training is a small stop if not a detour in the journey towards league tables, performance pay and the latest incarnation of school vouchers that goes under the name of charter schools. The episode however is instructive, for what prompted the backlash was the comprehensive nature of the proposal. The prospect of lower teacher numbers across the board recomposed for a brief but intense political moment the image of the national school, and united teacher unions, education sector organizations, school trustees, families and the broader public in their opposition. The result was a dramatic illustration of how loudly the people can speak when it speaks with one voice. The government abandoned its proposal in the space of less than two weeks. Some say they took too long.

We aren’t always going to be so lucky. Attacks against public education, here and elsewhere, are going to continue, and they will be launched – against the backdrop of a permanent state of economic crisis – by driving a wedge between the aspirations of the middle class and the realities faced by the working class. Of course league tables and performance pay are damaging to public education understood as a universal good – and I’m going to explain why to John Roughan in a minute – but so long as you feel confident that you will be able to move to the area with the best school, and you have been correctly conditioned to view the education of your children as a form of competition, you might not mind this, or even learn to actively support the idea. And just in case you might harbour some nostalgia for old-fashioned egalitarian myths, we shall disguise the reforms as pious concern for the one in five whom the education system currently fails (never mind it’s more like one in twenty), and who hail in the main from the lower socio-economic classes. This will sway some of the liberals who most need to be made to feel altruistic in exchange for their class interests being served.

Teachers' Training College, Wellesley Street, Auckland [between 1907-1925]

In reality the political objective behind the introduction of national standards, league tables and performance pay is to increase the flow of public funds towards the education of the elites by creating further incentives for the teachers and schools who cater to the most privileged students. I say further because in most countries these incentives already exist, either implicitly or explicitly. In New Zealand under the Clark government there was a significant improvement in the funding mechanisms for low-decile schools, but not in the important and growing area of special needs (and special needs, as we know, tend to concentrate in low-decile communities). I wrote before about the enormous difficulties we had in accessing services and funding for our daughter and the appalling and discriminatory competition model that regulates these provisions. I could write five more posts about the way that schools that take on students like her are punished for it, but will link to this ongoing case instead. This is Labour’s legacy. One term of the current Tory government later, schools are required to report against national standards the results of students classed as having high needs – in spite of the fact that they are taught under an individualised educational programme – and are not allowed to disaggregate the data or report on how many of children with high needs there are on their roll. Now imagine this data being published in league tables, and the grossly unfair perceptions that it would generate. As for performance pay, imagine if not only schools – as is already the case – but also teachers were penalised financially for teaching students like our daughter. Would this lead to a more or less equitable system, would you say? I think even John Roughan could do the math on this one, if he cared to.

Yet that is exactly how the wedge will work: by rewarding the schools towards whom the system is biased and marginally increasing educational choice and teaching standards for the middle class and above, all at the cost of the most disadvantaged students and the most dedicated educators.

Pupils and staff at Te Uku Public School, 1910

In case you think that opposing these moves will simply be a matter of voting out a right-wing government, I invite you to consider that in Australia it was Labor that introduced national standards and league tables, and is now pledging to move on performance pay; while in the United States the No Child Left Behind legislation was introduced by the Republicans but Obama – who opposed it as a candidate – did nothing more than tinker with it in office and no longer intends to repeal it. As for New Zealand, while I sought and obtained reassurances last week that Labour still opposes national standards, the policies of the party most likely to form the next government are a long way from being announced and the worrying lines in David Shearer’s first speech as leader about getting rid of bad teachers still ring in the ears. This is only part of the reason why defending public education cannot be left to politicians, but it’s worth reminding ourselves of the mechanisms of consensus that we are dealing with.

As one of the nation’s leading editorialists, John Roughan is part of these mechanisms. His boisterously misinformed column is the measure of the kind of rhetoric we can expect to continue to have to face – a rhetoric that clouds the facts to the point of befuddlement, and to very precise ends: so that voters will continue to feel these issues at a gut level, and add them to the sum of their economic, social and existential insecurities, so that they may finally beg that their children be looked after, and bugger the rest.

We can, and should, expect more. We can, and must, demand more. So get informed, join the marches and the public meetings, support teacher unions and sector organizations. Let’s not let the artful mediocrity of the likes of John Roughan write the next chapter of this story.

I happen to be a school trustee so the usually implicit disclaimer that the views expressed in this blog are mine and mine alone should be made explicit this week.

For a point by point response to John Roughan’s column and useful considerations on the state of education debate I heartily recommend this post by Russell Brown.

The lively discussion following last week’s post included a separate (and excellent) response by IlllllllllllllI, who wrote an actual an essay on criticism.

Last week I had an essay on the internet as a technology of control published in the new issues of The New Inquiry magazine, which you really ought to subscribe to. It’s only $2 a month in its electronic form (PDF or iPad).

Lastly, I wrote my Euro 2012 preview for my hungry fortnightly slot at Overland but the football blog Minus the Shooting is back and I’ll strive to contribute to that as well. Should be great anyway. Bookmark it or do whatever it is that you do.

Full Image credits are as follows:
1. The Kauri Timber Company Ltd (Auckland Office): School seats, school desk [and] gates. [Catalogue page. ca 1906]. The Kauri Timber Company Ltd (Auckland Office): [Catalogue. ca 1906]. Ref: Eph-B-BUILDING-SUPPLIES-ca-1906-01-42. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.
2. Teachers' Training College, Wellesley Street, Auckland. Price, William Archer, 1866-1948: Collection of post card negatives. Ref: 1/2-000538-G. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.
3. Gilmour Brothers (Firm). Pupils and staff at Te Uku Public School, 1910 - Photograph taken by Gilmour Brothers. Price, William Archer, 1866-1948: Collection of post card negatives. Ref: 1/2-001089-G. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.