The danger of National’s policy is that it undoes much of an informal pact with Labour to depoliticise education at a time of real struggle

Opinion: The National Party’s recently released education policy narrowly channels nearly every tired and cliched right-wing approach to schooling. If you have been in education for as long as I have, you can recognise the well-worn tropes. 

As always, a manufactured crisis heightens parents’ natural fears that their children are somehow missing out. Reference to dated international league tables reduces the true worth of schools to the education equivalent of a beauty pageant. Blaming failing schools and failing teachers is a refrain borrowed from the John Key songbook. 

The National Party policy reminds us they don’t trust teachers. A naive and nostalgic view promises that if we could only get back to the way the world once was then all will be okay. Yet again a fantasy picture is created of schools far removed from reality.

The policy relies on the old formula often used by right-wing parties, creating the fear and then providing the same tired solutions. One of National’s solutions is to reduce all of the learning possible in schools to reading, writing and maths (in this case mix in a little science to show you’re innovative).

They offer hours of drilled lessons removed from the world in which students and teachers live. We can yawn through more of their talk about the basics. A narrow, dull curriculum that seems to want to punish children for being children and make teaching as boring a career as possible are offered as some kind of magic.

Ideology trumps evidence at the Ministry of Education
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As always there is the idea that test and test again will somehow make the difference. Lining children up for bi-annual tests in the basics is a boot camp mentality that many of us in education hoped had disappeared. 

None of the policy is based on reputable evidence or research. A fleeting visit to schools in England and advice from the New Zealand Initiative have clearly given the Leader of the Opposition a superficial understanding of how children learn that reduces his statements to a jumble of slogans.

The policy is so misguided and outdated it is easy to dismiss as red meat thrown out to a wavering base to shift stagnant poll numbers. The danger though is that it undoes much of an informal pact between National and Labour to depoliticise education at a time of genuine struggle.

Recent crises have taught us that schools offer more than the basics, that they are centres of communities. Teachers and principals simply want to get on with their jobs.

Five years ago, the Labour government promised the biggest shake up in education since the introduction of Tomorrow’s Schools. Once national standards and charter schools were disestablished, the then Minister Chris Hipkins softened many of the proposed changes and entered into a truce with National Party spokesperson Nikki Kaye. It delivered a reasonably settled bipartisan approach that has taken the heat out of the debate.

Instead of a full curriculum revision, it became a refresh, full-scale reform of tomorrow’s schools was shut down. The Ministry of Education regained some of its capacity to lead while boards retained autonomy. The policy release last week has thrown that middle of the road approach away. In election year it makes education yet again a football in a meaningless ideological battle. 

Schools carried their weight during Covid in terms of sickness, disruption and dissension. It’s been frankly exhausting for everyone involved. Tired principals spoken to are reeling from the policy announcement last week. One described it as a body blow, a punch in the guts. Another said it is the last thing anyone has asked for. They are dreading the possibility of yet more churn and turmoil in the sector. 

They begrudge the need to return to pitched battles. They fear that if National is returned to government they will have to fight to hold onto everything they know from quality research about what makes the difference in children’s lives. They deeply resent the fact that the work they have done over the past three years has been cheapened and demeaned by the spirit of the announcements. 

There may be some parental base that wants another ideological battle but I doubt it. Recent crises have taught us that schools offer more than the basics, that they are centres of communities. Teachers and principals simply want to get on with their jobs. They are wary of a return to the troubles of the past. Let’s maintain a consensus approach for the sake of our children and grandchildren.

Peter O'Connor is Professor of Education and Director of the Centre for Arts and Social Transformation at the University of Auckland. He has created and researched theatre in prisons, psychiatric institutions,...

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