Opinion: The National Party‘s newfound desire to centrally mandate what schools do is in sharp contrast to its opposition to the proposed reforms to Tomorrow’s Schools a few years ago. The argument then from National was that local schools knew best and there was no need to tell principals what to do from the comfort of Wellington.

It’s hard to imagine what a difference a few years make, but it seems when it comes to schools, the National Party believes in the nanny state.

Social media: The kids are not all right
Social media’s new revolution
Teens looking in the cracked mirror of social media

Rather than addressing the real concerns of schools after six years in opposition, it’s offering mandated teaching hours, mandated testing, mandated reporting and mandated bans on cell phones. At one level it is all a bit innocuous and silly as schools are already heavily focused on literacy and numeracy, and teachers already assess constantly and continually. They report regularly to parents, and schools seem to be able to work out what to do with cell phones without needing to be told by government decree.

Yet there is something deeply concerning about all of these moves as we head into the election. Much of it is premised on the erroneous notion that levels of achievement are falling in New Zealand schools, which is a mischievous and inaccurate reading of the research and the poorly informed idea that something, anything needs to be done to fix something that isn’t actually broken.

Every election is consequential, but this one will be a watershed one for education. Churn and turmoil in schools doesn’t help anyone

The ideas themselves are borrowed, tired tropes based on failed international experiments, with the cell phone idea revealing a party desperate to appear relevant and innovative in what it does in the education sector.

The policies are also driven by a deep professional distrust of teachers and principals and even the Ministry of Education. Professional expertise has always been undervalued in education as everyone is automatically an expert because we all went to school. However, I’m more than happy to trust the real experts, the principal and Board of Trustees with parental input in deciding what is best for their students. There are crises in New Zealand schools but they are not about student achievement levels and they are certainly not caused by principals and parents. Or cell phone use.

On the real problems of chronic understaffing and teacher workload, of teachers and schools struggling with the growing mental health problems of young people coming out of Covid, and teacher retention, the National Party remains deafeningly silent.

Perhaps there are other things that might be mandated to ignite greater faith and interest across the education sector.

How about mandating smaller classroom sizes? How about mandating in the Budget the economic resources necessary for schools to meet the needs of neurodiverse students and students living with disabilities.

How about mandating high level mental health support for children suffering with anxiety in New Zealand?

How about mandating the entitlement that all children come to school well-nourished, dry and warm?

Schools are complex places where the crises caused by government incompetence or ideological experiments are most precariously felt by children. I witnessed first-hand the extraordinary work done by teachers and principals through Covid-19. I am intensely aware of how many of these teachers are wary and wearied further by the solutions offered by recent National education policy announcements.

They are of course the tip of an iceberg when a coalition government with Act promises a battering of schools through its ideologically driven introduction of voucher systems, charter schools and the promise of dismantling the Ministry of Education. The silence of the National Party on how many of these reforms with which it is willing to indulge its partner should concern every parent in New Zealand. Every election is consequential, but this one will be a watershed one for education. Churn and turmoil in schools doesn’t help anyone.

How about mandating a truce between political parties to depoliticise education so teachers and principals can get on with their jobs without being in the middle of an ideological war?

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,...

Leave a comment