I don’t envy the officials who are writing the new purpose statement for the Education Act. I’ve been on two boards of trustees which did something similar with our school charters, and it’s tortuous trying to find the balance between competing views and priorities (in one school even), let alone coming up with words that are pithy, honest, and hopefully vaguely inspiring.
No doubt many of the submissions to the review referred to the statement written in 1939 for the minister of education, Peter Fraser, by the young assistant director of education, C.E. Beeby:
The government’s objective, broadly expressed, is that every person, whatever his academic ability, whether he be rich or poor, whether he live in town or country, has a right, as a citizen, to a free education of the kind for which he is best fitted and to the fullest extent of his powers
This statement, an expression of the idea of equality of opportunity, became something of a ‘foundational myth’ for our public education system, and helped cement Beeby’s place in the hearts of progressives, and eventually pretty much everyone involved in education in New Zealand. Illustrating this, until recently a bust of Beeby sat on the counter of the ministry national office (during some of the ministry’s less glorious periods he would certainly have been ‘liberated’ by various defenders of his legacy if he wasn’t so heavy).
Over fifty years after writing his most famous words, Beeby reflected on the purpose of education and the hunt for a statement to sum it up, and his words are a caution to the public servant following in his wake today:
“My search for a realistic and lasting statement on the objectives of education led me to recall a lecture at Canterbury College in 1921, where an earnest fellow-student of mine, anxious to see the relation between Shelley’s invigorating presentations and the routine lectures at training college, asked Shelley when he was going to give a lecture on the aims of education. Shelley replied, ’You tell me the aims of life and I’ll tell you the aims of education.’ It may have been the wisest thing I ever heard Shelley say. For administrators, defining the objectives presents an insoluble dilemma. If they set out to itemise their objectives in what I earlier called a grocery list, they know that there will be competition between the items, either because the conflict in principle or because they are competing for limited funds; if they spend more on jam they will have less to spend on bread. But if they express their objectives in broad abstract terms, they are aware that their words can be interpreted to mean different things, and that academic theorists are standing by to perform the useful task of spelling that out.
Oh dear. Let’s put ‘the aims of life’ into law aye…. Where could this possibly go wrong?
But, he continues with this:
Yet the public and the teaching profession have a right to know, in clear and simple terms, the overall policy of those who control the national education service…”
So, this makes things interesting, in that really what we need to know is what Parata and her colleagues think the purpose of education is. I’m not sure about this, but maybe it would be better that this was set out in a speech (like what Beeby did for Fraser back in 1939) rather than written into law.
Anyway, good luck to whoever is writing this section, I hope Beeby’s muse appears for you.
Quotes in this post are from C.E. Beeby's The Biography of an Idea, Beeby on Education (NZCER, 1992)