A parting gift from Parata: what does the new part 1AA of the Education Act mean?
The purpose of education is one of those topics that’s often ruthlessly strangled with post-it notes, butcher paper, platitudes and non-confrontational group work. It’s something that education lecturers, ‘visionary’ school leaders and buzz-word wielding consultants talk about, (over teachers’ groans) but mostly the assumption is that it’s too obvious to need to really spell it out.
But Hekia Parata wasn’t one to shy away from a challenge. The Act now does what many teachers college students have had to do over the years; set ‘objectives of the system for education and learning’, i.e. describe what education is for.
The objectives of the system for education and learning that is provided for in the specified Parts (that is, early childhood and compulsory education) are:
(a) to focus on helping each child and young person to attain educational achievement to the best of his or her potential; and
(b) to promote the development, in each child and young person, of the following abilities and attributes:
(i) resilience, determination, confidence, and creative and critical thinking:
(ii) good social skills and the ability to form good relationships:
(iii) participation in community life and fulfilment of civic and social responsibilities:
(iv) preparedness for work; and
(c) to instil in each child and young person an appreciation of the importance of the following:
(i) the inclusion within society of different groups and persons with different personal characteristics:
(ii) the diversity of society:
(iii) cultural knowledge, identity, and the different official languages:
(iv) the Treaty of Waitangi and te reo Māori.
(a) is what you’d expect from the last government. The focus is on individual achievement, consistent with a (neo)liberal view of the state and its relationship with citizens, making education (and the people that get it) a commodity, with gaining credentials being the goal.
‘ ...To the best of his or her potential’ is a less poetic version of Beeby’s famous ‘fullest extent of his powers’ line which resonates down the generations of NZ’s teachers, and was heavily pushed for by submitters on the Bill.
Achievement (rather than the less quantifiable ‘learning’) is what the system has been oriented towards over recent decades, and the last nine years in particular. ‘Raising achievement for all learners’ has been the catch-cry of ministers, officials and principals, and of course has filtered down to the practice of teachers too. What it’s taken to mean is quantifiable achievement, and in secondary schools, qualifications.
Abilities and attributes
(b) This is where it starts to get a bit more interesting. This section links heavily with the New Zealand Curriculum, its vision, values and key competencies.
While it’s still focused strongly on an individual’s characteristics, these are much broader than what’s in (a). Despite this breadth, the genesis of a lot of these ‘competency’ based goals for education is strongly economic, based on long term work from organisations like the OECD in developing ‘human capital’ and transferable skills for employment.
Clauses(ii) and (iii) though take a slightly different turn, explicitly putting social goals in the act, but still in the context of an individual student’s ability or willingness to do these things.
‘Fulfilment of civic and social responsibilities’ is an interesting one here, in that it seems to rely on an assumption that these responsibilities are unproblematic and uncontested. It leads to further questions. Doesn’t the context that someone is in have a pretty strong bearing on these? And could this context mean that sometimes participating in society (e.g. a totalitarian, oppressive, society, or a criminal sub-set of society) might not actually be a good thing? Some people may find it troubling that there’s no reference to family or whanau responsibilities in here.
"Appreciation of the importance..."
Part (c) is the bit that’s particularly challenging, and probably the most important. This is where the Act explicitly gets into what a lot of conservatives would call social engineering.
The four parts of this section are a pretty strong rebuke to the Hobson’s Pledge gang and plenty of other people who think that schools should stick to ‘teaching the facts’ and not pushing liberal values. This assertion of the importance of Tangata Whenua, inclusion and a pluralist society are things that it would be hard to imagine having passed into law by many previous National governments. It’s a Nixon to China situation; if Labour had proposed this law they’d have been on the sharp end of ‘nanny state’ outrage from the opposition, but this way it snuck by largely unnoticed.
Something that seems to be missing from the purpose statement is a sense that the education system has goals that are not only about individual students. It’s a major oversight that it’s silent on the importance of the education system’s roles in building social cohesion or creating a ‘national identity.’ I’m not sure that part (c) does this, simply setting out that students being tolerant is a good thing.
While it’s not been in the Act before, when education was reformed in New Zealand following WWII one of the reasons for change was to make sure that the extremism and social divisions that led to war wouldn’t happen here. You don’t need to look hard around the world to see societies becoming fragmented, polarised and violent, and we shouldn’t simply assume that it could never happen here. Without other social institutions to bring us together, schools become even more important.
It’s also seems the ministry hasn’t caught up on parts (b) and (c) of the Act. Ministry documents, and even the building they work in, are plastered with the ‘raising achievement’ mantra. Every reference group or working party they set up still has as its main goal ‘raising achievement’, and no mention anywhere of the other sections. Is ERO considering how well schools are doing at preparing students to participate in community life, or appreciate the importance of The Treaty of Waitangi? Are there any reports from schools on how well their students go on to form healthy relationships?
What could this mean?
Parts (b) and (c) provide a useful tool for pushing for some positive changes in education, possibly more than what the minister who put this into law would have realised. They give us a legislative basis to nudge the central agencies to get away from narrow performance measures, and support and resource schools to deliver all of what they say matters. It’s clear there’s not supposed to be a hierarchy amongst the three parts - the Act doesn’t say one of the three objectives is more important than the other. They also set us up to have to answer the rather terrifying question - how will schools and teachers show that they’re doing these things?
How did we get (b) and (c) in the Act, in an environment of 85% NCEA and National Standard targets, narrow achievement challenges for CoLs and a minister ‘relentlessly’ focused on raising achievement? I think it went like this. Firstly, the minister wanted a purpose statement in the Act, which is standard for modern legislation. The ministry began work on it, consulting on this part before the bill was written, and it became obvious that everyone who works in education (as well as parents, and even employers) would have been mightily unhappy if there hadn’t been anything relating to social goods. After all, we’ve all had this conversation in teachers college, and no-one just wrote ‘raising achievement’ (except maybe Parata, in the brief time she was there) on their post-it note. Recognising this, and not wanting to pin her colours to the mast too blatantly for fear of uniting the sector in outrage once again (see, class size increases 2012, bulk funding 2016) they came up with something inoffensive they thought would slip down reasonably painlessly - and then probably hoped they wouldn’t have to do anything about it. Perhaps that will be the case.
The objectives themselves are blandly liberal (they’ll offend both the radicals who’d have wanted to see something more critical and the conservatives who won’t like the social engineering), polite and generally pedestrian. They’re the Jack Tame and Hilary Barry of values statements. It’s the decision to enshrine these at the front of the Act that makes it significant. It means that achievement alone can’t be held up as what schools are all about, which is going to be a welcome change, and require a big attitude shift for a lot of people who’ve been telling teachers what to do for the last nine years.