There is a solution – it’s us
Clarence Beeby's vision for education in Aotearoa in 1939 formally committed our nation’s education system to “enabling every child, each citizen, to reach their potential”.
In the 80 years since, a conga line of education ministers have interpreted this bold aspiration through the lens of political ideology and as the beliefs and conditions of the day have allowed.
To a certain extent, this is totally understandable. Our form of representative democracy means that we elect politicians who interpret what we ask for and decide what they think we need.
The pendulum swings far and wide
But perhaps more in education than anywhere else the pendulum swings far and wide from one electoral cycle to another.
We’ve seen the introduction of competition, based on free market principles. We’ve seen attempts to reduce competition and promote collaboration with the introduction of Kāhui Ako. We’ve seen the integration of religious schools into the state system, the creation of Kaupapa Māori institutions and wharekura. And we’ve seen the steady growth of Te Kura Pounamu; providing distance education to learners who need a bit more than their local school can offer.
We’ve also seen the rise and demise of charter schools and attempts to create fully online schools. These models of education are funded by our taxes but run as profit-making businesses and have no requirement for trained teachers and the ability to teach whatever they like.
An imbalance of power
Trades academies, activity centres and massive growth in early learning services have been added to the offerings for the children of Aotearoa by governments of all stripes too.
Throughout these swings and roundabouts, the questions of what we teach and why, or to whom and where, are often subject to an imbalance of power - where the government of the day can enact policies like National Standards or charter schools because they have the numbers in parliament.
Of course, not all swings are bad, nor all roundabouts but their consequences can’t always be foreseen.
More often than not these changes have been “done to” the children, families, communities and teachers of our country. While dressed up in language like “choice” and “equality” the differences may have less to do with what learners and educators need and more to do with how a particular set of policies play to a political base.
We are the experts, our voices must be heard
But there is a solution. It’s us
Education should not be something that is done to you – it should be reciprocal and organic to best meet the needs of students, the workforce and society in general. For this to be realised our voices must be heard. We need to participate in the democratic process.
From pedagogy to assessment to how we work with our colleagues to create the best learning opportunities for all ākonga, we are the experts and it is our democratic right to bring our voices to any reform or new direction.
We need to bring our knowledge and expertise to make clear what changes are needed, why, and how they should be made.
Let’s take the politics out of education
We know that education has the potential to transform the lives of individuals and whole communities. I don’t believe we can do this if our model of education is forced to bend to the winds of ideology every three years. It’s not good for our ākonga, their families, our communities or us.
Children’s Commissioner Judge Andrew Becroft has said that the absence of explicit reference to the voice of young people in our education act is unfathomable. We agree, and add that a lack of sector consultation is equally unfathomable.
With so much change in education legislation and in practice, our focus should be on the direction in which policy-makers appear to be taking education.
Consultation with the sector, robust and home-grown evidence and an awareness that public education is a cornerstone of a fair and just society is vital. Let’s take the politics out of education, and put children, teachers and communities back in.
Let’s start there.