End of Tomorrow’s Schools neoliberal experiment

Opinion: Negative comments from prominent Auckland principals is confirmation Tomorrow’s Schools Taskforce report has got it right, writes Professor Peter O'Connor.

"Thirty years of a business model approach to education has wreaked havoc on our schooling system," says Professor Peter O'Connor.
"Thirty years of a business model approach to education has wreaked havoc on our schooling system," says Professor Peter O'Connor.

If Minister of Education Chris Hipkins needs confirmation that the Tomorrow’s Schools Taskforce report had got it right, the negative comments of several prominent Auckland principals will have him absolutely convinced the review is on the right track.

Thirty years of a business model approach to education has wreaked havoc on our schooling system and had further, wider impacts across all aspects of New Zealand life. It has created some schools as winners at significant expense to the poorest and most vulnerable communities. We have seen this two tiered education system mirror and then reinforce growing inequality, and the creation of an increasingly rigid class system.

The latest Child Poverty Monitor released by the Office of the Children’s Commissioner found that one in five children under the age of 15 – amounting to between 161,000 and 188,000 children – experience moderate-to-severe food insecurity. This means they can’t count on having regular nutritious meals. That so many of our children in this country are hungry is a national disgrace and an education system that reinforces this inequity should simply be no longer tolerable.

Tomorrow’s Schools review makes it clear that schooling has the potential for improving the life chances of individuals and transforming communities. It argues that schools must be involved in levelling the playing field rather than tilting it even further towards the rich and privileged. Task force recommendations puts social justice and the battle for the rights of the most marginalised at the heart of its proposed reforms.

Details of the recommendations deserve considerable debate over the coming months. It will be important to ensure that the proposed changes are well considered prior to submission to government for action. very real philosophical shift proposed in the report should have every principal celebrating what is offered, rather than only considering how it impacts on their individual school. For too long, narrow self-interest has guided sectoral response to education in this country. It has done us absolutely no favours as we have slid further down the international rankings from what was once a world leading position.

The report proposes a dramatic shift from a model of individual competing schools with a narrow focus on raising academic achievement to a more collaborative, cooperative system focused on the well-being and success of children. If the report is accepted by government it will be the most fundamental change we have had in generations on how schools are understood, operated and evaluated. It will be perhaps one of the most significant reforms of the neo-liberal agenda established by the fourth Labour government.

...schools must be involved in levelling the playing field rather than tilting it even further towards the rich and privileged. 

ACT MP and former Undersecretary for Education, David Seymour was right when he said the review was an attack on the autonomy of schools. The old fashioned 1980s idea that schools should be autonomous competing business units deserves to be dismantled for a number of reasons: Firstly, the model didn’t lift student achievement; secondly, it reinforced and grew levels of inequality that have been disastrous for individuals and communities.

There is no international evidence to suggest that autonomous competing schools do better for a nation’s education system, or the children it serves. As the review committee rightly points out, some of the real failings of the current system has been that because it isn’t joined up, it has been difficult to implement real and long lasting policies to make desired change.

The ideological agenda that established Tomorrow’s Schools was never embraced by teachers or fully implemented in New Zealand schools. The battles fought over the extremes of the agenda, including bulk funding and charter schools, was all part of what now seems a rather quaint and silly idea that the market knows best and that schools would do better if they replicated business models. Many of us believed this in the 1980s, and now most of us know it for the folly it was, and is.

There are deep problems facing young people in New Zealand. Too many of them live in poverty, in communities that have given up on hope for real change. The idea that we can afford to have winners and losers in education is too expensive an idea when it comes to the health and wellbeing of all our children.

The most difficult road ahead for the proposed reforms will be the attempt to build a consensus on how we think about our schools. Negatively focusing only on the details of the report at this point is counterproductive. What we urgently need is an agreement to stop having education as a political football and agree to the fundamentals that should underpin it – and the National party could begin to rebuild trust with the education sector by getting on board.

Surely, we can then all agree that our schools should focus on the wellbeing and success of all our children and provide a system where we can guarantee every school, every local school, is an excellent school. And then surely we can agree that first and foremost education is a public good.

Peter O’Connor is Professor of Education at the University of Auckland and education spokesperson for Child Poverty Action Group. This article reflects the opinion of the author and not the views of the University of Auckland.

Used with permission from Newsroom, End of the Tomorrow’s Schools neoliberal experiment, published on 17 December 2018.