Family and education in a pandemic
24 April 2020
Opinion: The family should not be a tool for shifting the burden of cost away from the collective responsibility of the state and its obligation to educate its young, argues Kirsten Locke.
In the time of Covid-19, ‘the family’ is now the site of educational engagement.
In a damning appraisal of the effects of the market on education, sociologist Melinda Cooper (Family Values, 2017) explained how, since the 1980s, the key justification for shifting the ‘cost’ of education from the state to individuals was to appeal to ideas about the family and the responsibility of the ‘family’ to bear the costs of educating its young.
In moments of crisis, the underpinning philosophies and ideas about the nature and purpose of education in Aotearoa New Zealand are thrown up for us all to see.
The founding ideas of a state education system as articulated in that heady moment of ferment in the 1870s, set out the perimeters of a system wherein the government of the day explicitly stated its intention to ‘be involved’.
It took another crisis and seismic blow several decades later to again make visible our collective ideas and assumptions about the nature and purpose of education. The trauma of war and the economic impoverishment of the Great Depression prompted a rethink of the role education plays in democracy and making society more equal.
The period of New Zealand’s educational history from the 1940s to the 1970s imperfectly reflected this philosophical adjustment, and then came the 1980s and with it, a society that made new demands on education and its role in broader society while still, at the very least, paying lip service to the importance of state education.
Whatever happens next, the role of the family, and the nature and purpose of education, are inextricably entwined.
On the threshold of the third decade of the 21st Century, we are again at a point of seismic upheaval in education, and it is here that Cooper’s account is helpful. The last time ‘the family’ was called on in New Zealand to alter the way we think about education was to soften the blow of requiring tertiary students to pay for their university study.
In the time of Covid-19, ‘the family’ is now the site of educational engagement. The majority of New Zealand children will not be returning to ‘school’ after the Anzac weekend break, but will again be in the domestic space. No one knows exactly how long this moment of home-schooling – where the responsibility falls on the family to ensure engagement with education - will continue; for the next three weeks at least.
Once more, the drivers of the nature and purpose of state-run education are again being pushed to the surface. Of key importance is the challenge to the core tenet of modern state schooling – that of the separation of the domestic space from the educational space. We are seeing the fracturing of that global economic system, and we are living it at our dining room tables as children attempt to go to school.
Whatever happens next the role of the family, and the nature and purpose of education, are inextricably entwined. Let’s hope that ‘the family’ does not again become the tool for shifting the burden of cost away from the collective responsibility of the state and its obligation to educate its young in ways that create society instead of fragmenting it.
Kirsten Locke is a senior lecturer in the Faculty of Education and Social Work at the University of Auckland.
Julianne Evans | Media adviser
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