Jim Collinge: View from the front window

Education is Change: Twenty Viewpoints
Harvey McQueen (ed.)
Bridget Williams Books, $34.95

Over the past few months large numbers of Swedish bureaucrats, politicians and educators have been visiting us to observe our education system as it works through the massive changes begun in 1987. Long accustomed to their own education system being intensively scrutinised as a model, it appears the Swedes are now looking to New Zealand for ideas and experiences which they can compare with their own current reform process, in which, as here, the rhetoric is of choice and competition.

Anyone wishing to get some insight into the massive changes that are creating such international interest could with profit read Harvey McQueen’s new volume. The book consists of 20 short articles, a distillation of talks McQueen had with prominent educators, chosen to cover most areas of the education system. They were asked to reflect on their own backgrounds and the major influences on their work and ideas, in addition to their own views on current and future developments.

A book such as this is always open to differences of opinion over the choice of contributors, a problem McQueen is well aware of. You can never, he remarks in the introduction, get the selection entirely right; 20 different people might have made an equally interesting book. I think three secondary school principals and three polytechnic chief executives are too many. The independent sector should have been given some place, as well as special education and I would have liked a second contribution from that central institution, the College of Education. So be it; the present selection is on the whole well‑balanced and judicious.

The title spells out the basic theme. Education is about change, writes McQueen: change in individual people and changes in the structure of the system. To say that education is change is, in itself, a somewhat meaningless cliché. One might as well say ‘life is change’. For it to count as education, presumably the change must be planned or deliberate, not just haphazard. It must also be thought to be change in a desirable direction, at least by a significant proportion of the population.

McQueen, though, is probably right to a degree when he points out that there is much less choice than we realise, that trends in society force much educational change upon us. Nevertheless, a feature of education is that much of the most significant reform results from the vision of remarkable individuals, often working against the prevailing current, in remote places, but whose influence has spread, in some cases internationally. Some of these names occur in this volume as mentors of the contributors, some of them famous, others practically unknown.

It is fascinating to speculate to what extent the massive changes since 1987 were forced upon us. Politicians and Treasury officials, supported by some academics propagated the view that there was a crisis in education. I tend to agree with Ian Mitchell that we had a perfectly good indigenous education system in this country that needed some refining. The education boards had to go: they had become a strangulating conservative force on the primary schools for too long. The system was failing too many people, particularly Maori, through a competitive examination system that should have been abolished long ago, as the Swedes did with theirs. We haven’t got that right yet, despite talk about the “seamless system” and the qualifications framework.

There was also undoubtedly a widespread demand for a move away from central control through excessive regulation towards more democracy. As John Barrington has pointed out in several articles, long before Picot there had been strong recommendations for reform, in reports such as Towards Partnership (1976) and before that in the education development conference set up by the third Labour Government (1972-75). Boards of governors felt powerless as elected representatives, merely approving decisions made elsewhere by the Department of Education or the principal. Important local developments were often delayed inordinately.

The Picot reforms were well received at the time, with most of the 20,000 written responses supporting the proposed changes. There was, however, a howl of protest from many academics, some of whom had previously been equally vehement critics of the earlier system. The Picot report was called “a cultural nightmare”, “offensive beyond words”, widely regarded as a construction of the Treasury and the so-called New Right, although McQueen correctly notes that its recommendations were not as pro‑Treasury as might have been anticipated.

What does come clearly through Education in Change is how comfortable almost all the contributors are with the current system. There are criticisms of course, but none of them would go back to pre‑Picot days. Jill Ussher sums it up by remarking that she hasn’t met a school principal who would go back to the pre‑1989 style of school management, despite the undoubted increase in the workload of staff who have had to take on new responsibilities that were previously in the domain of the old Department of Education.

At the time of Picot there was a rather pointless debate in the academic literature over whether education was a public good, to be funded entirely out of the public purse, or, following the Treasury, a private good. Fortunately, most of the contributors to this volume have put that behind them, accepting, like Gary Hawke, that education confers both social and private benefits and that in the post-compulsory sector students should bear part of the cost. The debate rightly focuses on the precise balance, who is to pay and who should be subsidised. That this is still a matter of fierce controversy may be seen by the reaction of secondary school principals to Lockwood Smith’s recent suggestion that secondary school students doing tertiary courses should pay for them, as tertiary students do.

A common perception, though, is that the reforms have exacerbated the difference between rich and poor schools in the funding they get from the Government through the operations grant and supplementary resourcing, as well as money they can raise from the community through fees, donations and other sources.

There is nothing new here; education has always been a prime source of class formation and maintenance. Elite schools, both private and state, were with us long before 1987. However, expectations are now different, demands are greater and we are probably no longer prepared to accept a situation of great inequality. The 1937 Beeby/Fraser statement of aims is as relevant today as ever. The preschool sector, after a brief flurry of optimism in the late 1980s, may be seen, in Anne Meade’s words, to be taking “one step forward, two steps back”. The schools are suffering flight away from poorer schools and we now have “sink” schools in areas of high unemployment and concentrations of minority groups. This latter phenomenon is aggravated by the ludicrous practice of publishing league tables of examination results, which in effect blames the poorer schools for their own problems, a practice which my Swedish friends regard as evil. The tertiary system struggles to cope with unprecedented growth while holding expenditure. Concern for excellence, for, in Sir Robin Irvine’s words, the needs of the “best and brightest”, becomes over shadowed by issues of fees, real student hardship and unsatisfied demand.

Part of the problem is that education these days is so expensive. The information revolution, the new technology, places greater and greater demands on funding, for example in the expectation that every student will have access to a computer. But there is another issue apart from cost raised by information technology, one dealt with well by Shona Butterfield. A characteristic feature of any centrally controlled state system of education is its tendency towards unification, its lack of respect for local values. Now, with the technological revolution, our whole national culture is under threat. Butterfield draws attention to the tendency for Australian distance education enterprises to be brought here without adapting them to our own purposes, a practice which she writes, puts us “in danger of losing our New Zealandness, before we have even got it”. We may have to join the global education marketplace, but as contributors not just receivers.

The Tomorrow’s Schools reforms were about democracy, diversity, about local people making their own decisions; at least that’s how the rhetoric went. If the reforms are to work, a great deal of responsibility lies with the boards of trustees. This implies, as Colleen Pilgrim rightly indicates, that board members have to be assisted to develop the necessary skills. We have seen what can happen when things go awry, as in the recent case of a Wairarapa school in which the minister had to abolish the board. There is a danger that if people are not actually empowered to do the administrative work required of them, we could end up with an even more centrally controlled system than the old one.

Interestingly, the Swedish reforms, which parallel our own in many ways, have very little place for parent involvement in the schools, although there is much greater attention paid to student democracy, in which student involvement in all aspects of the school life is built into the curriculum as a way of preparing them to take their full place as citizens of a democratic society. I suspect that few New Zealand secondary schools would have the kind of student self-government that Ian Mitchell describes at Henderson High School.

One potential potent source of centralised control is undoubtedly the New Zealand Qualifications Authority. A former Director-General of Education once wisely remarked to me that, if he was having his time over again that’s the body he would want to be in charge of. That’s where the real power lies. David Hood, the authority’s chief executive, no doubt has his heart in the right place when he writes of wasted human potential through failure to achieve qualifications because of outmoded, inappropriate examination procedures. However, the solution proposed by the national qualifications framework has a strong tendency to override the very real differences in aims, functions and traditions between the three major post-compulsory institutions.

One only needs to read Sir Robin Irvine’s contribution to see how far the authority has to go before it can convince the universities of the value of the “seamless system”, concerned as they are for excellence, the primacy of research, academic freedom and their international reputation. In an excellent paper, available from Victoria University’s teaching development centre, Cedric Hall concludes that the danger of “seamlessness” is uniformity of educational approach in which the costs to higher education will outweigh the benefits it might provide.

However, it’s not just the universities that are concerned with their distinctive roles. The polytechnics may well find the new system, with its multiplicity of unit standards, too complex. Here also an excessively standardised approach could discourage innovation.

Colin Knight draws attention to the distinctive place of the colleges of education in the post‑compulsory sector. He notes that overseas many teachers colleges, instead of defining their own missions, have sought prestige by copying academic institutions, thus often turning an excellent college into a mediocre research establishment. To take one example, our teachers colleges have played for many years a central role in cultural and artistic life. Many of our leading artists, craftspeople and writers have attended them. Now, with the demand for higher academic standards and new degrees for primary teachers, there is often little space in a student’s timetable for the involvement in art, craft, dance, music and drama that has been such a central part in the life and training of a student teacher.

Apart from Phil Raffles’ chilling little remark that “culture” can be done outside school, the role of the arts in education are, significantly, barely mentioned in this volume. New Zealand has had a long tradition in and a well-deserved reputation for arts teaching, particularly since the visionary reign of Dr Clarence Beeby as director‑general, when outstanding teachers such as Doreen Blumhardt, Elwyn Richardson and Gordon Tovey did much to develop art education. As with other aspects of our cultural life, such as public broadcasting, the arts in education need careful nurturing but can easily and quickly wither through neglect and lack of resources. In a Metro article in 1987 David Lange, in one of his periodic outbursts of philistinism, gave expression to an only too common present‑day opinion.

“… the education system is in danger of producing a nation of wimps … if things are allowed to continue we will produce a generation of kids who know all about caring and sharing, conflict resolution and peace studies and very little about earning a living … a nation of macramé workers and bone carvers … dancers and waiters“.

Nearly 30 years earlier, in two important but now forgotten papers, Education for Industry (1959) and Education for New Zealand’s Future (1961), economist Dr W B Sutch argued a central place for the arts in education, not just for leisure and enjoyment, but as a crucial element in our economic future. Sutch had the vision that we should become a Denmark or Switzerland of the South Pacific, placing our emphasis on human skills instead of an overreliance on agriculture. We should, he thought, be developing unique, New Zealand‑designed products, not only for our own quality of life, but also as a core element in the development of a successful tourist industry.

Tourists come here not only for sports and scenery, they also want to buy good quality indigenous goods, to visit art galleries and museums, listen to music and watch ballet and drama. This could develop only if our educators place a strong emphasis on the arts in education. New Zealand’s visibility abroad has been immeasurably enhanced by the bone carvers of the Te Maori exhibition and the dancers of the New Zealand Ballet Company. Jane Campion’s film The Piano has probably done more for our tourist industry than any deputation abroad of politicians, bureaucrats or businessmen.

Lange’s sneer about conflict resolution and peace studies was particularly crass in 1987, the year of the publication of the Report of the Ministerial Committee of Inquiry into Violence, under Sir Clinton Roper. This report noted that hundreds of submissions mentioned the need for people to learn to resolve conflict peacefully and recommended that peace studies be implemented in schools at all levels as soon as possible. Although that recommendation fell on stony ground, conflict resolution interestingly found a place in Labour’s 1993 election manifesto, provoking the predictable dismissal by Lockwood Smith of “warm fuzzies”. Yet we still seek for some solution to the high level of public and domestic violence.

Ian Mitchell, sick of the gap between public concern over violence in society and the rubbishing of attempts to do something about it, has established a peer mediation programme in his secondary school. It’s no good, he writes, just kicking violent students out. The cycle of violence has to be broken somewhere and we have to take time to show youngsters the alternatives. As so often happens, a small local group, working outside the system has taken up the challenge. The New Zealand Foundation for Peace Studies has over the past couple of years developed a peer mediation programme for primary schools known as “cool schools”. Currently being used in over 100 schools, the programme seeks to empower children to resolve their own conflicts in their own ways. Interest in the programme has been expressed from Australia, Germany, Sweden and Ireland.

Despite the wide range of views expressed in Education is Change, certain clear themes emerge. McQueen identifies empowerment, the need for learners to move from dependence to independence. Allied to this is the concern expressed by many contributors for the local solution to local problems. Often too much attention is paid by educators to global educational trends and economic determinants, too little to specific cultural factors, the indigenous and, indeed, the individual contribution. The New Zealand system has produced some remarkable individual innovations in places as far apart as Rangiora, Fernhill and Oruaiti. Kohanga Reo, one of the most important developments in our education system, resulted from an attempt by Maori people, as Pita Sharples says, “to try it from within our own resources”.

We should be aware of developments elsewhere in the world, while being wary of an unthinking adoption of overseas models. The major structural reforms will always be necessary, but within the qualifications framework and the “seamless system” we must also make room for what poet Louis Johnson has called “The View from the Front Window”:

A point of view: a domestic art meals
on the table and a warm bed. We do not need large events.

Jim Collinge teaches education at Victoria University of Wellington.

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Posted in Education, Non-fiction and Review
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