Hard lines, David Grant

The Crisis in New Zealand Schools
Martin Hames
Education Forum in Association with Dunmore Press, $29.95,
ISBN 0864694105

My initial reaction was that The Crisis in New Zealand schools would be redolent with jargon and full of half-truths and misinformation from a bitter new rightist, pursuing an ideological line that took no prisoners and was blinkered about acknowledging, let alone understanding, that there could be any other truth in educational philosophy. This impression was quickly confirmed by the over-the-top headlines screaming for the reader’s attention: “crisis”, “curriculum catastrophes”, “assessment atrocities”, and “monopoly miseries”.

This is indeed, overtly and unashamedly, a book of ideology, which, translated to the lowest common denominator, claims that everything traditional, formal, and “old” about secondary education in New Zealand is worthy and righteous, and that everything innovative, liberal, and “new” is the manifestation of unwelcome political correctness, or muddled thinking from trendy leftists and well-meaning but inconsequential do-gooders.

According to Hames, all students of adolescent age today are suffering from a raft of educational complaints and deprivations. These include: the ravages of knowledge “retreat”; feckless morality; obsession with “self-esteem”; “flights” from structured learning; a disempowering of values; “guilt trips” about the Treaty of Waitangi; the “sea of pink fluff” that is today’s social studies; the sea of “mediocrity” that is today’s English; “demonisation” of the new right; anxiety about competition (and, conversely, preoccupation with co-operation and obsession over “equal outcomes”); foggy curricula “mish-mash”; inadequate assessment rigour; and the deprofessionalisation of teachers.  If one understood and believed all Hames’s criticisms, one would be hard pressed to understand why any New Zealand adolescent would want to attend school at all, let alone be concerned for his or her intellectual development.

2

Such an ideological book is bound to stimulate an ideological response, and this is one of those book reviews which inevitably tells you as much about the reviewer’s opinions as the author’s. Unlike Hames, I did have a close connection with schools: first, as the son of a high school principal absorbing that school’s culture by osmosis through living on the property; secondly, as a secondary school teacher of 16 years’ standing; and currently, as a professional writer, researching a history of secondary education in New Zealand from the union perspective and funded by the Post Primary Teachers’ Association (PPTA). (The PPTA, incidentally, is an organisation which Hames castigates as a screeching militant group that has inflicted damage on New Zealand education.) Hames, by contrast, is an avowedly right-wing economist. He has worked in Treasury and later for Ruth Richardson, who – while Opposition spokesperson for education in the 1980s – advocated the most Friedmanite policies of any right-wing politician, including the provision of a voucher system as a way of opening up education to market forces. Thus the battles lines are clearly drawn in this clash of philosophies.

It is hard to be positive about a book which has such a clear irony running right through it. More than once Hames advocates that students pursue rigorous research. Nobody would disagree with that. Yet despite his wide reading, as a work of rigorous research, Crisis in New Zealand Schools itself falls flat. Assertions outweigh evidential conclusions; opinions outweigh facts. Sometimes Hames simply gets things wrong. For example, criticising the teacher unions for campaigning long, and successfully, against bulk funding of teachers’ salaries, he asserts that it was axiomatic that the people best placed to decide the mix of teachers to be employed were the principal and, ultimately, the school board – not bureaucrats in Wellington. But secondary teachers have always been employed by principals and boards, pre- and post-bulk funding.

Hames fails, too, to make the distinction between the secondary and primary sectors – the latter before Tomorrow’s Schools traditionally having their staffs chosen by the self-said bureaucrats in the Education Boards. I agree with Hames here. The system was ridiculous and often did not meet the needs of the school. Principals and boards are the only appropriate people to choose their staffs.

Moreover, Hames relies on a relatively small number of informants, best suited to his ideological purposes. In the New Zealand secondary schools context, these are John Morris, Alison Georhoefer, Phil Raffills – all peas from the same pod, members of the Education Forum (the right-wing educational think tank and an offshoot of the Business Round Table). All are, or were, school principals whose philosophies and organisation could best be described as “traditional”. The vast majority of secondary principals in New Zealand are “middle-of-the-road”, running schools that look for the best mix of the conservative and the innovative. How much better – more useful – this book would have been had Hames reached outside his ideological straitjacket and brought their views forward to provide a contextual contrast.

3

I cannot be as gladatorial as Hames. Apart from being “broadly liberal” in my approach to  education, I am not a slave to any ideology. In amongst the blind adherence here to a bygone age – a good deal of it reminiscent of Mervyn Wellington’s “back-to-basics” movement – Hames raises some issues worthy of discussion. I agree, for example, that there needs to be a serious rethink of the English curriculum, making it more grammar-friendly so that more of our school-leavers are more literate than they are at present.

I also take Hames’s point that ill discipline is becoming disproportionate to the efficient workings of many schools, and that increases in school suspensions, truancy rates, incidences of bullying and abusive behaviour towards teachers are causing more and more teachers to leave the profession. I disagree, however, with Hames’s pat assertion that part of the problem is due to the abolition of corporal punishment in 1991. The answer is much more complex than that. I, like most of the experts working in the field, do not possess the complete explanation, although research appears to show that increasing levels of poverty, growing diminution of respect, and larger numbers of dysfunctional families, all play a part.

To his credit, Hames disclaims any attack on teachers. He believes they have been stripped of their authority, perpetually underpaid, little appreciated by the wider society, frequently not  versed in the subjects they are supposed to be teaching (primarily because many have moved into other subject areas where there are shortages), and expected to cope with unrealistic workloads. All of this rings true. But when he dons the more ideological hat, he becomes more contentious. For example, he believes that the forthcoming National Certificate of Educational Achievement (NCEA) is a quagmire, enveloped in “liberal fog”, which will provide a multitude of problems in assessing student worth. That is not what the vast majority of teachers and their boards think. The NCEA, a broad-based assessment and qualification procedure designed to replace the outdated School Certificate examination, has just won an overwhelming mandate from teachers despite the extra work it will impose and the Government’s dilatoriness in providing extra time and money to accommodate this.

Hames also believes teachers have suffered because of the “antics” of their trade union, a “labour monopoly” that has become “extreme” in its political stance over the last 20 years or so. That does not square with one statistic that is irrefutable. Close to 97 per cent of New Zealand’s secondary school teachers belong to the PPTA; this percentage is among the highest, not only among teacher unions in all developed countries but is one of the highest rates of union membership for any union in New Zealand. Membership is voluntary. This overwhelming show of support is testimony to the faith the vast majority of teachers have in their union’s hard work on their behalf to improve pay, decrease workloads, and initiate development in curricula, in assessment, and in professional advancement. That fights occur from time to time between the children (the wider membership) and the parents (National Office and the Executive) is simply part-and-parcel of belonging to a very large family of close to 15,000.

Hames’s exhortations, and there are many in this book, remind me of Race Relations Conciliator Jores de Bres’s comparison of 19th century settler behaviour towards Maori with the behaviour of the Taleban regime in Afghanistan. De Bres’s ridiculous analogy was roundly criticised by politicians and media commentators alike. His response – that he was simply trying to encourage debate on race relations in New Zealand – did not fall on fertile ground because it was “old hat”, many folk being tired of the trotting out of the same old guilts. Nor has Hames’s denunciations of schools today – the “preoccupation with co-operative learning”, the “wishy washy curricula”, the unacceptable “militancies” of the teacher union, alongside much else that was currently wrong within the education system – led to widespread and heated argument among a wider audience. Yet the book did create interest. That The Crisis in Schools sold out its first print-run was daunting enough for this reviewer.

 

David Grant’s last publication, Thoroughbreds, Trainers, Toffs and Tic Tac Men, was reviewed in our December 2002 issue.

 

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Posted in Education, Non-fiction and Review
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