Freedom within a framework, Harvey McQueen

The Role of the State in Education
The Sir Ronald Trotter Lecture delivered by Richard A Epstein
New Zealand Business Roundtable,
$12.50, ISBN 1 877148 06 7

Worldwide, education is under criticism. Why? First, after World War II large claims were made by the educators. Educational expenditure increased as did centralised top-down planning. Now there are questions about the success of this investment as the ideological tides retreat on state planning and expenditure.

Second, education continues to be expected to solve huge problems. It is to prepare students for a constantly changing workplace and equip them to be fully operational citizens. It is to prepare them to deal with social issues, physical and mental health issues and overcome various social scourges such as drugs and violence.

One would expect teachers, as deliverers of such understandings and capabilities, to be placed on a pedestal. Instead, the contrary is occurring. Everywhere, they feel overwhelmed by the tasks confronting them. In return, communities claim that their expectations are not being met. In the tug-of-war over the means and ends of education, nearly everyone has views on what teachers should be doing — this is one of the reasons why internationally they often feel devalued and demoralised. The standards they are frequently asked to inculcate and uphold are all too often undefined or are definitely double.

Third, the borders separating the outside world from education institutions are increasingly blurred. Once, educators determined the content, order, method and speed of instruction; much less so now. The community, business and the media all forcibly intrude.

Fourth, while many positive things are happening in education, this doesn’t mean to say we cannot do better. Defending education is sometimes difficult because it involves every child in the country. In such a large enterprise, there will inevitably be examples of things going wrong to bring the system under scrutiny and sometimes into disrepute.

A couple of decades ago the answer to these criticisms was the “school is dead”. This ideology flashed across the intellectual debates like a meteor — only to burn up on entering the atmosphere of common sense. Now we have a new mantra: remove the state. Professor Epstein presents this case.

He concludes his lecture: “I think that if we were to privatise the entire system we would do far better and by privatisation I mean no government intervention whatsoever. Whether we can get there, of course, is something which I think will take one or two generations to talk about and debate, but I hope at least we can start down that road.”

Epstein acknowledges that one cannot lay overseas templates upon another system but many of his lines of argument do just that. Unlike in America or Australia, in New Zealand very few (4%) children go to private schools. The rest go to state schools. He praises private schools in the United States as generally having their own board and trustees; all our state schools have such governance.

Traditionally education, especially in the compulsory years, has been seen here as a state-funded right and necessity. In 1877, introducing the Education Act, Sir Charles Bowen reflected the values of the period: “The higher branches of education may be taught upon payment of a fee — a sufficient fee — and there is provision for scholarships which enable children of unusual attainments and ability to carry on their education. It is not intended to encourage children whose vocation is that of honest labour to waste in higher schools time which might be devoted to the learning of a trade.”

Now investment in human capital is increasingly costly. We need more skills. Changing labour market needs — for example, the growing proportion of jobs in the service industry — demand more education. Even so-called “unskilled” jobs require more literacy, more numeracy, more flexibility. So secondary education has come to be seen as the state’s responsibility too, though there is still debate over the frontiers with early childhood and tertiary. It has been an effective avenue of economic upward mobility as both schools and society have moved away from last century’s elitist male bastions and rigid classical curriculum.

For secondary as well as primary schools the state tries to balance the equations between cost-effectiveness and quality. It accepts that Bowen’s minimum skills of “honest labour” are not the educational requirement for the twenty-first century and the compulsory element has been extended. There are a few critics of compulsion. Richmal Crompton’s schoolboy hero William complained about it and thought it would be more fun sweeping chimneys and working in coal-mines.

Epstein echoes this romantic muddle-headedness about the excesses of early industrialisation. He begins by assuming an “ideal state of nature” which closely resembles the early industrial period. “In a state of nature you effectively have three layers of education — parents, extended family and charitable support. You have here a whole variety of institutions which are nimble enough and well-intentioned enough to handle this particular problem [education] in an intelligent fashion.” His argument is entirely ahistorical. Education is the human attempt to put systems and resources into place to provide learning for the times — and in some societies to control it.


Learning is something we all do. Learning has always been life-long and increasingly education is seen as such. Once the family was the prime educative force, with backup from the church in western society. Last century the nation-state took over this role. State provision was seen as necessary to ensure that all had access to learning. Traditional socialising agencies such as the family, church and other charity groups proved unable to supply what was needed, as did private fee-paying schools. Males getting the vote added momentum to the demand. In 1870 British politician Robert Lowe said in Parliament in support of compulsory education: “We must educate our masters.”

So during the nineteenth century instead of the earlier casual, haphazard and fluid educational arrangements, a system of compulsory schooling was introduced throughout the industrialised world. Students were graded by age as well as ability and increasingly taught by teachers specifically trained for the task. It is easy to forget how recent in historical terms this development has been.

Now education is available in new ways in a global multi-media world. Epstein asks what sort of education system would one design if one had a clean slate. Forget the slate — what about a clear whiteboard, no, not even that, an interactive computer network? Education follows wider societal forces and trends. A minor example: until recently New Zealand school terms were based on the lactation cycle of the cow.

In the Renaissance one learnt at the feet (or beside the hand) of a master — the apprentice model. After the Industrial Revolution a factory-style processing of knowledge and of pupils developed both in schools and universities. Now we have an information revolution, mind-numbing in the collapse of distance and time it is causing. Computers and telecommunications transform not only our concepts of distance but also our concepts of learning. Smart machines equipped with artificial intelligence, expert systems and ever-greater memory banks replace libraries, even last week’s research. But this very revolution creates a new problem, information overload. Discrimination becomes an essential skill.

The enterprise building blocks of the future appear to be horizontal, multi-task networking teams, forming and re-forming. Education will follow suit, but slowly — education models tend to be conservative. After all, one function is to pass on the received wisdom of the past, as well as presenting a vision for the future. So education follows where society leads. In the future we shall probably see much more flexible education arrangements, allowing students to participate in learning opportunities in new and different ways.

Already New Zealand’s best educational practice is along the lines that are needed for the future labour market — group work, projects, ownership of learning, skills across the curriculum, interdisciplinary studies, greater linkages to enterprise, portable qualifications, holistic learning and collaborative creation of knowledge and use of skills. Learning to learn is crucial — the shelf-life of new knowledge and skills is short. Dr Lockwood Smith’s vision of seamlessness is interesting in this respect. It assumes shifting away from classes structured by age cohort. People of different ages have always learnt together. The placement of children according to age is a relatively new idea and may have run its course.


What is learnt and what is taught is at the heart of education. Epstein barely mentions the role of the state in setting the curriculum. This is interesting, because often people who minimalisers of state funding are centralisers of curriculum. They want rigid control of standards and of what should be taught. Epstein does not want this — he is against “the dogmatic view that there is one standard curriculum”.

So much for the national curriculum framework that Lockwood Smith worked so hard to establish. New Zealand has always accepted the concept of an essential common core curriculum. Such a concept would go the way of the neighbourhood school if the minimalist model were adopted.

To be fair, Epstein does not want “the transition to the stateless education cold turkey”. He suggests vouchers as the route. “The state would tax its citizens as it does now and then give a voucher — which is money for a restricted purpose — to parents to spend at any school of their choice on the education of their children.” But he does acknowledge “nagging difficulties” in their implementation. For instance, do you give more money to children with disabilities?

Three major problems with vouchers are not mentioned. First, while in theory they offer parent choice, in practice they enable the school to exercise the choice. Second, demographic trends, for instance growth in Auckland and the western Bay of Plenty create educational pressures. Third, they create a “winners and losers” system which a modern nation cannot afford if it wants to retain its competitive edge. Every young person deserves quality learning opportunities. Marginalisation should not be perpetuated or introduced through education. With our small population base, we need all the human resources we possess, highly educated, skilled, involved and motivated.

Our consumer society’s carefully developed status anxiety affects parents’ attitudes to schools. They want the best for their children. But if the best is limited to only a few, then what happens to those who attend the other schools? The competitive model assumes some form of league table — the 10 best selling schools. It is not that simple. Reputation is based on many factors. When surveyed about top law schools in the United States people regularly name Princeton — but Princeton has never had a law school. Exam results figure prominently in public judgments about secondary schools’ effectiveness. Such arguments ignore the value schools add to the intake they get. This value-added factor is very hard to measure. In a winner-take-all society students who attend schools with lower reputations start with an unfair, indeed crippling, handicap.


I emphasise that I am not avoiding the term or the concept of failure. It is something we all experience in various ways. I advocate full use and development of available talents and skills. If choice is exercised to exclude a large percentage of potential talent on any grounds, be it gender, ethnicity, socioeconomic status or financial resources, from the advantages of a good education, this acts as an applied brake on the nation’s development.

Questions of equity of opportunity and measuring outcome bedevil education. There have always been inequities in learning opportunities. To its credit our society has tried to address these. But there are now criticisms of successive governments’ policies of attempting to extend full use of the pool of talent. The critics would by their league tables exclude many children from a quality education.

If we develop a handful of elite schools and one or two elite universities, the nation will be undercapitalised in human development terms. Failure to get into these elite institutions, regardless of their actual quality or the appropriateness of what they offer, will close many doors. Such a structure ignores late developers or potentially able students from the so-called “lesser” institutions. Restricted access to the nation’s most sought-after jobs on the basis of institution attended would be bad for those who set the restrictions and even worse for those shut out. The superstar approach to education would escalate costs, as institutions competed for staff and resources to reinforce their academic prestige. A winner-take all society in time becomes top-heavy, just as French society did in the eighteenth century.

Epstein says: “There is one education market in the United States which has not surrendered to state control. This is the market for the education of students between the ages of 2 and 4… This education market is relatively unlicensed, unregulated and non-unionised and it is relatively cheap.” Yes, of course it is cheap. Its staff, largely untrained, are paid the bare minimum and there is little or no quality control. Perhaps this is what our government had in mind when it recently took urgency to force through legislation removing kindergarten teacher wage-fixing from the State Sector Act.

Apply these concepts to schools. “Unlicensed”? “Unregulated”? No common standards? No regular audit? Schools at their best are places of intellectual excitement and nourishment. But their custodial function remains. Parents need assurances about safety. Teachers are in loco parentis not by accident, but by design. Epstein says: “I think parents are pretty much aware of what happens to a child who doesn’t receive an education.” If he is correct, why have successive governments been so concerned about truancy? The community wants to ensure that children whose parents have not offered them educational opportunities are given a second chance. Of course the majority of parents are competent and concerned. But a significant percentage are not, as was the case in 1877 when attendance was made compulsory. Are their children to be penalised educationally?

Governments will always be interested in present and future generations of children. In this year’s Budget speech Treasurer Winston Peters said: “[The] government shares with parents a responsibility to ensure that all young people make the most of the opportunities our education system provide.” Politicians are interested in the quality of education, what is taught and how, for two reasons — the good of the nation and the charge on state funds. Any parent in this country can contact the local MP or the Minister of Education about the standards in their local school. That is their right. In return, the government assumes it has a responsibility.


The Tomorrow’s Schools reforms illustrate how recent governments interpret that responsibility. New Zealand went early and further than some similar countries down the track of rejecting many aspects of central state administration in the late 1980s and 1990s. Its education reforms form part of this process. Several previous attempts to reduce the highly centralised system had failed. The reforms changed that model. Many in education still hanker for its return, as do a considerable number outside it.

The change introduced a model like the United States constitution — a balance of powers among the clients (students, parents, community, industry), self-managing institutions and Government (the major funder). As a model it aimed to be responsive to the borderless learning possibilities of the information age. In line with developments in enterprise it attempted to let people take ownership of their own learning needs. But the state retained a major interest and role.

Western society balances two prospects of freedom: capitalism — the maximisation of profit — and democracy — equality and social responsibility. The tension between them, though uneasy, provides the dynamic upon which our way of life exists. Somewhere in there, environmental sustainability struggles to be heard.

David Lange, launching the Tomorrow’s Schools education reforms, spoke of the partnership between parents, school, local community and state. He stressed the democratic side of education. Democracy assumes an educated populace — one that has moved from dependence to independence, from supervision to freedom. It assumes, from both sides, rights and obligations. Lange spoke of a “covenant”. He saw the charter as the link between school, community and state and the devolution of educational, financial and professional decisions as enabling local people to meet the needs of their particular students. As well as Tomorrow’s Schools, he was interested in tomorrow’s standards. He always saw curriculum reform as following the administrative reform.

But the Picot report, the base upon which Tomorrow’s Schools was constructed, also carried in its direct funding implications the entrepreneurial side of our society. That side assumes self-generation and self-assembly. So Tomorrow’s Schools struck a balance between decentralisation and centralisation.

Both during and since the implementation of the reform several checks and balances have been whittled away. Some reflect further devolution, for example, the removal of zoning. Occasionally, as with the return to compulsory teacher registration, others have been reinstated. Then there is contradictory cost-cutting tinkering, such as the closing of ministry regional offices or the abolition of the Parents Advocacy Council. The most powerful devolution mechanism advocated by the Picot task force was the idea of a “safety valve” of parents enabling parents to withdraw their children from the neighbourhood school. While it was hoped this right would never be used, it was presented as a possible lever for Maori to move the system. It has not yet been used as envisaged.

The centralisers argue that education should occur within a common framework, with comparable quality of service. The decentralisers argue that the state should withdraw even further. Ever since Tomorrow’s Schools was introduced the reform has been under siege from both sides. Yeats asked: “Can the centre hold?” My hunch is that it will hold — though probably not in its present form. The vision of the reforms envisaged freedom within a framework, not freedom without restraint.

We have a choice — a winner-takes-all, competitive system with no level playing field or a system based around concepts of fairness and equity. The first values only the successful and eliminates the rest as useless, indeed unnecessary. The second envisages comparable and comparably accessible institutions, all aiming to be of the highest possible quality. The Tomorrow’s Schools reforms carry the seeds for both systems. These are the issues around which the debate on education should take place.

Harvey McQueen is an educator and writer. For the past five years he has been executive director of the Council for Teacher Education, from which he is retiring. In 1992 he wrote A Quality Partnership: Transition between Education and Employment, published by the Institute of Policy Studies. 

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