Telling tales out of school, Harvey Molloy

Those Who Can Teach: A History of Secondary Education in New Zealand from the Union Perspective
David Grant
Steele Roberts, $39.95,
ISBN 1877338214

Welcome to the Campus of Struggle: Dispatches from the International Student Academic Front 1999-2004
David Cohen
Dunmore Press, $34.95,
ISBN 0864694695

Although I’ve had eight years experience teaching English at universities, I’m currently studying to be a secondary school teacher. I taught throughout my graduate school career in both New Zealand and the States, and found that graduate teaching jobs, like junior lectureships and post-docs, can be dangerous academic limbos. Also perilous are well-paid, short-term teaching contracts at Asian universities, as I can attest from my three-year stint teaching at the National University of Singapore. At the end of the contract, I chose lifestyle over career, returned to New Zealand, and, after a long period of job-hunting, enrolled at teachers college because I knew that I wanted to teach English more than anything else.

So I read these books from the interested and possibly unique perspective of a person training for secondary teaching who has also worked as an untenured university academic. One of the key questions facing our schools and tertiary institutions is how much we view education as an industry in which various “education providers” (schools/colleges) employ “learning facilitators” (teachers/academics) to deliver “learning outcomes” to “clients” (students). What are the social consequences of viewing education primarily as a business venture? The key battles over education will continue to be contests of values and priorities as people debate what needs to be taught. But battles will also be waged over the professional standing of teachers and their salaries as well as the cost of students’ secondary and tertiary education.

Grant argues that secondary teachers in New Zealand have rarely been accorded the dues that their “multifarious responsibilities, professionalism, dedication and diligence deserve”. Those Who Can Teach offers a history written “from the union perspective” in the hope of offering a history of our secondary schools that places the teacher at centre stage. Grant supports the Post-Primary Teachers Association [PPTA] as a democratic, progressive union concerned not only with teachers’ pay and conditions but also the overall development of secondary education and social justice. To the PPTA’s critics who accuse the association of being driven by political extremists, Grant points out that this view “does not square with one irrefutable statistic”: “Close to 96% of secondary school teachers belong to the PPTA, which is the highest rate of union membership in New Zealand, and one of the highest rates of education union membership in the world.” Teachers indisputably support the PPTA.

Grant has a number of histories already under his belt, including On a Roll: A History of Gambling and Lotteries in New Zealand (1994) and Bulls, Bears and Elephants: A History of the New Zealand Stock Exchange (1997), and he knows how to combine a historian’s attention to detail with a storyteller’s craft. Those Who Can Teach tells the story of the union from its beginnings to the present with chapters devoted to particular issues central to the PPTA over the last 50 years (“Maori”, “Women”, “Assessment”, “Rural Education”, to name but a few). The arrangement of material in thematic chapters allows Grant to focus on key issues and to show how the PPTA’s policy has evolved over time – although this approach does tend to make reading the overall story of the PPTA at times somewhat choppy and disjointed.

Grant calls teachers’ struggle for professional recognition and a decent living wage “the never-ending story”. Since the late 1950s, New Zealand teachers have fared poorly when compared to their colleagues in Australia and the United Kingdom. Yet this was not always the case. In the 1920s and 30s, most secondary schools were fully staffed with qualified personnel, and university graduates keenly sought secondary teaching positions. In 1938, secondary principals were in the top five per cent bracket of taxpayers. By 1958, salaries had lagged behind, becoming the lowest in the western world, and New Zealand faced the first of many secondary teacher shortages. In 1970, teachers in Canada earned twice as much as their New Zealand counterparts.

By focusing exclusively on the history of the PPTA, Grant tells the story of teachers battling against “recalcitrant governments and their agents” in their efforts to improve their pay and working conditions.  For a prospective teacher, the chapters on bulk-funding and the PPTA’s struggle to maintain a collective contract are particularly harrowing. Grant’s account of the bulk-funding battles of the 1990s shows New Right policies as hell-bent on attacking the teachers’ collective contract for fundamentally ideological reasons. Looking back on the bulk-funding debate, it’s hard to see why National thought the bad blood and antagonism created by trying to break the PPTA and abolish the collective contract was worth it. The result was a massive loss of teachers and a rising teacher shortage.

The strict division between private and public schools becomes a little blurred as more state schools take fee-paying overseas students. Many secondary schools now rely on foreign fee-paying students to keep their budgets in the black. For New Zealand’s schools and universities, globalisation means that the potential market or catchment area for students now extends beyond the local neighbourhood to include Asia, especially China. In 2002, over 15,000 overseas students were enrolled in our secondary schools, pumping close to one billion dollars into the economy, making “export education as big as the wool industry and four times the size of the wine industry.” Grant’s book is full of little gems such as these. He appreciates that there’s an increasingly blurred boundary between education and business and that the PPTA would be foolish to ignore the vital contribution that fee-paying overseas students make to secondary education. He notes that one of the PPTA’s major strategic blunders – seen with the benefit of 20/20 hindsight – was the initial fight against the integration of private schools in the 1970s on the grounds that they might constitute the thin end of the wedge in undermining state education. This miscalculation won the PPTA enemies amongst Catholics and Maori who sought greater autonomy from a monolithic Department of Education.

The chapter on the 1970s will be of interest to aficionados of New Zealand arts and letters. The literary world is never far from the classroom. The first editor of the PPTA journal was Alister Taylor, who in 1972 published in New Zealand the English translation of The Little Red Schoolbook, described by Grant as “a handbook of advice for adolescents, including information on lessons, homework, teachers, punishment, relationships, sex, drugs and ‘the system’”, and it was with some amusement that I read of the PPTA’s embarrassment at their editor’s publishing exploits. I have fond memories of reading an old copy of The Little Red Schoolbook and Down Under the Plum Tree in the fifth form.

Taylor was replaced as editor in 1973 by Lauris Edmond, whose commissioning of writers and poets for contributions led Bruce Webster to “grumble that she was trying to make the Journal into another Landfall.” Grant’s attention to the PPTA’s publication wing gives weight to his argument that the PPTA has always engaged teachers in wider debates on educational curriculum. Not all curriculum changes are driven by the Ministry of Education. Baxter, Sargeson and Frame’s inclusion in the English curriculum in the 70s
was due in part to the culture fostered by the PPTA.

While I found the early history of the PPTA interesting, it’s the later chapters on Tomorrow’s Schools, the introduction of NCEA and a fascinating chapter devoted to the rise and fall of Martin Cooney, where the book takes flight. Grant draws a striking portrait of Cooney, a president under strain from the pressures of fending off the onslaught of bulk-funding who took refuge in adopting an almost Muldoonist leadership style, with all its trappings of irrationality, paranoia and outbursts. The conflict between Cooney and the PPTA executive came to a head in October 1998 when Cooney was sacked by the executive. In recent years the PPTA has faced some trying times, and there has been some frustration on the part of teachers at the long conflict with the government over salaries in 2002. (This last led to the arbitrated pay deal of the year which awarded teachers a pay increase of between 6.6 and 20 per cent over two years.) Yet Grant convincingly argues that the PPTA has emerged from these conflicts with strong popular support: in March 2003, there were 14,443 members, a membership of nearly 90 per cent of all state and integrated teachers.

David Cohen has extensive experience as a journalist: he’s written for The Chronicle of Higher Education, The Guardian, National Business Review and North and South. His book is a collection of various stories written for these and other journals and magazines. Many of them would hold their own as feature articles.  Cohen writes in a tight, economical style, and the collection does have the advantage of being a rare set of snapshots of different campuses around the Asia-Pacific. However, as a book, Welcome to the Campus of Struggle never rises above being a discrete collection of articles cobbled together. A solid introductory essay outlining Cohen’s views on the state of tertiary education would have provided a much needed frame for the book.

My suspicion is that Cohen favours a vaguely libertarian approach to education. I say suspicion because, in contrast to Grant’s approach, which Grant himself names as “significantly ideological”, the journalistic quality of Cohen’s pieces means that his viewpoint isn’t explicitly stated but is found in the flavour of the pieces. I’m left with hunches rather than arguments  – but arguments are what I wanted to read. Cohen describes Milton Friedman as a “sole survivor”, “one of the most famous educators in his field”, whose monetarist theories “are credited for having almost single-handedly overturned the Keynesian revolution” so that now, a decade on, their ideas “bear fruit in the monetary policies adopted by governments”. Cohen tells us that Friedman “remains especially proud of the energy he has put into promoting the concept of school vouchers.” He adds: “The Nobel laureate believes competition and choice mean better schooling because it is the voucher-holding parents, rather than government bureaucrats, who get to keep institutions on their toes.” But these are slogans rather than an argument. What does competition and choice mean here and how do they produce “better schooling”? I read as much to have my own views challenged as confirmed and feel that Cohen’s book would have been stronger for articulating a more coherent vision of how he sees the state of education in the Asia-Pacific region and its future.

In his introduction, Cohen portrays himself as a kind of Michael Herr macho war correspondent who has visited campuses in Jakarta “still bearing the fresh marks of gunfire sprayed by trigger-happy government security forces”, as one who has “hung out in hotel lobbies in Kuala Lumpur” discussing institutional prejudice with Malaysian academics. But we never learn who the adversaries are on the International Academic Front or what they are fighting for. It’s also a pity that Cohen’s campus beat doesn’t include meetings with the untenured, often internationally itinerant, underclass who often shoulder large teaching burdens, along with research pressures, and frequently hop from teaching contract to teaching contract usually with little prospect of a permanent job.

So while Milton Friedman – the “grand old questioner”, as Cohen calls him – deserves an interview for his contributions to educational thought, those at the chalk-face, such as graduate assistants, and their working conditions go unnoticed. New Zealand universities, as Grant reminds us, are bulk-funded, which means that a department can decide if a full professor deserves $100,000 per year while a tutor may earn an hourly rate of $25. The students, though, pay the same fee regardless of whether their tutor is a full professor, a graduate student or an untenured PhD. Where’s a good professional organisation to battle for untenured staff when you need one? Welcome to the campus of struggle.


Harvey Molloy is a Wellington writer who is currently studying to be a secondary school teacher of English, drama and art history.


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