Peter O'Connor: Prepare for war as teachers make a stand for education

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Teachers and government have seen divide over the agenda of increased privatisation and deregulation of public education. Photo / Getty Images
Teachers and government have seen divide over the agenda of increased privatisation and deregulation of public education. Photo / Getty Images

As schools close for the summer holidays parents will be hoping for a quieter and more settled year in the education sector next year.

My sense is that they will be bitterly disappointed, as 2013 will see a continuation and escalation of an ideological war over the heart and soul of schooling in this country. This year's all-out attack on public education by the Government has sown the seeds for an agenda of increased privatisation and deregulation of the sector.

Teacher groups and principals who have fought to defend the progressive ideology that created a world-class education system have been painted as reluctant to change and adapt, old dinosaurs unprepared for the market realities of the 21st century.

They have been painted as having vested interests in the failing system. Christchurch teachers have signalled they have had enough and for only the third time in its history NZEI members will strike for one day next year.

It will be the beginning of industrial turmoil in schools at a level the country has never seen before.

I have travelled and spoken frequently to teacher groups throughout the country over recent months. In more than 30 years in the sector I have never seen teachers so angry, so frustrated, so suspicious and so despairing of the Ministry of Education, its minister and its secretary. They have infuriated teachers who are now battling both an ideological agenda and basic incompetence.

The neo liberal assault on public education comes in many guises. Despite overwhelming evidence, the Government refuses to accept their economic policies that have grown the gap between rich and poor have had an enormous impact on the educational outcomes of children.

Good teachers do create miracles in their classrooms on a daily basis, but hungry, cold and sick children from deeply impoverished and despairing communities do not make ready learners. National standards have slowly strangled what was considered a world-class curriculum. Science, the arts, physical education and social studies have all been casualties of the relentless and tiresome pursuit of meaningless literacy and numeracy goals.

Everything else is rapidly disappearing from our schools.

The richness of the legacy of Clarence Beeby and Peter Fraser in creating an education system based on the ideals of equity, creativity and democratic citizenship is replaced by the sterility of market imperatives of preparing compliant workers.

The result will inevitably lead to the collapse of confidence in the public system and the Government is readying the private sector to ride to the rescue.

Charter schools, the costly and far right experiment to be conducted in secrecy next year, is the trojan horse designed to open up the sector for further deregulation and privatisation.

Teachers and parents might have won the class size debate this year, but it's still on the table and next year the Government will be talking about voucher systems, performance pay, and growing a demand for national testing. This will be amid a continuing tirade about the failure of teachers, and the failure of communities made up largely of Maori and Pasifika and poor people in general.

Teachers will continue to argue for a broad-based curriculum, for highly qualified teachers teaching an internationally lauded curriculum. They will be demanding that the hungry kids they teach be fed.

They may even expect to be paid correctly and on time. It is hard to imagine how the bitter divide between teachers and the ministry will find a resolution. In the coming educational wars parents will need to rest over the holidays and then decide who they trust and whose side they are on.


Peter O'Connor is an associate professor at the School of Critical Studies in Education, University of Auckland.

- NZ Herald

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