Bruce Bisset: From inflated hyperbole to farce

By Bruce Bisset

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Seems to me the Government's dismantling of our education system has descended from inflated hyperbole to outright farce in less than the time it took to rebrand charter schools as partnership opportunities.

But like many of National's current policies, common sense must bow to ideology no matter how ridiculously contradictory the resultant model becomes. And this one takes the biscuit.

On the one hand, we have schools operating within the State system being held rigidly accountable for teaching core subjects in a way that measures up appropriately against an arbitrarily-imposed but compulsory set of so-called National Standards.

Fail to implement these and the school board may be sacked or the school lose its charter.

So government has threatened - without exception even for those integrated schools that endeavour to deliver education of "special character", such as those based on Steiner methodology, at odds with the whole premise of this rigid approach.

Yet on the other hand, proposed "partnership schools" will be able to be set up by anyone capable of ticking the funding and infrastructure boxes - most likely corporate sponsors or religious groups - and teach whatever curriculum they wish using people who aren't even formally qualified teachers.

Pardon?

Moreover, the State schools will have their standards results publicly listed for comparison in what can only be interpreted as a "league table" that threatens to drive school selection for parents without necessarily any regard to other aspects of a given school, good or bad.

But the private schools will have "performance criteria" privately negotiated with the Ministry of Education - and presumably kept private, since any attempt at comparison with any other school would, on the face of it, be meaningless.

This is "better education"? That was the trumpet call at the election, remember. Yeah, right.

Apparently the purpose of this incredible dichotomy is to create an "alternate stream" catering particularly for "lower decile" students (as they're euphemistically called); a way to help the poor gain skills and find employment - providing there are any jobs to be had.

Mind you, with businesses training kids to slot into industrial boxes, or military-style academies drilling up security and armed forces personnel, or church groups presumably mentoring priests and missionaries, in theory jobs should be available for graduates.

But will it give the students a half-decent education? I doubt it; certainly not a balanced one.

In fact, rather than broadening their options, schemes like this, to my mind, only limit them.

However, it appears the model will provide an opportunity for established special character schools to reorient themselves as partnership schools and, so, opt out of the necessity of sticking to a regime that does not fit their philosophy.

That could mean a "high end" school like Lindisfarne College becoming, if it chose to, even more elitist and spurning New Zealand standards entirely by offering (as its core, not just an addition) a British or American curriculum instead.

In short, the changes mooted may herald a more extensive break-up of the current State system than most educators - let alone the general public - perhaps anticipate.

As to whether this is the hidden agenda of the partnership model's proponents, you'd have to ask John Banks and ACT.

Although I'd be surprised if you got a sensible (let alone truthful) answer.

At second glance, though, you'd have to think so.

Pushing schools into adopting a regime that makes no reasonable sense in terms of a genuinely good education while opening up an alternative channel that allows carte blanche can only have one outcome.

So it's all very well for the Prime Minister to say that if the "experiment" doesn't work it will be dropped - when within a short time the learned horse may have bolted clear into the next country.

It's not the boot camps or the fundamentalist nutters teaching their brand of fable you need be most worried about, but the separating out of an elite tier that cements a have/have-not divide into our supposedly egalitarian system - and, therefore, society.

Yes, that sounds like the new right, doesn't it?

They may be playing this farce as a comedy but, in reality, it's a tragedy. And the innocent victims are our children.

That's the right of it.

Bruce Bisset is a freelance writer and poet.

- HAWKES BAY TODAY

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