Peter O'Connor: Public education is a treasure we must protect

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Teachers will protest across the country on Saturday. Photo / Janna Dixon
Teachers will protest across the country on Saturday. Photo / Janna Dixon

Teachers know they are in an ideological battle over the future of public education. That is why on Saturday they will be marching in civic centres across the country.

They are taking to the streets as they have little trust in the Minister of Education and if it is at all possible, even less trust in the Associate Minister of Education, John Banks, who is about to lead the Education Amendment Bill through Parliament to establish Charter Schools.

On Saturday teachers will be voicing their opposition to the introduction of Charter Schools, the manner in which national standards is collapsing a broad-based curriculum, the development of league tables, the growing threat of national testing and the imposition of performance-based pay.

They have recognised that these are all features of a global education reform movement designed to disable public education. Despite the rhetoric of the reformers these radical reforms are not designed to improve the life chances of the most vulnerable and disadvantaged.

They are planned with the primary goal of dismantling the teacher unions, and the creation of a larger privatised education sector. The reforms are already changing the face of schooling in this country forever. Social studies, science, technology and the arts have all but disappeared from many New Zealand Primary schools. However, as the great dream of a more privatised education sector seems ever more possible for the reformers, teachers are showing they are willing and ready to fight for the things they hold dear.

What has been lost sometimes in the battles over the past four years has been a clear articulation of what teachers are fighting for, rather than against. Teacher union groups have been dismissed as arguing for the status quo, of having a vested interested in a failing system. This is nonsense. They are fighting for a set of ideals about what the function of the state is in relation to education and what the purpose of education is.

Those protesting this week believe that the state has a core responsibility for educating its citizens. That it shouldn't be sold off to private interests, or in the extraordinary instance of charter schools, simply given to them. State responsibility for education is understood in terms of a social contract that proposes a well-educated population is a public good. It proposes that all schools should be excellent schools of choice for families in local communities. Public education is about equity and social justice, not about business models.

Progressive education, established in this country by Peter Fraser and Clarence Beeby in the 1940s, was created with an understanding that a well-educated citizenry is the greatest defence against the extremism that gave the world fascism. This view of schooling sees the importance of a broad-based curriculum in creating critical and creative citizens willing and able to challenge authority.

Citizens who believe they can act to make their lives and the lives of others more bearable. Public education remains, despite the relentless assaults by government and the far right, the true guarantor of participatory democracy. Therefore, it is tragic, rather than ironic, that Charter Schools have been introduced without even the pretence of democratic process and will be administered by people with little time for or understanding of the public good or the social contract.

Wherever you look in education it seems there is nothing but a sea of trouble. That has been a deliberate ploy by those who would create a sense of crisis to propose radical changes to fix something not truly broken. However, I find my own personal sense of hope comes from visiting schools. For although the future of education looks bleak in the media, in schools and classrooms throughout the country, miracles are happening on a daily basis.

Children come to school and they feel loved, safe, valued and they learn. Public education is a great national treasure that we take for granted at our peril. Public education is the intergenerational gift that ensures we do not have to die in the poverty we are born into and that we can hope for a better future for our children and ourselves.

As the Government continues to refuse to acknowledge - let alone work to repair - the social dislocation and despair engendered by the growing gap between the rich and the poor, those who have less at the expense of those who demand more, between the fearful and the feared, teachers will continue to help feed, clothe and keep safe the victims of globalised capitalism.

Teachers will again be at the forefront of safeguarding the dream of equity, social justice and of possibility. That is why they are marching on Saturday. That is why careful politicians will be listening and parents will be deciding whose side they are on.

Associate Professor Peter O'Connor is director of the Critical Research Unit in Applied Theatre at the University of Auckland.

- NZ Herald

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