Martin Thrupp: Why has NZ society become so hard-hearted?

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James had been given $1.60 in two hours begging on Queen St. Photo / Michael Craig
James had been given $1.60 in two hours begging on Queen St. Photo / Michael Craig

Recently a group that brings together various organisations concerned with poverty and inequality in New Zealand society sent out an invitation.

The Equality Network announced a day hui in March on the theme "Talking so that people will listen". Some of New Zealand's most indefatigable campaigners against poverty and injustice have issued the invitation.

What struck me about the planning is that it involves "a draft communications resource that will draw on the latest research about framing, political communication, and what works and what doesn't when it comes to changing people's minds".

In a country that once prided itself on social mobility for ordinary people, it is telling that we now need such concerted efforts to get the public to care enough about inequality. Yet as the invitation explained, "we've convinced a growing number of people that income inequality is one of New Zealand's biggest problems. But if we're going to turn that concern into the momentum for real change, we're going to have to persuade a whole lot more people".

So what has caused today's hard-heartedness?

Three decades of neo-liberal politics has changed Kiwi outlooks. There is also the greed and fear of the housing market, distractions like the flag campaign and Mr Key's personal life, compassion fatigue brought on by 24/7 media and probably many other factors as well.

Nevertheless responsible political leadership could make a big difference. Education provides a good illustration. It's a middle class strategy to buy houses in suburbs that will provide advantaged life-chances for our offspring in high decile state or state-integrated schools. Others prefer to send their children to exclusive private schools.

There's not much point blaming individual parents for their choice of schools. As Steve Braunias recently wrote about the relationship between parents and children, "We serve to protect them. They become the central fact of our existence. Food, warmth, love, junk from Smiggle - we break our backs to shovel it their way, and hope they say nice things about us after we're gone".

Nevertheless when parents cluster their children together in advantaged settings, there are costs borne by the lower socio-economic students left behind. They miss out on many of the resources, experiences, outlooks and networks that help to successfully propel the middle classes through the school system and into tertiary education.

A responsible government would recognise that the aspirations of individual parents for their children need to be tempered by the common good. As John Dewey famously said, what the best and wisest parent wants for their own child, that must the community want for all of its children.

For this reason, governments should be interested in reducing residential and school segregation through housing policy, restricting "choosing up" into higher socio-economic schools and curtailing the growth of exclusive schools whether public or private.

Unfortunately the Key Government has been unable or unwilling to take strong action in any of these areas. Housing segregation has been left largely uncontained and schools in the most popular areas are overwhelmed with enrolments.

The Government has always emphasised the right of parents to choose schools, regardless of the outcome. When socially-exclusive private schools started to struggle after the GFC, they often got converted to socially-exclusive state-integrated schools.

All this has limited Ministers Tolley and Parata to banging on about standards of teaching in disadvantaged schools, ramping up assessment and setting targets for improvement. None of these policy directions will make any significant difference because they ignore the central problem, the social polarisation that continues to overtake our school system.

Charter schools won't help either, and for the same reason. They provide much hyped alternative provision for the poor but leave untouched the great social divide in education.

Yet if schools could be made less socially polarised, those schools currently disregarded by the middle classes would become more acceptable to them. And once the children of professional parents began attending less elite schools, many of the financial, reputational and other problems of those schools would get sorted out quite quickly too.

Overall it does come back to the understanding and outlooks of the public, both because our political leaders are elected and because today's governments are so poll-driven. So let's hope the Equality Network gets real traction.

A more genuine "raft of measures" around inequality could make a big difference if New Zealanders want a better future for this country.

Martin Thrupp is head of Te Whiringa School of Educational Leadership and Policy at the University of Waikato

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