Peter O'Connor: Government hell-bent on dismantling public education, says Auckland professor

Minister of Education Hekia Parata is on a mission to systematically dismantle public education. Photo / John Stone
Minister of Education Hekia Parata is on a mission to systematically dismantle public education. Photo / John Stone

Make no mistake, Minister of Education Hekia Parata is on a mission to systematically dismantle public education. Changes already in place and those planned will radically alter the education landscape in New Zealand.

Public education serves many purposes. It prepares young people for a life of work, teaching basic skills in literacy and numeracy. This is seen as its primary purpose by the minister. It also offers something much greater.

After World War II the consensus was that schooling served wider social purposes than individual achievement. The war had sprung from extremist views caused by social and economic uncertainty and inequality. Public education was seen as vital to protecting democracy from these twin threats. It became part of a highly successful global agenda to reduce inequality so the poor could make enough money to own their homes and have a stake in their world.

A rich and broad curriculum designed to ensure functional literacy was supplemented by critical literacy so the population had the tools to challenge what they were told by their governments and by those with racist or extremist views.

Neoliberal policies that have dominated Western democracies for a generation have brought a reversal of this agenda with a growth of inequality that has been breathtaking in scale and speed. Alongside is the growth internationally of extremist and dehumanising ideologies which threaten the fabric of Western democracies.

The end game of a callous undermining of the public education system is the collapse of an informed participatory citizenship.

The Government's attack on education is still driven by the "step change" policy Hekia Parata worked on with Roger Douglas and Heather Roy before she became minister. In other words, the reforms are driven by the fringe right wing of New Zealand politics.

The Act party has never particularly valued democracy, having gamed the system with their representation in Parliament, and still believes, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary at home and internationally, that private companies can provide better, more efficient core services than Government.

The reform agenda is most visible in the nonsense of charter schools. Despite poor achievement, chilling mediocrity and lack of innovation, their disproportionately high level of funding and less stringent oversight make them grow like a cancer on the wider system.

As public education is starved of funding, money is found to prop up private education. Schools like Wanganui Collegiate are bailed out while schools in the poorest areas of Christchurch are closed.

While public league tables shame schools for failing to lift educational achievement, the Government refuses to admit the impact of poverty on children's learning. There is no genuine desire to uplift the lives of the poor. It is easier to deny they exist by phoning a few favoured principals to ask if they've seen anyone hungry.

When the Government does finally admit there are poor people living in cars, the suggestion is this is because of their choices as individuals and has nothing to do with Government policies.

As national standards restrict and diminish a broad and rich curriculum, critical education is replaced by a focus on low level skills for a low level wage economy. Meanwhile, private schools continue to offer a wealth of learning opportunities to children of our neoliberal leaders and a middle class prepared to stomach the debt. The alternative "choice" for the excluded majority is cheap online charter schools, siphoning off yet more public wealth.

All current funding proposals are about shifting around existing funds. There is no further investment and no recognition that quality public education is vital and deserves real and sustained financial support.

It would be easy to say the education reforms lack imagination and are simply a lazy reiteration of failed policies of the 1990s. However, that would be to ignore the clear vision that drives them. It's a vision that privileges the private sector, which creates schools as competing business units and pretends poverty and unfairness don't matter.

When public education becomes yet another thing we may lose, along with the dream that hard work meant you could leave poverty behind, own your own home and balance a 40-hour working week with leisure time, we will wonder why we let it go so easily and ask what we gained instead.

The right wing will then tell us joylessly that we got choice. And when that happens we will know we got conned. Again.

Peter O'Connor is professor of education in the faculty of education and social work at the University of Auckland.

- NZ Herald

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