Peter Lyons: Education shouldn't be ideological battleground

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The debate about providing meals for students in low-decile schools highlighted how far we have drifted from the concept of equality of opportunity. Photo / Tania Webb
The debate about providing meals for students in low-decile schools highlighted how far we have drifted from the concept of equality of opportunity. Photo / Tania Webb

The headmaster turned up the other day with the local MP. I was sitting down the back of the staffroom. He introduced me by saying "This is Pete Lyons, he does a bit of writing for the newspapers, he's a leftie." It was said in good humour. I replied by saying that I was glad he was still able to read other parts of the paper apart from the crossword.

I do not regard myself as left wing. I have a strong belief that we are ultimately responsible for our own choices in life. We can't control all that befalls us but we can control our own attitudes and responses. I am partially sighted and unable to drive. I face the prospect of blindness. I can choose to wallow in self-pity or make the most of the cards dealt to me. To label someone as left or right suggests an unwillingness to engage in intellectual debate on any given topic.

We are sleep-walking towards the next election. We have been fed the myth of the rock star economy but I have yet to meet any of the winners in our new era of prosperity.

I really don't care about Kim Dotcom and the books he owns. It just seems a distracting freak show. Meanwhile, we are ignoring the fact that our society is becoming increasingly polarised and there is little being done to address this corrosive issue.

Economic textbooks do not talk about left and right. They talk about efficiency versus equity. They state that policies aimed at improving economic efficiency usually have a trade-off with policies aimed at enhancing fairness in the distribution of incomes. If the Government raises taxes on upper income earners and increases welfare benefits, this may act as a disincentive for people to work, save and generate higher incomes. If the Government raises the minimum wage this may improve equity but results in higher costs of production for firms and more unemployment.

We have been subjected to a brand of economics that suggests market forces should predominate. Competition breeds efficiency. The free-market system is a very elegant model. But what it implicitly assumes is that we all head off from the same start line in life. It ignores the lottery of genetics or material inheritances and upbringing on our success in life. These factors are an inconvenient truth. The market model simply states that if we allow markets and competition to weave their magic in as many spheres of our society as possible we will all benefit. New Zealand has been a test lab for this model over the past few decades. The result has been a polarised society of winners and losers.

But there is one policy area where improved efficiency and equity are not mutually exclusive. It is education. We have a system that is increasingly two-tier. Schools in lower decile areas do not generally attract the best teachers or offer state-of-the-art facilities. They can't run events that generate hundreds of thousands in extra funding. They don't attract foreign fee-paying students.

The debate about providing meals for students in low-decile schools highlighted how far we have drifted from the concept of equality of opportunity. Those opposed were adamant that the parents should take responsibility for their own children. There was no acknowledgement that many of these parents lack the means or the ability.

Astute policies to address underachievement in schools in poorer areas would be a winner in both equity and efficiency. Those students that fail in the education system cost us dearly - mostly in lost potential.

Schools in poorer areas should have state-of-the-art facilities. They should be able to attract the best teachers and administrators. They should provide a holistic education including health care, parenting skills, budgeting and attitudinal changes on how to approach life. They should be circuit-breakers. It is not a question of left or right. It is a question of improving both economic efficiency and equity.

Peter Lyons teaches economics at St Peters College in Epsom.

- NZ Herald

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