What are schools for?

When Prime Minister and Minister of Education Peter Fraser said in the 1940s all children should have the opportunity to be educated to the fullest extent of their abilities, he captured a commitment to two basic New Zealand ideals. One is that all of us should have opportunities to improve our circumstances. Education was central to this. The second ideal was not stated so explicitly but was a basic principle of Fraser's education reforms. It is the ideal of universalism - that all people share the same humanity. From this comes human rights and the commitment to opportunity for all.

Peter Fraser introduced the core curriculum to our education system. All children studied maths, English, history, science and geography at secondary school. Gender discrimination continued for decades with cooking for girls and woodwork for boys. But the core subjects meant a generation of children learned about ideas that did not come from their own experiences and communities.

They were ideas about the world; the natural and social world, the past and the future. They were ideas that were not relevant. Indeed it was their very "irrelevance" that made them powerful. Being able to think about what we don't experience opens up worlds of possibilities and imaginings. This is the knowledge we don't get from home. It's what schools are for and it's what academic subjects provide.

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Of course, what young people of that privileged post-war generation did with their education differed according to abilities and interests. Fraser knew the academic route wasn't for everyone but how do we know who is "academic" and who isn't until we put in years of hard slog. Do we select some children early and put others in the "not bright" basket before they have the chance to test themselves against the demands of difficult ideas?

Who is bright and who isn't? We become bright by having our intelligence worked. Years of hard work at primary and secondary school build on our natural endowments to make us intelligent. We have real choice when we have real opportunity. Some turn their backs on academic knowledge, finding fulfilment in other types of work. Others embrace the mental demands of academic subjects as they become harder. But at whatever point you pull out of academic study, the years spent thinking about what you don't experience in daily life, using concepts that you won't learn at home, change you. You acquire a way of thinking about the world that is different from the type of thinking that comes only from your experience. Peter Fraser knew this, and that it created an educated citizenry.

In 2007 a new national curriculum changed New Zealand education in a fundamental way. Although the word "universalism" doesn't appear in the curriculum documents of the 1940s and the 2000s, its presence and absence makes those documents what they are. Universalism has been replaced by "localisation" - the idea that education should prepare children to live in their communities. It sounds sensible enough. After all it's a truism to say we need to know how to live in our communities.

But that preparation is what families do. School has a different purpose. It does, or should, teach children about the world, and I don't mean by providing bigger and better experiences. I mean by putting the world "into our heads". The world of maths, science, the humanities, the arts - the ideas and imaginings that take us out of our local daily lives and enable us to think about what was and what might be.

The national curriculum encourages schools to set a curriculum that responds to their local community. This has at its extreme a Gloriavale-type school, where girls learn to cook and boys learn to farm. But it's not the extreme that should concern us: it's what is becoming the norm. We need to ask what is taught to children in a community-responsive curriculum. Do all children have the chance envisaged by Peter Fraser, to put the world we may never experience in real life "into our heads". We can only do this using ideas found in the systems of meaning of academic subjects. They may not be relevant to "real life" but they make us able to think about what we can't know from the experience of our communities.

Elizabeth Rata is an associate professor in the Faculty of Education at the University of Auckland