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Edwards: The sound of ideologies clashing

New Zealand has just embarked on a major debate over how primary and secondary schools should be governed. Bryce Edwards argues that it is shaping up to be a highly-polarised debate based on the underlying values of left and right ideologies.

Politics is, and should be, ideological. Ideologies are simply coherent world views and philosophies applied to public life. And there is a clear ideological clash at the moment in the battle over education reform.

David Lange’s 1989 Tomorrow’s Schools reforms saw traditional rightwing values of competition, choice, and performance win the day. These values have continued to underpin the governance of our school system for nearly 30 years.

Now the Government’s Independent Taskforce on Tomorrow’s Schools has mounted a clear ideological challenge with a very leftwing proposal for reforming how New Zealand runs its school system, based on values of collectivism, cooperation, and equality.

This means that for the first time in decades, the ideological fault lines that lie beneath debates over how our school system is run are about to be completely exposed.

Cooperation Vs Competition

One of the fundamental differences between the politics of left and right is over the intrinsic value of competition versus cooperation in public life. Traditionally, the political left believes in the importance of collaboration, especially in terms of how society is organised.

For the political right, this is often seen as a fantasy, leading to inefficiency and poor management of resources. Instead, for the right, a high degree of competition is the key to guide the running of society.

In terms of education, for the right this means that schools should be relatively autonomous and as self-governing as possible. Boards of trustees should have the power to make major decisions without the encumbrance of central government. In fact, reforms should be implemented to bulk fund all schools to give them more power over employment and spending.

The left argues school self-governance hasn’t worked, and students and parents are actually relatively powerless. According to leftwing educationalist Liz Gordon, the 1989 reforms owed “nothing to good educational practice and everything to Friedmanite economics” and they “have done their best in the resulting period to destroy our society”.

The current taskforce talks about “out-of-control competition”, and the need to create “a system that supports interdependence and collective responsibility between all of its parts”.

Equality Vs Choice

Traditionally, the left’s most important value is equality. The main emphasis of the reforms announced on Friday is an attempt to reduce inequality in the school system. The new proposals emphasise that the current system is failing the poor, Māori, Pasifika, recent migrants, and students with additional learning needs.

For the right, the concept of choice is the key to creating a good society. As consumers of services they believe that we should have different options, with the idea that this will help send market signals to providers to ensure they offer the best possible service. In the case of school management, it means that students and families must be able to freely choose which school to attend.

The Tomorrow’s Schools model embraced the idea of less regulation and less emphasis on school zones. This has meant families have been bypassing local schools, in search of “better” schools. In the view of the right, this has worked to incentivise schools to work harder to create better schooling.

In the eyes of the left, this has led to led to ethnic and economic segregation. John Minto, the activist and teacher, has written this week that this “choice” didn’t actually empower families, but certain schools instead: “It was schools which did the choosing – not parents. And schools wanted the whitest and the brightest – with just enough brown students to get a top rugby team.”

The new taskforce report proposes bringing back stronger zoning rules. This has, naturally, been condemned by the political right. For example, rightwing blogger David Farrar says: “this is basically to force kids to attend their local school no matter how shitty or crappy it is. No more choice. You will go to the school the Government tells you to attend and like it. This will send house prices even higher in areas with desirable schools.”

The report also argues to replace the current decile funding system with an “equity index”, and to double the funding that this channels into poorer schools. Plus, the big donations that the richer schools receive are to be essentially regulated and clamped down upon.

Universalism Vs Divergence

The left values highly the idea that there should be universal provision of state services. No matter where you live, your background, or your requirements, you must be able to rely on high quality services from the state. Therefore, it’s a common refrain from the left that all schools in New Zealand should be of an excellent quality and it’s not acceptable that some schools are better than others, which appears to be the case under the status quo.

In reality, the right says, there is always going to be a mixed quality of service provision, and a universal approach just leads to mediocrity. And so, the right criticises the pre-1989 model as being “one-size-fits-all”. Instead, they say, we a need a system in which excellence is encouraged and rewarded. In addition, the right believes their model better allows the “special character” and culture of certain schools to thrive.

In terms of school governance, this difference in values equates to a difference in how much autonomy the individual school should have. The taskforce argues that in order to establish more standardisation, this new model will need a greater degree of centralisation – in the form of regional hubs.

According to the report, there would be 20 of these hubs, looking after about 125 schools each. They would take responsibility for employment issues – recruiting teachers and principals, and relief staff. They would also provide admin support, and make decisions on zoning and the appropriate number of students in each school.

This has been labelled “real Stalinist stuff” by the right. David Farrar criticises the model for disempowering families, saying it will: “Strip all control of schools from parents who can only be trusted to run school fairs and fundraisers.”

And on it goes. We can see a distinct pattern of ideological emphasis in the debates over how schools are governed. Of course, it’s often much less black and white than many on the left and right might suggest, but nonetheless there are fundamental ideological differences on offer.

In the end, the public debate that we are starting to have on schooling will therefore be won or lost on whether the leftwing or rightwing values resonate more. It’s a simple left or right choice.

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