Friday, September 09, 2011

Forget the Nanny State - we now have Big Brother

Guest blog by Allan Alach

Several years back we were bombarded with ‘nanny state’ rhetoric. Well, that has gone now,  and has been replaced by ‘Big Brother” from George Orwell’s book “Nineteen Eighty Four”. 

Orwell’s prediction of 1984 was rather accurate it seems, except for being 27 years too early.  From Orwell’s genius, we can see that the agency we know as the “Ministry of Education” (Education being the word used in the official language of Oceania, Newspeak) is actually a euphemism for “Ministry of Mind Control’, employing “Thought Police” to ensure compliance.

Poor Winston Smith. We can start to sympathise with his predicament.

So now ‘non-compliant’ schools have received what appears to be a pro-forma letter from their local office of the Ministry of Education. This states that as agreement has not been reached, the board is now required to amend its charter, to include provided target goals against the standards. These letters then specify the date that the amended charter will take effect. End of story.

Several issues spring out of these letters immediately. The most obvious one is the question of whether the MOE has obeyed the Education Act. This will require clarification through a legal process; however on the face of it, one wonders.

The Education Act states (63A(4) that if a school is in default regarding changing  its charter, ‘The Secretary must then negotiate with the board to resolve the matters concerned and, if the board and the Secretary are unable to reach agreement about the content of the school charter, the Secretary may require the board to amend the charter or updated charter.’

Negotiation is defined in the Oxford online dictionary as “discussion aimed at reaching an agreement.”

It would then seem plausible that a very good case could be made that the MOE process over charters does not meet this definition of negotiation. For one thing, it is rather apparent that there was only ever one outcome that would be acceptable to the MOE, and therefore ‘negotiation’ was impossible. Following on, it is implicit that negotiation takes time. The MOE’s processes also seem to have not provided for this.

The second issues relates to the date the amended charter is deemed to take effect. There are a number of cases, possibly many, where the specified date falls before scheduled meetings with the MOE to discuss charter issues. In which case, what is the purpose of these scheduled meetings? It can no longer be claimed that these meetings are part of any negotiations and that also would seem the question the legality of this process.

It is therefore plausible to wonder if the Ministry of Education has disregarded one section of the Education Act, in order to enforce charters on schools who are deemed to be in breach of another section of the Act. Challenging this in the courts would, I suspect, be an expensive process that would be beyond the finances of the affected schools. However the old saying "Not only must justice be done; it must also be seen to be done” would seem to be appropriate in this situation.  I hear that Island Bay School has laid a complaint with the Ombudsman over this and this will give a guideline for future action.

There is a third issue, potentially the most significant, hiding in the wings of this process. Every New Zealand state primary school, whether they voluntarily incorporated targets against standards, or did so reluctantly because of compliance requirements, and those who have been issued a charter against their wills, has now been required to follow nationally imposed charter objectives.

This effectively means that the concept of the self governing school, that has underpinned school operations since 1990, has now been set aside. The self governing school model was intended to allow local communities to have some input into the visions, policies and goals of their schools.

While this has always been restricted by various government policies, the current requirement to set targets against national standards, through degrees of compulsion, brings back centralised control of education that we’ve not seen for a very long time. Far more so, in fact, than the situation before Tomorrow’s Schools, when the Department of Education operated at arm’s length from the governments of the day. This is in contrast to the role of the MOE, which is to implement the policy of the government in power at any particular time.

This centralising of control over schools sends a very clear, and frightening signal, of what we may expect in coming years.

Have we seen the first shot in the dismantling of the Tomorrow’s Schools framework?  Have we seen the first shot in the dismantling of the New Zealand public school system that has existed since the 19th century?

Given the likely agenda of ‘school reform’ that will target ‘underachieving schools’ (this is the clear model being followed in the United States and England), the answer to these questions is yes, this is the first step in dismantling Tomorrow’s Schools and the public school system as we know it.

Again following the overseas patterns, we can expect attacks on the NZEI, blaming them for teacher ‘underperformance’ and protecting ‘poor teachers”, leading to strenuous efforts to break the collective agreement  and institute site based bargaining. This isn’t new - those with longer memories will remember the vicious employment negotiations of the 1990s.

England and USA have both used the ‘underachieving schools’ argument to justify the closure of these schools and their replacement by ‘Charter Schools’ in the USA and “Free Schools” in England. These are nominally meant to be community schools but before too long the corporates have stepped in. This results in corporate run schools, using government funding, as part of their business programmes. Standards and league tables are a key component in this process, and we can expect tests to replace OTJs in a couple of years.

To repeat: the influences from overseas are very clear. The rhetoric from the government here is near identical to that used in the USA (“raising the bar” for example) and so there is little doubt of the agenda. If the words like ‘school reform’ (or similar slogans) appear in the coming election campaign, then that will confirm this beyond doubt.

There are numerous sources of information on Charter and Free schools available online, but to get you started, here is a website about charter schools in the USA, and here is one about free schools in England. For comprehensive information about US education, the most followed person is Diane Ravitch.

Read these, and other similar sites carefully, as this model is very likely to be in our not too distant future. I’ve heard principals and teachers say that they are too busy to read this kind of ‘stuff’ or that some articles are ‘too long.’ Really? Are we professionals or just workers employed to do a job?

At the very least, everyone should read Kelvin Smythe’s Networkonnet, Phil Cullen’s Treehorn Express, and this Leading and Learning blog that Bruce Hammonds runs so well.

A USA group, with similar concerns for the future of public schooling, has established a website called United Opt Out National:The movement to end punitive public school testing. This is a new venture which is growing very fast, supported by key educators in the USA. Their associated Facebook page, “Opt out of the State test, is listed below.

After an approach from Phil Cullen,  a South Pacific Outreach page has now been set up on this site, to foster sharing and support between USA, Australia and New Zealand, in our joint battle to protect public schooling in all three countries. We hope that this will grow over time to include like minded groups facing the same battles in their own countries.

Over recent weeks, a variety of Facebook pages about standards based education have sprung up in New Zealand and the USA, and probably elsewhere. The hope is that concerned educators and parents will link together through this medium, to develop a world wide campaign to protect public education. Join in! If we all link arms we form a powerful movement! If we don’t work hard at this, then we know what the result will probably be.

Winston Smith fought back against ‘Big Brother”. What are you going to do?

New Zealand Facebook pages:
USA Anti-Standardised Testing Facebook pages:


Anonymous said...

It seems we are moving into a Big Brother Educational Police State and too many principals are so busy heads down complying to even notice where they are headed.

Anonymous said...

Well written Allan but I fear most principals who read it will kind of agree but then get on with complying.

Allan Alach said...

As BTAC have advised, the MOE have the upper hand now with their ability to forcibly impose charters. However forced compliance is not acceptance, as invaders have found to their cost in war situations. While I've heard that schools would have a legal case against the MOE over this charter process, the cost is beyond them (tens of thousands of $). Using a war analogy, we don't have the resources for a head on battle at this stage. Therefore the tactics need to switch to guerilla warfare - choose the time and place for skirmishes and then pull back before suffering too many casualties. Save the resources for a big battle in 2012.

So while principals need to be seen to be compliant (a situation rapidly looming for me) we also need to continue the battle behind the scenes. The links with the USA, as I mentioned in the article, have moved rapidly in the last couple of days. It has come as quite a surprise to Americans that both Australia and New Zealand, the two countries whose primary schools have been held up as ideals, have gone done this road. This has given them lots more strength and this will then reflect back to help us.