Education Wars

Here we are again, folks. As Hekia Parata acknowledges that she was “braced for new rankings to reflect [the fact that student achievement is slipping]” despite her beloved National Standards being well bedded-in by now, I am reminded, again, of the persistent high-minded arrogance of the National Party in its philosophically barren approach to education. We have seen the universities strike out at the NCEA, saying it is “failing our students“. Equally as striking is the different education-related war being waged in Australia currently. This is not to mention the furore amongst Sydney’s law students around a botched law exam at the University of Sydney. Education, it seems, has returned to the fore as a ruthless political battle ground.

Here in New Zealand, it seems that the education unions have been proven to be quite objectively correct in their assessment of National Standards: even on the most charitable account they are achieving sweet nothing for the education achievement of our kids. At worst they are damaging the very ethos that undermines our public education system, forcing learners into boxes and placing massive restrictions on the professional abilities of our teachers.

The Minister’s apparent “she’ll be right” response to the damning critiques being offered of her approach to improving primary educational achievement is extremely troubling. It smacks of an ignorance of the reason we provide education to our citizens as a public good. Of course the private benefits of being educated are not to be understated, and the individual opportunity that is created from a good education is invaluable. However, we all benefit from having students who emerge from our education system as well-equipped as possible to cope with and advance our technologically and philosophically advanced modern world. This means letting them explore their passions and advance, to a degree, at their own pace and in their own way. Only free learners can contribute real discoveries and innovations to our society. It is little wonder then that National Standards will fail to improve our education system in any meaningful kind of way. The universities’ gripes about NCEA are likewise unfounded. Perhaps the problem with students who come to uni not knowing the right maths and science stems from what they are actually taught (i,e, the curriculum), rather than the assessment system that actually mimics the university system much better than anything we have previously had.

The education wars are raging just as fiercely across the Tasman: this time around school funding. The previous government spent four long years negotiating a school funding agreement known as Gonski with the states and territories. Something close to consensus had been reached, meaning that a greater share of federal funding was destined for Australia’s state schools. While the model is still a long, long way from what I would describe as “good”, it is nonetheless a vast improvement on the “endless cash for Catholic schools”-type system that existed previously. However, another education minister determined to leave a legacy more than anything else has torn up the agreement. The resulting uproar is expected, and justified. Yet again it appears that the en education minister would rather play politics than ensure the education system provides the opportunity and equality that is was built to provide. It remains to be seen whether the students or the politicians will win in this education war.

It is often said that being the minister for education is the hardest job in politics. From where I’m sitting though, it looks like some respect for research and an ability to listen would make the job so much easier. We live in hope…


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