Good public education is at risk

16:00, Dec 13 2011
school uniform skirts
Schools have become the battlefields of an ideological war.

There is a fight brewing in schools. They have become the new site of an increasingly intense ideological war.

The battle is between a Government intent on the imposition of neo-liberal education policies that have been spectacularly unsuccessful around the world, and teachers and principals who are already portrayed by this Government as whiners and moaners unwilling to adapt and change.

A Government beholden to business and the deregulation of the market is now rewarding them with the opportunity to make profits in the schooling of the poor. Even before it was sworn in, it had already indulged in the time-honoured practice of blaming and shaming schools for failing to fix the very problems government and business  in their unholy alliance with the corporate state  have caused.

Charter schools are part of an international Right-wing attack on progressive and humanist traditions of education. The goals of such traditions have historically been the fostering of critical citizens. The corporatist attack on these traditions has been to replace the creation of critical citizens with consumer citizens, that is, citizens who accept the transfer of education from serving the public good to serving the aims and directives of the transnational capitalist elite who are bent on turning education into a sub-sector of the economy.

The attack is not driven by a genuine desire to remedy the ills of the education system, but by the desire to create a cheaper teaching force, one that is shackled by narrow-minded, test-based accountability measures, and one that has less union power to fight back.

Internationally, the attack attempts to shift education systems away from supporting equality of access and outcome, to focus instead on cutting funding and privatising or selling off schools for businesses to turn profits. It supports narrow national standards which have little to do with the production of critical, meaningful knowledge and problem-solving. The attack focuses on giving grants to the school instead of those students most in need, and on corporate control of the curriculum.

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The social experiment will be conducted in schools in South Auckland, where the popular myth is that schools are failing, and in Christchurch, where the earthquakes have provided a convenient excuse to wreak more havoc on a troubled city.

I work regularly in South Auckland schools and, since the earthquakes, I have worked in schools in Christchurch. Neither area has a record of poor and failing schools.

In contrast, schools and teachers in South Auckland are often the glue that binds together communities ravaged by inequality and poverty.

In Christchurch, the work of teachers and principals, which has almost been ignored and unrecognised, has been as big and brave and magnificent as anything we have seen in that city.

Despite the claims of the prime minister, the teachers and principals in these schools are not people with a vested interest in sustaining a failing system. They are people with a proven and vested interest in the lives of the children they serve.

The alternatives for the incoming Government are remarkably simple:

Perhaps it is too much to hope that education policy might be based on evidence, on research, rather than on neo-liberal ideology that rests on the "invisible hand" of the market.

The line in the sand has been sharply drawn and from which side of the divide we wish to cross will have serious consequences for the future of public education.

Associate Professor Peter O'Connor is director of the Critical Research Unit in Applied Theatre at the Faculty of Education, Auckland University.

The Dominion Post