Last year I said there was a fight brewing in schools around the country.
I suggested schools had become the new site of an increasingly intense ideological war.
Chances that there might be a lull in the war after the retreat by the Government over class sizes have been dashed by Prime Minister John Key's call for league tables.
The battle will surely now intensify over the coming months.
The Government attack on public education is co-ordinated, deliberate and sustained over several fronts.
National standards measuring narrowly defined curriculum outputs will be used to generate blunt and meaningless league tables. These will in turn create fear and suspicion about neighbourhood schools. This is designed to increase the public appetite for private forms of education, including charter schools. The attacks, justified with the cliched spin of improving student achievement, are essentially about reducing the role of state provision of education.
It has nothing to do with improving life outcomes for the most disadvantaged but everything to do with de-professionalising and de-unionising the education sector. It is about presenting the teacher unions as dinosaurs for wanting to protect a high-quality public education sector.
The Government knows that its plans for education would be much easier with weaker teacher unions and parents have seen recently just how important it is to have these unions defending schools and children in the face of these attacks.
The heat of battle, however, will reach fever pitch later this year. Legislation planned for September to amend the Education Act 1989 will make it clear that charter schools can operate without qualified or registered teachers. Nor will they have to teach the nationally mandated curriculum.
Charter schools won't be required to have community representation or input into governance.
Any idea that this is about a small-scale trial is disrupted by Education Secretary Lesley Longstone's advice to the Charter School Working Group on how to spread the charter-school concept.
In the minutes recently released of the group's April meeting, Ms Longstone talks about how from very small beginnings they were able to grow academies in Britain to 40 per cent of the education market.
Failure and rescue has informed the discourse of recent months in education. Failing students, failing teachers, failing principals, failing schools and failing communities are blamed and shamed while the white knights of business are presented as the rescuers, the saviours of a system that teachers and principals refuse to admit needs rescuing.
Failure in NCEA level 2 maths and English is touted as failing at basic levels of literacy and numeracy.
However, NCEA level 2 is not testing basic literacy and numeracy.
Neither do national standards give a true and accurate measure of what schools achieve. However, these blunt instruments have become a convenient tool to manufacture a sense of crisis within the system therefore requiring the radical solutions proposed by the Government.
There are other values and ideas about education. These values formed a consensus for many years about the role of the state in education. The old consensus was that the state had a responsibility to ensure that every teacher, in every classroom, in every school in New Zealand was highly trained, highly qualified, and highly valued for the specialist and professional work they did.
There was an agreement that schooling was about more than literacy and numeracy. The creation of critically thinking people, of people with vested interests in the success of fellow citizens, of people committed to justice and equity are valuable pursuits for education.
Measuring school success purely on NCEA scores or on national standards is deceptively simple and devalues these other significant roles schools play.
Labelling and shaming schools and communities as failures through the publication of league tables is morally repugnant.
Instead of the false choice offered by these neo-liberal assaults, I value the promise of equity. Equity suggests that parents have the right to expect their publicly funded and run neighbourhood school is as good as any school in the country. It means that charter schools shouldn't flourish at the expense of other schools in the same area. It means league tables shouldn't be used to further blame children for being poor.
A progressive education system recognises that, instead of merely training people for the economy, the central and primary purpose of school is to help young people make sense of the world they live in, and to give a sense they might be able to have an impact on and improve it for themselves and others.
The choices over the coming months for parents are clear. To side with market-driven change that has been spectacularly unsuccessful internationally or hold on to the ideals and principles of progressive education that gives children a greater chance of success.
Peter O'Connor is an associate professor at the School of Critical Studies in Education, Education Faculty, Auckland University.
- The Dominion Post
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