School battles rage worldwide

23:00, Oct 09 2012

Across much of the English-speaking world, a struggle is raging over control of education. The good news is that politicians, the people we elect to make decisions on our behalf, seem to be winning.

The pattern is remarkably consistent. Governments, both of the Left and the Right, are wresting control back from teachers' organisations. They have realised that education is too important to be left in the hands of teachers.

Julia Gillard, now prime minister of Australia, made her name as a reformist education minister. In that capacity she launched My School, a website that provides access to information on achievement standards in nearly 10,000 Australian schools.

Needless to say, Australian teachers opposed My School. They raised the bogey - all too familiar here - of “league tables” which would enable parents to compare schools. Nothing seems to terrify teachers' unions more than the thought of parents and taxpayers being given information about how schools are performing.

The launch of My School was preceded by the introduction of national literary and numeracy tests, also vehemently opposed by teachers and academics.

More recently, Ms Gillard took the first step toward introducing performance pay for teachers, another initiative bitterly resisted by teachers' unions. Payment on merit supposedly undermines the sacred principle of “collegiality”, because teachers argue it has the potential to sow discord in the staffroom. Diddums, as Helen Clark might have said.


The parallels with New Zealand are obvious, except that we're several years behind. What's noteworthy is that the Australian reforms were instituted by a Labor government, which might normally be expected to take the teachers' side.

Similar scenarios have been played out elsewhere. In 2001 the United States Congress passed the No Child Left Behind Act, a critical component of which is standards-based education reform. Sound familiar? It's based on the premise that measurable goals - such as our national standards - can improve outcomes in education.

Co-written by Democrats and Republicans, the act requires standardised annual testing and Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) measurements. Schools that fail the AYP for two consecutive years are publicly identified and must undertake improvement programmes. What's more, children attending those schools must be given options such as shifting to another school.

American teachers fought the changes and continue to oppose attempts to impose greater accountability. But as in Australia, agreement on the need for education reform transcends normal political divides. The Obama Administration supports merit pay, charter schools (another idea that induces apoplexy in teachers' union leaders) and teacher assessment.

In Britain, the Conservative-Liberal coalition government passed legislation in 2010 allowing parents, teachers, charities and businesses to set up their own version of charter schools, known as free schools (so-called because no fees are charged). Funded by the taxpayer but outside the control of local authorities, free schools were introduced in the face of almost hysterical opposition from the National Union of Teachers. The NUT also fought the “academies” programme instituted by Tony Blair's Labour government in 2000, an innovative attempt to deal with the problem of entrenched failure within schools with a record of low academic achievement. You'd think the teachers' union would applaud such an initiative, but no.

The common theme across all these countries is that governments, dissatisfied not only with performance in the education sector but also the lack of transparency and accountability, are forcing through changes.

Politicians are quite properly reclaiming the right to decide how schools should be run. This ranges from demanding better information for parents (in other words, accountability) to providing options beyond the narrow ones available under the status quo (in other words, choice - the ultimate dirty word in the teachers' union lexicon).

This process is much further advanced elsewhere than in New Zealand, where both National and Labour governments have allowed themselves to be bullied and intimidated by belligerent teachers' organisations.

What we are now seeing played out, in the furore over the release of national standards results, are the opening skirmishes in a battle for the control of education.

Before anyone accuses me of teacher-bashing, I acknowledge that my four children have had some admirable and dedicated teachers to whom I will always be grateful. The problem lies not with individual teachers but with the collectivist mindset of their unions, which have called the shots for so long that they genuinely believe they have the right to determine education policy.

But teachers and academics no longer control the debate and I sense public opinion is shifting. New Zealand is at last having a vigorous public discussion about important education issues.

The response to Fairfax's recent release of information about individual school performance has been huge. Parents have had a tiny taste of how things might be in an education sector where schools are no longer, in Education Minister Hekia Parata's words, “a secret society”.

Manawatu Standard