In theory, education is supposed to be the ‘great equaliser’ – this is an idea we often tell ourselves and others. For well-meaning liberals, the answer to a significant amount of the world’s problems lies in its citizens being better educated. Sociologists have amassed a great deal of evidence that demonstrates the power of social class in enabling or disabling children’s achievement potentials at school right off the bat. Policy discourse in New Zealand recently has been focused on the National government’s reforms in the areas of charter and special character schools, funding and organisational matters, and access to breakfast and lunches – all bold and important issues. The government has indeed demonstrated that it is far keener to involve private, moneyed interests in education and experiment with the future of children, while offering their own views for why children do not succeed at school and encourage the worst elements of New Zealand’s prevailing anti-teacher attitudes which may have political utility but are not constructive and without evidence. They would do this rather than empower state schools and teachers to focus on what they should be: imparting valuable knowledge to young learners. This brings me to a question: what is that knowledge? And why is it that knowledge, taught in a particular way, rather than other knowledge or taught in another way?
The last two decades have brought powerful changes to New Zealand’s education system at all levels. The Picot Report and ‘Tomorrow’s Schools’, led predominantly by business interests, shifted government focus in education to an obsession with administration. This drastically modified the operation of schools by introducing boards of trustees, implemented with little start-up support from government. It also introduced the New Zealand Qualifications Authority (NZQA), the Education Review Office to oversee the new self-managing procedures of schools, and abolished regional education boards. The next large-scale change was ‘Achievement 2001’, which was then a codename for the NCEA. A year before this was the introduction of the Numeracy Project, emphasising the acquisition of informal number strategies and calculator skills over and above mathematical knowledge and rules which hindered students’ progress in the subject, and has kneecapped mathematics education ever since. And in 2008, the National government was elected that immediately set about attempting to implement the National Standards for Years 1-8. Although these three massive reforms were designed by centrist and Right administrations, the Left have moved to support the former two. They have each had disastrous results and worsened the class divisions in New Zealand’s education system.
The NCEA in particular seemed like a ‘progressive’ step forward for New Zealand’s education system because it phased out the norm-referenced School Certificate system, which automatically failed a set proportion of students based on the average results of the cohort. This norm-referenced system was designed to reflect the British ‘tripartite’ system supported by psychologists such as Cyril Burt, an infamous academic fraud who supported naturist and racist ideas about intelligence. An examination was taken by all British students at the age of 11, which would determine the kind of school – grammar school, technical college or comprehensive – they would be sent to. (This is why Theresa May’s ploy to bring back grammar schools has been so heavily resisted by even members of her own Conservative Party in the United Kingdom.) New Zealand emulated the tripartite school system for a time. The NCEA, on the other hand, had the opposite problem – extraordinary opacity. It was initially implemented as an extremely flawed pass/fail system that was (and remains) encumbered by NZQA bureaucracy and an arcane grading system. Some of these problems were fixed in a review conducted in 2008, seven years after the qualification was established, which streamlined the qualifications system, but did not fill the hole left by the absence of a strong curriculum. The introduction of The New Zealand Curriculum – which mentions skills, competencies, and values, but no knowledge – and the National Standards, did nothing to change this situation.
The ostensible purpose of education and pedagogy is to impart valuable empowering knowledge in the sciences, social sciences and humanities to all its pupils, providing them the resources to transcend their experience, understand and critique the forces of the world around them, and hone the practice and profession of teaching that knowledge. New Zealand’s education system has never lived up to these ideals. The social exclusion of the norm-referenced system was often complemented by bad ‘rote-learning’ of trivialities in pedagogy rather than any deep conceptual knowledge and progression. Yet today, all students can theoretically achieve the NCEA, but this democratisation has occurred alongside the further denigration of knowledge and curriculum. Postmodern ideas about the ‘social construction’ and political nature of knowledge have been incorporated into new instrumentalist standards-based models that reduce the curriculum to a set of employable skills. Louis Althusser’s comments that school is an “ideological state apparatus” and that a school curriculum is always a product of the interests of the dominant class seem to be echoed by both the educational unions and the Right which has been responsible for instrumentalising education and marginalising vocational education. These ideas remain ‘par for the course’ in the sociology of education, despite rarely venturing beyond critique or presenting a viable alternative to the current schooling arrangement.
This idea that education reflects societal power relations – and that the curriculum is inexorably racist, Eurocentric or heterosexist – is founded on an epistemic relativism that conflates the knowledge intended to be taught in school with who knows it. It is what sociologist Rob Moore has called a ‘name-and-shame’ argument. For instance, some postmodernists have stated that a distinct ‘female epistemology’ could be developed through feminism, which is superior to ‘white male’ knowledge. Others have argued for specifically racial knowledge-perspectives, such as a ‘kaupapa Māori’ perspective, which is supposedly incommensurable with any other ‘cultural’ perspective and only accessible through whakapapa, defined as biological descent. This is essentially a defense of reactionary appeals to authority; the new knowledge authority is now a body of representatives of the politically acceptable marginalised groups in society. Incoming teachers are now taught that there are simply ‘perspectives’ or different points of view on all matters (often incommensurable ones reflected in differential group membership), and that there are no truths or ways of establishing a claim to truth. Such ideas represent a reversal of my earlier statement that education is emancipatory – education is now seen, by people who claim to be progressive, as a cause of oppression.
The education unions and political class have largely ignored Kirsty Johnston’s extraordinary exposé in the New Zealand Herald on the class and ethnic disparities in education that have cemented themselves under the NCEA. Johnston identified a clear correlation between a school’s socio-economic decile and the proportion of NCEA entries into academic subjects vis-à-vis vocational subjects. Students from poorer schools – of which many are Māori and Pacific Islander, of course – were far less likely to pass academic standards and far more likely to pass vocational standards. These vocational standards include ‘prepare espresso beverages under supervision,’ taken by 18,000 students over five years, ‘purchase household consumables’, and ‘solve issues at rental properties’ in which 8,000 students were enrolled. Johnston interviewed Manukau Institute of Technology staffer Stuart Middleton, who claimed that these standards are part of a ‘quiet revolution’ and critique of the existence of such standards amounts to ‘snobbery’. The key, as Middleton says himself, is creating standards that lead directly to ‘employment’. Although Middleton may believe he is supporting a ‘quiet revolution’, he is in fact legitimising the entrenchment of a growing class polarisation in education. While the National government trumpets increasing pass rates for NCEA certificates at all levels, it is this underside they do not talk about – those increases are largely made up of students forced into vocational programmes to meet demands placed on schools for better results. The constantly shifting prerequisites of employment means that there will be students who attain no academic credits who have a completely useless qualification. Some in the older generations, of course, myopically cling to the falsehood that one can still leave school at fifteen years of age and walk straight into a secure full-time job.
What Johnston has revealed is that, largely because of the government’s relentless focus on performance-based rewards for teachers and funding pegged to individual school result targets, schools have canalised working-class students into the silo of vocational competency programmes that locks them out of tertiary study and leaves them without the power of academic knowledge. Because such knowledge is coded as ‘elite’ it is written off – this forgets that the elite are strictly taught academic knowledge and it is this epistemic and political advantage that legitimates their position in the world. Why children go to school in the first place is not to learn things they can be taught in the workplace or at home. (Unfortunately, this is what the current vocational system is doing for working-class students, meaning they miss out on ‘powerful’ knowledge.) It is to learn the codes of the sciences, social sciences and humanities that are key to functioning in a democratic society, and to enable them to critique and think the ‘not yet thought’, as sociologist Basil Bernstein says. Pedagogy and learning involves both conceptual knowledge and progression so students can transcend their everyday experience and reason with counter-intuitive ideas. Although schooling in New Zealand has a colonial history, it does not follow that it will be forever trapped in this history. It also however does not follow that recent moves in the provision of education for Māori have resulted in a move away from this history. The Māori gap in academic NCEA achievement has in fact stagnated since the qualification was first implemented.
This is not a conservative call to get ‘back to basics’ – indeed, why would we want to return to rote-learning pedagogy and discipline-based education? Rather, it is a plea for knowledge to become the focus of the school curriculum and for the science, social science and humanities disciplines to be drawn on, enriched and recontextualised for school-based learning. The turn away from knowledge has occurred at a time when knowledge is most needed, and as the prevailing neoliberal policy agenda increasingly turns schools into delivery agencies that compete against each other in a market for funding and resources. As sociologist of education Elizabeth Rata argues, knowledge has been erased from consideration by educationalists for a variety of reasons. Two are most prominent. One is the insistence of corporates and people like John Hattie who argue knowledge is a ‘process’. We live in a ‘knowledge age’ where education is supposedly irrelevant because we have the Internet to tell us what we need to know. This technicist view is incredibly naïve and simplistic and has influenced all the worst aspects of contemporary education thinking, such as the new ‘open plan spaces’ and hands-off ‘inquiry-based learning’. It also begs the question of how one would navigate the Internet’s information overload without the analytical tools to do so. A second reason is due to an ideology of culturalism that has influenced all thinking in the social sciences since the 1970s. Disciplinary knowledge learnt at school is rejected as ‘Western’ and ‘Eurocentric’ (among other things) and an argument is made that either this knowledge is the same as everyday knowledge or that the knowledges representative of other ‘cultures’ (read: races) be taught instead. This argument does not actually say anything about the knowledge in question, but speculates on who apparently knows it, a claim which is based on false premises anyway. Knowledge constantly changes as it is subjected to doubt, criticism and scrutiny. It is not, as the culturalists claim, an elaborate racist conspiracy that is designed to fail students of the wrong colour or gender.
Schools are not necessarily the key to emancipating young people from the conditions they were born into, but it can provide the tools for those young people to explain their experiences in the world. The humanities and social sciences in particular explain their lived realities in an academic context and provide resources to critique their experiences and form cogent political ideas. It is an outrage that students are being denied this because of beliefs about their perceived lack of ability, or worse because the government demands higher pass rates. Although knowledge is hard to acquire, that is not a justification for denying people a chance to acquire it. This surely raises the question of why we even have schools in the first place – if they do not teach children knowledge then what are they supposed to do? Schools in that sense become hollow instruments of the ruling classes. Unfortunately the Left, including the education unions, has largely surrendered to this ideology by abandoning the intellectual development of the very students it claims to be the most concerned about. A starting-point for recovery is to reassert the importance of knowledge in the school curriculum and revalorise the knowledge of the sciences, social sciences and humanities, against the imperative to instrumentalise it.
Alex Birchall is a researcher and postgraduate student in sociology. Born in Whangarei, his family hails from the north of New Zealand and Rotuma (Fiji). He is currently researching the limits of current housing policy in Auckland. Alex’s academic interests include: Marxism, the politics of racial ideology and nationalism, the philosophy of social science, the politics of globalisation, and the sociology of knowledge and education. His work has been published in New Zealand Sociology and sonic art journal Writing Around Sound. He identifies as a ‘left communist’ and a ‘critical Leninist’.