Welcome to National’s Brave New World of Education.


The summer political hiatus is clearly over, and education has been lined up by the National Party as the whipping boy yet again. Or, to be more precise, it is principals and teachers who are in line for a whipping, due to the so-called deterioration in New Zealand’s performance in the meaningless and invalid PISA test league tables.

There have been many really good articles written about National’s education policies, so let’s have a look at some.

First up, to set the scene, here’s the official Ministry of Education Q&A page about the proposed changes (Eh? Proposed changes? Does this mean there is room for negotiation? )

The rationale for these ‘proposed’ changes:

 “Our top students are doing as well as students anywhere in the world but there is a big gap between our top performing students and those who aren’t doing so well. We must do better and raise achievement across the board.  International studies also tell us clearly that we are not keeping pace with other high performing countries and jurisdictions, particularly in subjects like maths and science.”

 How about addressing the reasons behind those students who are not doing so well? Here’s a task for you – find out how many times the words ‘children, students, learning, education, and curriculum’ appear in this document. Compare this to examples of managerial language and you’ll notice a stark contrast. Is the answer to the so-called achievement issues an increase in top down managerialism?

This article “Pennies from heaven – or, a ‘Corpse’ Flower by any other name” explores this far better than any article I could write. This is a must read.

 ‘As I said, the intent of these changes is clear: It is to achieve the goal of creating an environment in the education system that reflects the broad neo-liberal and corporatist environment that dominates most other parts of the public sector and economy in general.

TDB Recommends NewzEngine.com

That involves competitive workplaces, performance pay, corporatist practices and attitudes (goal-setting, ‘KPI’s’, performance management, outcome measurement and monitoring, efficiency assumed to be a function of measured outputs as a ratio of financial inputs, etc.).’

 One point stands out, and I will return to this later:

 ‘In the education sector this is indeed a major piece of engineering; but what it also represents, given the centrality of schools to many communities and families, is a major piece of social engineering – of a scale perhaps not seen since the 1980s and early 1990s. To change the material and economic structures within which education functions is to achieve something quite deep in a modern society.’

The concluding section says it all:

 ‘For me, the saddest aspect of these announcements is that they represent one more step in re-engineering New Zealand into a depthless country where the siren calls of ‘achievement’ and ‘aspiration’ have infiltrated into every nook and cranny of our lives.

 We have now almost totally refashioned the world – into which we bring our children – into one that screams out to them from every direction that to live is to be judged, measured, compared, evaluated and – as often as not – found wanting.

Recruiting ‘Executive Principals’ and ‘Expert Teachers’ to that task is simply the latest plodding step to a dreary endpoint.

 In his speech, John Key claimed that:

In the end, these initiatives are about kids.

 If only.’

 From the Dim-Post: Enemy Action

 ‘And it’s stupid! Because we have a very good education system by world standards. It’s probably the best value for money in the world! Most of the children who are under-performing in that system are from poor backgrounds and studies routinely show that their learning problems can be traced to poor nutrition, living in damp houses and related problems that can’t be solved through tweaking the education system. But there’s no political capital in telling anxious, guilty middle-class parents that their kids are basically fine so instead we get this poll-driven obsession with ‘fixing’ a system that’s not broken.’

 You nailed it, Danyl.

For another take, here’s Boonman: Dipping my Hands into the Elephantshit

 ‘The elephant in the room country the government is refusing to answer, even though the media keep mentioning it, is the impact of child poverty on learning and achievement. This government doesn’t care about this issue because either a) it would be far too expensive to remedy the situation and they have their precious surplus to consider, or b) they don’t actually get many votes from the parents of those quarter of a million kids, so what’s really the point, or c) nah-nah-nah-nah not listening not listening nah-nah-naaaaaaaaaaaaah.’

 Mike then goes on to speculate how these ‘expert ‘principals and teachers will be identified, and I think he’s pretty close to the mark. I’ve discussed the PaCT student database before and it’s not too much of a mental stretch to connect PaCT and National’s plans for education.

“Value-added analysis allows teachers to be rated for performance based on how well their students achieve in the class when compared with how the students are expected to achieve based on a statistical model. In short, if kids in your class do better than expected then you are rated (and paid) more highly. Or, more accurately, we are going to GUESS how well children in your class might do against a set standard, and if they don’t do that well then you are a useless teacher.’

A disturbing aspect of Key’s policy announcement was the response by educational organisations, particularly Phil Harding of the New Zealand Principals Federation. Phil’s reported comment reeked of naivety and showed, in my opinion, a lack of understanding of the full agenda behind all National’s education policies.

‘Principals’ Federation President Phil Harding also said the announcements were a pleasant surprise and he was certain principals would be keen on it although aspects of it still had to be worked out.

“It’s hard for me to say it but I’m pretty damned impressed,” he said.

“It’s exactly what the system needs, to enhance collaboration between schools.”

 Collaboration between schools is indeed extremely valuable, but it’s drawing a pretty long bow to equate this policy with genuine, high quality collaboration. I do note that Phil has pulled back subsequently, maybe due to pressure from member principals? Unfortunately Phil’s comments have been seized upon by John Key to prove education sector acceptance of these policies.

The qualified acceptance by secondary principal and teacher organisations is also eyebrow raising, particularly as the main target of this policy appears to be primary school children, the focus of national standards.

The pitfalls for educators and the wider community are very well expressed in this article: John Key’s Cynical Triangulation on Education Reform Should not be Supported by the Left

 “The warm-ish reception this policy has received from left parties and unions is undermining their cause. They need to be clear in their response to this: it is a cynical ploy, an attempt to distract New Zealanders and fool them into thinking he can still be trusted with their children’s education. They are ideologically driven policies that are carefully crafted to continue chipping away at our education system: they bring more competition, more centralised control, and bring less benefits. It is yet another radical changed rammed through without any consultation with the sector or with parents.”

 Providing a supporting focus is this article from the USA: Unionization And Working Poverty

 ‘Attacking teachers and their unions in the hope that this will improve the quality of education, while assuming that better education is the key to escaping poverty, is thus a doubly misguided strategy. Of course, if destroying unions is the goal, and reducing poverty is only a fig leaf, the current discourse and strategy of the corporate education reformers makes excellent sense.’

 Micky Savage over at The Standard has also joined in: Some random observations on Key’s Education proposals

 ‘The teachers are being bought off and marginalised with the promise of more money.  Essentially this is performance pay for teachers.  What has been a cooperative and egalitarian profession will now become more competitive. The proposals continue the theme that the worsening of our education standards is the fault of teachers.  Paying more money for these so called super teachers suggests that the solution lies with them, not elsewhere.’

 Beyond all this, however, there is another issue which has been not received due attention. This policy implements a quantum change in New Zealand primary school education, a move that has been behind the whole National Standards programme. Kelvin Smythe outlines this in his article John Key’s education proposals:

 ‘The proposals are a move by the government to buy its way to an extreme neoliberal and managerialist future for education – one part of these proposals is performance pay, the other, and associated, is a managerialist, bureaucratic restructuring.’

Provision of primary school education in most districts will be shifted to a cluster based setup overseen by the Executive Principal, appointed by a government body, who will ensure ideological purity.

Kelvin Smythe:

‘After a settling down period, the executive principal in alliance with the bureaucracies will programme the expert and lead teachers to fit their activities to the national standards curriculum and managerialist goals, meaning those teachers will, for vocational survival, become more beholden to the bureaucracies than to their schools (with sinister implications for the schools). The executive principal will be central to appointing teachers and, every three years, deciding whether to reappoint them.’

 A move to teacher performance pay and employment conditions is a virtual certainty under this regime. Heaven help any teacher who tries to advocate for their pupils.

Further, this move is the death knell for the widespread implementation of the New Zealand Curriculum that received world wide acclaim on its release in 2007.

Kelvin again: 

‘There is making permanent the national standards curriculum by selecting expert and merit teachers on the basis of their demonstrated commitment to a narrow version of mathematics, reading, and writing and their willingness to promote it.’

  Achievement against national standards data (data described by educational expert John Key as ‘ropey’) will predominate over all else, with similar limitations on the way teachers run their classrooms. This will particularly hit schools on lower socio-economic areas, due to the well established links between inequality and educational success. These schools will be forced to focus almost exclusively on ‘raising achievement’ because if they don’t, a ‘Change Principal’ could be parachuted in to replace the principal who ‘failed to raise achievement.’  The fact that parachute principals have failed overseas has, of course, been disregarded.

There’s another aspect to consider – where will these ‘Change Principals’ come from? Given the overseas evidence, they will come from higher socio-economic schools, where achievement is a process, not a problem. They will need to be miracle workers to overcome poorer children’s life circumstances.

Evidence of the limiting of the curriculum is already starting to appear in New Zealand, such as one school’s dictates to severely restrict children’s opportunities to make use of 21st century educational technologies in their learning, replaced by a focus on ‘traditional’ learning programmes. 

Not that this matters to National, of course, as their voter support comes from the other end of the socio-economic scale – their children will do better in school, will be much more likely to pass national standards and so their teachers will be freed up to provide a comprehensive, rich educational experience. This will further our two tier society, with the children of the well to do going on to higher qualified leadership roles, while the rest will struggle to move away from the employment version of cannon fodder. 

The irony here is that prior to the later 1990s New Zealand had a comprehensive system of educational advisers who were available to work with teachers and children to develop the quality of educational programmes in all curriculum areas.

So what happened to the advisers? In the later 1990s the then National led government (surprise) started the process of privatisation and contracting out services with for specific subject areas, mainly in literacy and numeracy. This contracting of services was continued by the subsequent Labour led government and continued to target literacy and numeracy. Advisers in the other curriculum areas lost their positions as a result over the next few years. Many really talented people were lost to education as a result.

The destruction of the remnants of the advisory service was completed by the current government and replaced with the very narrow focus on raising achievement against national standards. This latest National led government policy of paying big money to principals is another step.

Once advisors interacted directly with teachers, often with their classes, either taking demonstration lessons, or working alongside teachers to help them develop their skills.

Now we have the prospect of very highly paid principals working at the top of the school hierarchies, a very long way from where it really matters – in the classroom. In schools, the group who matter above all else are the teachers. Not the principals, and definitely not the Boards of Trustees.

Fat chance in the New Zealand education system of 2014.


  1. You have outlined the problems with these proposals well, as always, Allan. This is aimed at entrenching beaurocracy and National Standards, end of story. As a teacher, I don’t want more pay, I want genuine support in doing my job well. Help for special needs students, training for teachers in those same areas, more in-school experts in Te Reo, music, PE and so on for primary schools, and some food on the table for those most vulnerable. I didn’t enter teaching to get rich – I entered it to make a positive difference to children’s lives. Maybe John Key just doesn’t get that?

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