GUEST BLOG: Alex Birchall – What Class Are You In? The Truth about Social Reproduction in the New Zealand Education System


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.

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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’.


  1. Alex;

    A very excellent paper.

    I believe the new programs rolled out are similar to those in America, just
    under different names. And just look at their state of education and their place
    on the education scale.

    Being educated in the 50’s and 60’s I am appalled at what you have written here.
    Was not this period the peak of our standards?

    There is no doubt the Elite have embarked on a process of Dumbing Down right
    across the western world and is an absolute scandal.

    If I was a parent today the only solution would be Home Schooling with an
    ‘Old Fashion Curriculum”. There are plenty of programs to meet this standard.

    Teaching a child to read with ‘whole word’ approach instead of Phonetics was
    an absolute disaster to set any child on a difficult future.

    Also I believe the programs have been designed to undermine the Teachers
    Union that know the perils of what is happening.

    Trump is going to change all these programs back to normal so watch this space.

    Good piece, confirmed my suspicions all along.
    No wonder there are so many people lacking in cognitive skills that can not
    read an article or book and take out the pertinent facts.

    Apart from the deleterious affects of to much television and digital games etc
    at such a young age (adults as well) I would suspect all this is by design.


    • What is the “normal” you see Trump going back to? Trump through his Secretary of Education surely is going to sell schooling off.

      • Pete:

        For a start he has already put a stop to the Transgender bathrooms
        requirement nonsense. Putting in young childrens minds whether they may
        be a boy or a girl and then taking away parents rights if the child thinks
        they may be the opposite.

        Sexualizing 5,6,7yr olds, teaching them about masturbation and oral sex
        and more. Jeez,talk about setting up years or decades of mental health.

        I won’t go into who is behind this here but if you don’t believe me you
        could do some research yourself. Try Tavistock and the Fabian Society.

        Enough to say this is all coming from the so called left.
        And I have usually stopped this ‘Left,Right’ divide in my head. It is a artificial tactic of Divide and Rule strategy.

        Indentity Politics if you will. And I came from working class parents that
        voted Labour all their life. Of course back then mum never had to work,
        We got brought up properly. Always had plenty of food and clothing.

        But suffice to say I will never,ever vote Labour again and have not done
        so since Helen Clark did nothing about the Contracts Act. I am nearly 69yrs old.

        Re education: An absolute abomination.


        • When DeVos gets into action and the David Seymours in NZ use her as a model (they’re doing it in the States it must be brilliant) and start copying them, Alex Birchall and anyone with any intelligence about education and learning will be swept aside.

          Anyone who is fixated on or distracted by seriously thinking that teaching 5,6,7yr olds about masturbation and oral sex is going to happen in our schools is already out of the game.

          • Frank;

            I take offense Frank when you infer my views of gays and
            lesbians my be outdated even though you/I know I was
            talking transgender. Especially when my reply has not been
            allowed to say so.

            I can figure out why because I was relating a case study of
            one that ended up as a councelor. I knew I should have
            posted the link but on my old computer.
            And I know how dare I mention any thing of mental health.
            It was his opinion,I might add, after extensive study.

            To put the record straight I have never had an issue with
            gays and lesbians.It is their business amongst consenting
            adults. It is children I am concerned about.

            So without saying anything more that may incur the wrath
            of who knows…….SJW’s.

            “They know not what they do” Frank.Here is the science.



            • They used to say the same thing about homosexuality, Iain. Homosexuality used to be considered a mental illness.

              You accept gays and lesbians only because society has moved on from homophobia (for the most part). Transgendered people are at the same point in being accepted.

              By the way, “New American” – the websbite you reference is another right wing, climate-change denying website espousing conservative views. The “report” you site has not been verified by peer-review;

              They note that the report, “Sexuality and Gender: Findings from the Biological and Psychological and Social Sciences,” was “not published in the scientific literature, where it would have been subject to rigorous peer review prior to publication. It purports to detail the science of this area, but it falls short of being a comprehensive review.”


              As usual, you offer us dubious information of questionable veracity. It is an insult to our intelligence, especially when – with a few carefully phrased parameters – it can easily be fact-checked.

              You really need to expand your reading material.

  2. Great post. The debate about education that needs a lot more coverage.

    What the National government has done to education, teachers and the next generation of kids is a crime. They are robbing them of the ability to have a decent egalitarian education and reducing educational quality to a cartoon like level.

    At the same time they are undermining teachers with an unworkable syllabus and ridiculous healthy and safety measures, that takes all the joy out of learning for children and joy of teaching out of teaching for teachers.

    I seem to remember doing a barista course when I worked part time at a cafe while studying. It took 3 hours to learn, was paid for by the cafe and didn’t take too many ‘academic’ skills to learn. You have to wonder how the government can turn it into a course for academic credits at secondary school or why the student is forced to pay for it at tertiary.

    Education has become a business – about profits and loss – winners and losers – strategies to get marks and get paying bums on seats, not the joy of knowledge.

    It is far removed from the original intentions of education. And far from our hey day in NZ education in the 1970’s when NZ led the world in literacy and Kiwis were considered hard working, can do people.

    Rather than employers and industries paying to provide training to their employee’s it has become the norm to charge students themselves for the training, make it longer so the student has to pay more money. At the end of it the workforce then demands ‘experience’ as well and ‘initiative’ and seems to be encouraged to take on migrant workers to ‘fill’ the demand, leaving the local students with questionable skills, no initiative, debts and still no job.

    School C was changed so that children would not be labeled as ‘failures’. Under National standards children as young as 5 are assessed with pass and fail for each standard. It is taking the worst parts of the School C system with the worst parts of the non creative unit standard assessments and combining them in an unfortunate experiment on much younger children and throughout their education – which is a kin to governmental abuse.

    Hope to see more on this debate.

    P.S. – If employers want initiative and creativity then teaching a kid to sit quietly and do as they are told, while regurgitating standard based education direct from the ministry, is not going to do it. Quite the opposite.

    And if technology is going to take over many jobs, then teaching robotic subjects and a process based education is criminal.

    Students should be taking creative subjects to create flexible minds and a system to encourage activity, co operation and analysis – the opposite of where the NZ system is going, a non creative, process based, competitive disaster.

  3. “Rather than employers and industries paying to provide training to their employee’s it has become the norm to charge students themselves for the training, make it longer so the student has to pay more money. At the end of it the workforce then demands ‘experience’ as well and ‘initiative’ and seems to be encouraged to take on migrant workers to ‘fill’ the demand, leaving the local students with questionable skills, no initiative, debts and still no job.”

    I read an article in the paper recently about the owner of a construction company who was asked for a job by a young guy, and was told to go and do a course at the local polytech first.

  4. I wish the debate around educational policies are evidenced based. Unfortunately, Alex’s opinions is what I expected from a well meaning liberal sociologist blogging on a left-wing site.

    Long on ideology, social construct theory and polemic attacks and little on evidence.

    Alex bemoans a regression to an emphasis on discipline for example as a reactionary reflex.

    However the latest PISA survey which is one the best research tool, suggest that discipline, or the lack of it, correlated with the ability to apply knowledge effectively.

    What matters in education is the quality of teachers, management but not necessarily class sizes or money.

    Unfortunately some societies are successful in providing quality of education through social stratas but unfortunately NZ is not one of them.

    The attitudes that perpetuate the social disadvantage is evident in the above article. The soft bigotry of low expectations. The deterministic view that socio-economic status equals low educational performance. The notion that the road to educational nirvana is not improving learning and the ability to apply it in life, but to change the social constructs around education. Redefining what learning is, to make any measurement of learning meaningless. Fighting the cultural wars, where learning is ethnocentrism… white based patriarchy… while ignoring the fact in objective measure East Asian people perform the best internationally and locally.

    The article is the application of Left-wing sociological theory on education. It manages to completely ignore any evidence on the determinates of educational outcomes.

    • Hmmm. The article I read rejected the idea of”learning as ethnocentrism”, and made no attempt to devalue discipline. The above comment seems rather strange in reply.

    • “Long on ideology, social construct theory and polemic attacks and little on evidence.”

      That’s what your centrist ideology is too. The most boring political commentators are those who think they’ve transcended ideology – people like you propagate today’s ideology. Boring…

  5. BLA BLA BLA…….
    SORRY BUT I lost interest in your elongated article because of waffling on & on .


    The SOLE aim of Schooling SHOULD BE to

    1) EQUIP students with a full knowledge of the ENGLISH LANGUAGE (+Comprehension skills)

    – SO THAT they can seek their OWN knowledge + circumnavigate our present world of FAKE /FRAUD/ use of language which is mainly used
    to manipulate +deceive.. esp by Politicians, Media, & our commerce $$$ driven world.

    2) EQUIP students with basic arithmatic skills so they can manage basic calculculations as are needed in Life.

    BOTH of which MOST BASIC SKILLS – are a HUGE FAIL in “education” today.

    YES . Public school education is a BIG FAIL today.

    Anyone who was around decades ago, knows & can recognise
    1) the DECLINE today in -not only spelling but comprehension of english language.
    which has resulted in




    1) The “News” on TV etc is /has to be a F**king JOKE.

    “CELEBRITY” gossip + trivia intermingled with SERIOUS issues.
    (and WHO KNOWS whats truth anymore )

    2) DECLINE in REAL JOURNALISM in ANY Newspapers /online

    (I’ve noticed how eg The Listener magazine has really been dumbed down in past years.)


    re “Knowledge”

    Schools should NOT be teaching kids such things as
    1) How to put condoms on a penis
    2) masturbation
    3) Homosexuality is just as healthy and normal as being “straight”.”

    Schools should NOT be teaching SOMEBODY ELSE’S IDEOLOGY.

    Schools should NOT be narrowing EDUCATION down to just providing
    workers for the JOB MARKET.


    Schools should NOT be FAILING at teaching THE most BASIC & IMPORTANT SKILLS in life



    Schooling/”education” HAS FAILED . And continues to.

    But strangely this UNDENIABLE fact is ALWAYS being ignored.

    (Probably because a DUMB populace makes better slaves.)

  6. Alex, thanks for sharing your thoughts on what you think isn’t working in education and why. Although I disagree with many of your assumptions and conclusions, unlike Cassie, I appreciate that you’ve put in the effort to go into some detail on education policy, even at the expense of presenting a longer article that many will not finish reading before commenting, and which requires at least a blog length piece to properly respond to (I’m working on it).

    One suggestion I’d make though, to you or anyone writing essay-length columns about politics, is to use an essay structure. Your opening paragraph needs to summarize the claims you intend to back up in the piece, providing a context for the reader as we evaluates the arguments and evidence presented in the rest of the paragraphs. Your final paragraph presents your claims succinctly, as it should, but you would have been better to put that paragraph at the start of your piece, and lack a conclusion than vice-versa. A for effort, C for content, D for style, overall a B-. I think your work can improve if you apply yourself 😉

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