Dr Liz Gordon: Yesterday’s schools


Exactly 30 years ago, a taskforce headed by a supermarket magnate, and urged on by an ideological Treasury and rampantly privatising Labour Government, came up with a report on schooling that led to the Tomorrow’s Schools reports. These reforms, owing nothing to good educational practice and everything to Friedmanite economics, have done their best in the resulting period to destroy our society and environment.  Our society, by ripping away white from brown, rich from poor and splitting communities. Our environment, by encouraging parents to believe that choosing different schools than the closest one will somehow improve their child’s educational achievement, thus encouraging them to ship their kids (in mandatory SUVs) over the other side of town each day.

For those of us with a commitment to strong public education, it has been a thirty year fight. I want to remember, in particular, the work of the late Professor John Codd, who took on David Lange time and time again over his claims that the reforms would improve educational outcomes.  And, also, Emeritus Professor Ivan Snook, who died just a couple of months ago, not knowing the outcomes of the government’s taskforce on schooling, after fighting for change over the last 25 years of his life.

My friend John Minto has also written about the reforms on these pages, so I don’t intend to repeat his comments here. I agree with him entirely. The proof of the pudding will be in the changes that emerge, of course, but it is a wonderful breath of fresh air to have the major problems of our schooling system at last acknowledged by a government. Sorry about the mixed metaphors.

The concept of a self-managing school was inherently flawed.  Early on, an OECD inspector labelled Boards of Trustees ‘self-perpetuating oligarchies’. Their main role was to reproduce schools in the image of their own ambitions for their children.  The governance model was flawed – far too many governance bodies to bring about evenness and fairness across the country, far too many inexperienced governors needing training (usually provided by the principal) and little logic in the system.  We should not forget that the intention of those setting up the system was to make Boards the employers of teachers at each school, in order to break down the national collective bargaining system that has seen teachers, relatively speaking, maintain their pay and somewhat improve their conditions (compared to other sectors).

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I have not yet made up my mind about the replacement governance model, called ‘education hubs’. I would be interested in people’s thoughts on these.  The idea is to balance the power of the Ministry of Education with relatively powerful agencies at the regional level that have both a system and practice orientation.  This will need massive changes to the Ministry, which has not been fit-for-purpose ever since it was set up, and certainly not in the past decade.

I don’t know how to solve the system problems that have resulted from school choice – especially the white and middle class flight, and the hollowing out of lower-decile schools. The new governance system, whatever it is, will need to fix deeply embedded problems at the same time as governing what it inherits.  That is, the schooling system that is being taken over is a fairly sick one, in places.

On the other hand, collective management should solve the numerous issues that have arisen from disputes between staff and Boards in schools. I have lost count of the number of commissioners that have had to be put into non-functioning schools.  Hopefully all of that will now end.

A good education for all is the key to our future. It always has been, actually, and the inequalities and gaps of the past 30 years have damaged our country immeasurably. Our system is much more complex today because of a more diverse population, more social inequalities, rising emotional and behavioural problems and a complex curriculum.

So, we can joyfully announce that a baby is coming.  What the baby will look like is still to be determined.  Minister Hipkins and his associates have a lot of work to do.  They need to approach it pragmatically and with an eye on a system that works.  Professional autonomy needs to be effectively balanced with system support. Adequate resources need to be provided.  1988 should not be the blueprint. 1938 should, when Minister Fraser noted that education for all, regardless of location, class or other factors, would be provided, of the best quality for everyone.  A prosperous, kind and just nation depends upon it.


Dr Liz Gordon began her working life as a university lecturer at Massey and the Canterbury universities. She spent six years as an Alliance MP, before starting her own research company, Pukeko Research.  Her work is in the fields of justice, law, education and sociology (poverty and inequality). She is the president of Pillars, a charity that works for the children of prisoners, a prison volunteer, and is on the board of several other organisations. Her mission is to see New Zealand freed from the shackles of neo-liberalism before she dies (hopefully well before!).


  1. They should reform the tertiary education sector next which has also suffered from 40 years of the competitive model. And then get on to the electricity sector

  2. I’d add the name of Kelvin Smythe to the list of people who spent the last 30 years battling against the so-called ‘tomorrow’s schools.’ Sadly Kelvin, like his close friend Ivan Snook, died just before this report came out.

    I completely agree with your overview.

  3. I’d add Kelvin Smythe to the list of people who battled tirelessly against the whole tomorrow’s schools agenda. Sadly Kelvin, like his good friend Ivan Snook, didn’t live to see this report but I know that he would have been very satisfied as to the overall recommendations. Kelvin’s two big wishes were for the return of an advisory service and for the end of the Education Review Office, an organisation he attacked from the outset. Time has shown how right he was.

  4. They’re happy to experiment on your hostage kids because they confiscate and detain them, for free, while you are out staving off having your house repossessed… crucially without time to do anything about, any of it

  5. Great.
    I say fix parents first. They’re commonly the first in line to influence children. I went to the house of horrors that’s also known as ‘the super market’ and why, goodness me! Over there behind the stacks of sugar/chemical fruit mince, christmas heart attack pies I found a sparkle mating with a twinkle. It was a shiny thing to witness! The SUPER! market has new windows,big new signs and a robo-womin urinating soft words of sickly, patronising eagerness into my sadly quite good hearing earholes to brainwash me into buying hugely overpriced stuff and things. She goes on…“And just maybe your perky little One Card might be hiding in that silly old glove box, the darling little kiss-fur thing of delights… Moi-moi ! Air-kiss darling shoppers and here’s my number, see you round the back for a slap and tickle… and make big savings too… Xxxx “
    Then I saw the fucking fresh beans for $6.99 for 250 gms! Butter! $8.00. Bread @ $3.50. Cheeses? Jesus!
    Before we try to ‘educate’ the little Donald Dumbasses into the ways of her/his iGadget cyborg-accessory he now finds he can’t function, even at a basic level, without lets sort out the basics first. How about that?
    Food? What the fuck!? Why is it so expensive when the grower gets fuck all for it? Petrol? What about our very own resource that is LPG? What happened there? Who apart from myself clearly, is asking that question? I used to run a big old V8 Dodge on LPG. It was awesome. Cleaner running than petrol, was cheap-as, and is ours. Then? Mysteriously, fucking Shell ended up with it, then they popped on a name change to Z, for Christ’s sake. Then? Let the rorting’s begin. Why? Who the fuck did that? How’d that happen?
    Our, and let me repeat O.U.R. Our electricity. It’s fucking OURS! Not theirs! Not some wanker foreigner parasitising our resource at our expense ! Who’s asking those questions? And speaking of electricity. What’s with the so called ‘retailers’? Why do we need electricity ‘retailers’? What do they do? How do they better our lives and lifestyles? How? I just had electricity supplied. I rang a cadre of muppets who did a little song and dance. Many letters and forms later. A few stout fellows turned up in an impressive 4×4 crane truck ( Was awesome actually!) popped in a pole, ran some cable over the road to my ‘entry point’ ( Don’t ask. ). Then, I had a trades fellow twiddle a screw driver. Then, another fellow come by and check that the first fellow twiddled his screw driver within acceptable tolerances, took some photographs then they both left me to turn on this mythical ‘electricity’.
    Ok. In my case, ‘Contact Energy’ supply the electricity from the dam to my toaster. PowerJoe The Big Truck Boys do the hard work. They dig the hole for the pole and climb ladders while making bawdy jokes.
    Power is on… So? Why do I then need a ‘retailer’ to charge me like a wounded bull for my/our resource? They don’t actually ‘do’ anything except gouge and rort me for access to my natural resource. Why? Will someone ask someone else because I’m fucked if I know.
    Housing? You know what a house is, right? It’s a thing that an increasing number of people like you and me blessed with Lotto luck rent, and own. It keeps out wee beasties and holds in warmth (see above) and offers security against all things marauding. Here’s the kicker… Foreign Banksters have let mating Twinkle-Sparklers loose on an unsuspecting population in the form of realesnake agents who do bankster bidding to con the Donald Dumbasses into working until they literally die paying off bankster debt leveraged against the wee beastie shelter for the whanau. Donald Dumbass and Whanau ? You. Are. Being. Conned. by Banksters! Yes! I know! Too many exclamation marks! Well! Fuck it! Here’s another one… !
    This is the formula for my knowing stuff and things:
    NZ/AO = quite big. 20 K square K bigger than the UK.
    NZ/AO= 4.794 million (2017) Donald Dumbasses.
    NZ/AO = rich-as in vital resources. Specifically foods, timbers, fishes, power generation etc but wait!? There’s more! NZ/AO is also breathtakingly beautiful everywhere. From the North Cape to Bluff and beyond. We live on a beautiful, beautiful landmass. We are unbelievably lucky.
    Or are we?
    We appear to be entirely and unfathomably stupid. We also appear to be cowardly and spineless when it comes to making a fuss and smashing shit up for the greater good and to protect our sovereignty.
    This is what I think.
    I think, that because we scant few live on such an amazingly beautiful and fertile land and have been lucky enough to have been bestowed with a world class and societally uniform education prior to 1984-ish, we require no small amount of swindling-finesse to enable a few foreign fuckers, with the help of traitorous local scum, to take our country off us. And they’re using ever increasing costs of living to, not only profit from us, but to force us to our knees psychologically to make the occupation of our country as bloodless as possible for them.
    I remember talking to a Malaysian fellow years ago who had four degrees and taught maths with one of them at a local secondary school. He cautioned me that NZ/AO was undergoing a ‘bloodless coup’.
    Never mind educating kids. It’s us adults who need educating. And quick-smart too.

  6. 100%

    … [ 1988 should not be the blueprint. 1938 should, when Minister Fraser noted that education for all, regardless of location, class or other factors, would be provided, of the best quality for everyone. A prosperous, kind and just nation depends upon it ” … ]

    And nary a truer word be spoken.

    Keep up the good fight against the odious neo liberal agenda.

    Our children’s lives depend upon it.

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