Dr Liz Gordon – The speed of school reform


The Fish and Chip Club

Under the third Labour government, Roger Douglas ran a reform process of the Blitzkrieg variety.  Essentially the idea (which came from the Right in the US) was to carry out state sector reform (and destruction) so quickly and so seamlessly that it would take the public years to understand what had happened.

In the field of education, the 1988 working party (headed by Brian Picot, a supermarket magnate) was quickly and ruthlessly driven into a model of school choice and competition, called Tomorrow’s Schools, and the reforms introduced, including a whole new Education Act, all within a year.

During that time, David Lange as minister used his mana, his quick wit and quite a lot of anger (after all, he was having problems of his own) to defend the boundaries of his policy, slaying all objections and assuring everyone that the reforms would be for the best.  There were TV ads soft-soaping the changes, copies of the reform book were everywhere, and it all happened very, very quickly. Blitzkrieg.

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My avid fans (hi, you two) will know what I think of the past thirty years of schooling, so I am not going into that again.  I am basically in strong agreement with most of the recommendations of the current working party and ministerial direction. I went to a hui in Auckland yesterday (the Quality Public Education Coalition’s AGM) and listened to a panel of education leaders.  There is also strong sectoral support for change.

But what was discussed was the need for an inclusive, consultative process, with all those involved in education being given time to tweak and improve the model.  It all sounds very rational, but it gave me a squidgy feeling in my tummy.

After Labour did it’s worst bringing in a market choice agenda for education, National, much more private-sector oriented, spent a huge amount of time in the 1990s trying to extend the model in at least two respects.  The first was the proposal to devolve teacher salary bargaining to schools, and the second was a range of reforms to bring the private sector in to state schooling.

The epic battle over the bulk funding of teacher salaries, between the unions (for whom the policy was almost certainly a death knell) and the government (Lockwood Smith was the Minister during most of the period) was eventually won by the unions.  By using a gradualist approach, the government allowed debate to catch up with reform. Did we really want 2500 schools to each have to negotiate salaries of their own staff? No, of course we didn’t. Claptrap.

Similarly, Lockwood Smith used a model of ‘piloting’ options which was intended to garner support for change, but ended up providing a space wherein opposition could grow.  National spent 9 years having to patch a poorly conceived Act (e.g. school zoning laws had to be changed 3 times in the period) and managed no further large market reform of schools.

In general, the most powerful people in the country support the market reforms of 1989 and think they did not go far enough.  There is an active agenda to oppose the current major new policies. The media always give huge space to establishment and anti-government views, so articles pop up all over the place.  A few weeks ago, one, written by one of the Treasury architects of the 1989 reforms, defended them strongly and ran an anti-Ministry, anti-bureaucracy argument. Stuff ran it widely in their newspapers and online. I immediately penned a research-based response answering his concerns and sent it to Fairfax.  No response. No publication. So one side gets publicity and the other does not.

At the meeting yesterday I warned that the forces of Mordor were amassing and that a slow, steady reform process would allow the agenda to be derailed by frequent incursions.  It is already happening.

What is needed here is some very swift and skilled political management.  Which bits can be done quickly? Which can be more consultative? What are the risks? (Mordor must be taken seriously – you do not just ignore powerful enemies).  Treasury ran the 1989 reforms using the political weapon of Blitzkrieg. What is the strategy here? What model is being used? How can success – so important to the tamariki of Aotearoa into the future – be assured?

I wish the Minister would start talking a lot more, and more publicly, about the need for reform, unpicking the ethnic and class apartheid that has grown up under the current law, ensuring people stay in their local communities and get an outstanding education, and guaranteeing, as a priority, the best possible schooling for all, including those who currently miss out (are disabled, or excluded from school, or continually punished).

I am looking for a rights-based, child-based schooling system that values excellence in teaching, learning and fostering emotional intelligence and a sense of community throughout the nation. We have it in us to once more be the glowing system of educational excellence, as we were before the market wrapped its claws around our schools in 1989.

Let’s do 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. Totally with you on this. Why is it that the right understands the value of momentum but the left often seems to get bogged down and stalled? At some level momentum is understood as with the gun law changes but as you state above, very little to nothing has been done to unravel the harm of the Lange years. We still seriously believe that its all a matter of affordability which is just another way of stalling any action that takes us back along an egalitarian path. There is absolutely no reason why an education in the local school of our poorest neighbourhoods cannot be the equal of an education in any other nz locality

  2. Great piece Liz. It is always good to have a reminder of how we got to where we are. A significant problem is that after 30 years, neo liberal psychology is as “natural as the falling rain” to so many.

    I recall when there was an NZFOL and a Joint Council of Labour, working people’s representatives sat at the table negotiating directly with the Govt. on all sorts of matters. Roger Douglas soon got rid of that! Nowadays the NZCTU is just another lobby group.

    The teachers have done well holding the line on bulk funding and Hekia Parata’s various measures, and Charters, which were a beachhead to allow full on private capital penetration of State Education. A lot of good people were driven out of the MOE during the Key years, just as a long developed new curriculum was coming.

    If this Govt. can somehow get a second term, then the political priority should be to end the Rogernomics/Ruthanasia orthodoxy, and start clamping down on the “enemy within” namely highly paid public sector executives that are unreconstructed neo libs.

  3. Labour still can not face up to reality that they were the Party that kicked off the Neoliberal Agenda here in NZ.

    • But that’s be like blaming the host for the parasites that brought the host to its knees. douglas and his chow-down buddies are parasites. They infect and infest and do nothing worthwhile for their society other than feed from it and lay their eggs. God only knows how they’ve avoided being charged with treason.

      This is interesting.
      Ed Yong . Zombie roaches. Same but different.

  4. That photo of soon to be ACT people, and one guy who didn’t know much (and one idiot who doesn’t know he’s ACT rather than a ‘beloved elder of Labour’).

    Bad Faith.

  5. What did we lack in the last 35 years? A party that thought the people’s interest was different to capitalism. At least a party that contested to the edge of victory if nothing else. The last decades suggest we needed that.

  6. Dr Liz Gordon,…

    You know who Milton Freidman was ,… and you know who the Mont Pelerin Society are, don’t you?

    Of course you do.

    It was they who had a policy adviser a few doors down from Maggie Thatchers number 10 Downing St. And Ronnie and Maggie were such fine friends.

    And Roger Douglas and Ruth Richardson were both sitting board members of the Mont Pelerin Society. And fine friends in opposite party’s as well.

    But for those who were too young at the time to know, and to know about that era of theft , – I mean neo liberal reforms, – I always like to provide this site from Hugh Price of Hugh Price Publishers.

    Let the younger generations know exactly just how , why , when and who were responsible for their debt overburdened , grossly underpaid and shafted lives they currently have to negotiate today.

    New Right Fight – Who are the New Right?

    • Yep we all definitely got shafted by Neoliberalism ?

      Sold off the State Assets paid for by our forebears for a pittance to their buddies which subsequently got sold to the Offshore Corporates & Globalists ?

    • Katipo, have you now learnt about the role of those who put faith above reason? One of the major obstacles against us dealing with reality. Look to the role of born again christianity in America in upholding the rule of the rich.

  7. Douglas and crew used the well tested Leninist model of revolution…as stated hit hard and keep them off balance, hit them again….

    It’s somewhat ironic that the capitalists learnt that lesson from the communists, and that the “liberals” at Mont Pelerin, those followers of Popper and Hayek who professed disdain for authoritarian non civil societies were prepared to use this model.

    • That “Leninist” ploy has been around long before Lenin.

      The ruthless ruling elite have used it for millennia.

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