Dr Liz Gordon: Rethinking education


On Saturday I attended the Alternative Aotearoa meeting in Wellington. This was a fantastic event, organised by my friend and fellow Daily Blogger John Minto. I think what stood out for me was the large number of young people, pākeha, Māori and Pacifica who spoke passionately about the need for change in so many aspects of New Zealand life. 

For me, my eight minutes of fame were about rethinking education for the future. I talked first about neoliberalism, and the work I have done over more than 30 years to rein back the competition, marketisation, and user pays approach to our education system. 

But I also reminded people that before neoliberalism, our education system was far from perfect. Māori, women, people of other cultures and the poor failed to achieve in an education system that was hierarchical, narrow and exclusionary. 

I said that is quite ironic that protest action had focused on things like pulling down statues as the obvious markers of colonialism, when one effigy right in front of all our eyes, and within all of our experiences, is a system of schooling that is colonialist and affects the opportunities of every child, enhancing some and depressing others.

What is education for? We imported lock, stock and barrel, a compulsory schooling system from the United Kingdom that encapsulated the system of class and privilege from that country. There are many examples of this. Why, for example, are school uniforms of a particular type, blazer, shirt, tie? Who wears such attire in the real world?

Why are schooling systems so hierarchical, with models of discipline more appropriate to the Army or prison than to children? Where a boy can be stood down merely for having hair that curls on his collar? Where a person can be expelled for having a disability?

Attempts to import low level initiatives into schools through restorative practices have generally fallen on fallow ground, with some notable exceptions.  This is because such practices, which promote low-level interventions rather than top-down discipline, are out of synch with the overall structure of the school. Attempts to implement restorative systems always lead to active resistance by some teachers, falling back into a ‘default’ (disciplinary) mode by others, with the rest embracing the system. Even though these systems work brilliantly in calming classrooms and reducing punishment, there is far from a whole of system buy-in.

And the system is so exclusionary.  Children who do something wrong or even who have disabilities can be chucked out of school with a label that makes them suffer a life sentence of a lack of education.  Also, those who may need education the most tend to get it least. The link between class and race privilege is undeniable, but does it reflect some true hierarchy of ‘ability’ or some structuring of the schooling system? The latter, of course, as educational research always shows.

TDB Recommends NewzEngine.com

Bullying in schools also needs to be recognised as something produced by the school rather than imported by bad children. The pinnacle of the type of system we have here in New Zealand is England’s public schools which, until not that many years ago, encouraged a system of ‘fagging’ where younger children became the slaves of senior students, abiding by their will.  While the practice has stopped (oh, the abuse it caused!), the bullying of younger by older, powerless by powerful and browner by whiter still exists in practice.

Research done by Adrienne Alton-Lee and Graham Nuttall in New Zealand classrooms years ago noted the casual racism, sexism and bullying that went on just below the surface of classroom life.

The alternative view of schooling is that it should be a system that promotes the best learning of every person, including those with disabilities and other barriers to learning. What if, instead of excluding, judging, failing and bullying, our schools were opened up as places where each person’s human potential was maximised, their talents uncovered, their barriers to learning dissolved, their hopes and dream encouraged and where the community of the school was completely supportive.

Our schooling system is an edifice of colonialism.  The system forces good people, teachers and students, into poor practices that block opportunities and can make life a misery.  While the system fertilises many lives, others are left with no clear path to good futures. For those who do not get a slice of the education cake, their whole lives can be beset by underachievement.  

The school system that we have is built on a colonial legacy that has determined that there be a hierarchy of human achievement based on pre-existing structures of class, race and ethnicity.  We need a vision of whole-of-system educational reform to unleash the potential of all of us. New Zealand has eradicated Covid here. Our team of five million can do anything!  Let’s put our focus on improving our children’s outcomes. Here is an election challenge for the Labour Party, which has so far failed to show leadership towards a system that truly promotes education for all.


Dr Liz Gordon is a researcher and a barrister, with interests in destroying neo-liberalism in all its forms and moving towards a socially just society.  She usually blogs on justice, social welfare and education topics.


  1. The rot for education started in the 1989 when they decided for ideological reasons that education was for individuals not society and universities needed to be pushed to think money was more important than growing knowledge for good.

    Now Australasian universities are supporting military advancement of non democratic totalitarian governments in the Pacific….presumably because they think the money from China will flow back to them individually… or maybe lack of interest in critical thinking where the research is actually going and what it will be used for!

    University of Canterbury collaborating with Institute linked to Chinese military

    Australian universities are helping China’s military surpass the United States

    Money talks and increasingly NZ universities seem to be more about vice-chancellor and neoliberal self interest, than helping a nation’s children achieve academic and societal success and advancement.

  2. Over the years, being a university chancellor in NZ, is more about self interest and money, than education. Now they have gone though the Kiwi education neoliberals, they import in overseas university chancellors to do the neoliberal work for them.

    Apparently the chancellor of Auckland university used to be the second highest paid public servant while they removed specialist libraries, cut student jobs and destroyed books.https://www.newshub.co.nz/home/new-zealand/2018/06/auckland-university-confirms-library-closures-despite-huge-protests.html They also get free Parnell mansions https://www.stuff.co.nz/national/119122778/auckland-university-buys-5m-parnell-mansion-for-incoming-vicechancellor?fbclid=IwAR29h43wjAtwI-Arket4iHNHZPhqeUfr8mib4VU389reFlLRJNhbv4AZ8Lg, while cheating students increase and research is lessening… https://www.tvnz.co.nz/one-news/new-zealand/nz-lecturer-says-half-international-students-in-their-class-failed-cheating-universities-turning-blind-eye

    Meanwhile over at AUT they ignore harassment of their lecturers https://www.nzherald.co.nz/nz/news/article.cfm?c_id=1&objectid=12341496&ref=art_readmore and destroy international projects https://www.newsroom.co.nz/2019/04/15/531143/smears-and-fury-in-big-telescope-lobbying

    At woke Massy they ban Don Brash from speaking https://www.stuff.co.nz/national/106068816/massey-university-bans-don-brash-from-speaking, then have journalist lecturers in sexual crimes https://www.stuff.co.nz/national/110174662/the-fall-from-grace-of-grant-hannis–the-academic-who-sexually-assaulted-a-rest-home-resident.

    At ChCH they don’t find student bodies for weeks. https://www.stuff.co.nz/national/116071426/students-body-went-unnoticed-in-university-hall-for-close-to-8-weeks and are funding projects linked to Chinese military https://www.stuff.co.nz/national/122196854/university-of-canterbury-collaborating-with-institute-linked-to-chinese-military

    Not sure user pays education run by mostly woke local and international neoliberals, it is a good thing.

  3. I’d say the ministry of education needs to look at their behaviour which seems to be a top down, random approach to thinking about children…

    “Walsh said he was also unhappy the government had given principals and teachers just 26 hours to respond to the proposal after three years’ of debate about the problem.”

    Giving away kids data to be sold by Chinese companies to US giants…

  4. “Bullying in schools also needs to be recognised as something produced by the school rather than imported by bad children. ” Sorry I would have to disagree with this. My recent experience as an educator at a high school was that this behaviour came fully formed from the local primary schools. (An area with no Intermediates) By the time the children arrived the behaviour was already ingrained. Although may of the issues you raise are problematic, many of the major problems are a reflection of the communities the children are from. By year nine, children are already commiting serious assaults with weapons on other students or staff, dealing in meth, stealing, had serious drug and tobacco addiction issues and were bullying other children. Gang culture was already endemic at this level. Teachers and senior staff were for the most part fully engaged with the low level and restorative practices mentioned. They received no support from the Board of Trustees or Ministry of Education. They have now been told that they are not there to pick up the pieces of the broken children who come through the school gates every day or do social work. Interventions which were making a difference are now discouraged. They are told they are the reason the children are failing despite having some of the best outcomes nationally. Throughout our nation we have created towns and areas where there are no prospects. Where depravation has been endemic for multiple generations now. Until we start to repair the communities we have left to die, provide something more that people can aspire to instead of simply continuing to export the jobs that used to provide meaningful work. We need a full wrap around service to support these communities and families. We do need to have a conversation about education. Is it to prepare thinking individuals who can survive the future we are creating for ourselves (one we were never asked about) or are we simply churning out drones for jobs that may not exist in a few years. I think the issues outlined by the author are too simplistic and dont really address the societal and environmental problems that are the root cause.

    • Speaking of social workers, another destroyed government agency by having too many managers and people who are not qualified and don’t know anything about social work…

      “Moss said the leadership team of herself and 10 deputy chief executives “benefits greatly from the deep social work experience of the Chief Social Worker” (the only one in the leadership team with a social work qualification); just over half (seven of 12) regional managers had a social work qualification or are registered social workers. Eight-five percent of OT staff were in the front line, she said in answer to one question, but later said just 1600 of the total 4000 staff nationwide were frontline social workers.”


      Apparently it is the blind leading the sighted at Oranga Tamariki….

    • Alan I think you ar right about much such as:
      We do need to have a conversation about education. Is it to prepare thinking individuals who can survive the future we are creating for ourselves (one we were never asked about) or are we simply churning out drones for jobs that may not exist in a few years. I think the issues outlined by the author are too simplistic and dont really address the societal and environmental problems that are the root cause.

      The problem is that we can’t go back to where we were. As somebody says things were not good before the Great Changes were made last century. So why go back to last century. I think – WW2 ended 1945 and since then we have had 75 years to make the world a good place. Have we done it, have we used that time okay, and intelligently. bloody NO. We are forced now by climate change, imminent other wars and calamities, and the frightening image of clown emperors being elected by people who can read and have had full schooling and still we don’t know how to think about how to do stuff well and use our brains to produce positive outcomes for us.

      Now with tech home games and television, the kids aren’t used to reading a page, and using that imaginative part of the brain. Conformism is embedded in students and schools as well. Fancy making the kids learn through a computer instead of using their own inbuilt one. We are in love with machines and novelty. The more complex the world can be made to appear, the less likely we can find the ability to analyse it simply. Yet computer code is made up of a lot of simple phrases – why can’t we think along those lines.

      And then what are we going to work at? Do we understand how our brain needs to have regular controls and tasks to utilise its clevernes? Do we understand how our jobs reflect and shape us in our own and society’s eyes? Have we noticed how the trend is to put a machine in between the human and the task, this will eventually make us helpless when we are without them. We will manage but it makes us less efficient while we find how to revert to our own skills again.

      And what about my idea of planning to do an initial job at 13, and going to school in block courses? The youngster will learn to do a job of their choice, and do it well. Their is no good reason to keep youngsters in an infantile position at school when we can’t even guarantee them a job when they l;eave as almost adults. If they work and learn something with some work attached to it, there will be satisfaction. But they could do it again if they wish with closer to their aptitude and preference.

      They will be taught humanities at the same time as they are learning maths, science subjects. They will learn social anthropology and how societies are formed, and their complexity. They will understand all humans’ complexity and their own as well. They will learn critical thinking and how to read a newspaper registering what appears to be fact and what opinion. They will be given taster lessons in all the main subjects and then can find further stuff on the web. They will sit tests and see how they are doing. They will not be set on a ladder of top to bottom, just have to get a reasonable mark and be continue interest in learning. They will discuss stuff they read in the papers every day for an hour.

      They will not be left in the lurch as to whether they get a job at someone’s whim, and whether they get a chance to be part of society. I have thought all this out, it is essential, and why we can’t start from – What do we need – and then work out how to do it whenever we have to decide anything I cannot understand. So let’s do it. Make it so as they say on Star Wars or somewhere!

  5. Liz the quality of the teacher is a profound influence on relationships learned in the school environment. A well known axiom but often poorly understood by Principals and school boards who together make appointments.
    Schools can reflect the quality of boards and the Principal as there is no overseeing expertise except an ERO report.
    Management of schools was lost when Lange plunged NZ into his “Tomorrows Schools”. Lange was guided by Picot who was a private schooler and had no expertise in education.

    Local Education Boards were disbanded along with their expert professional School Inspectors and various advisory committees set up as needed to strengthen the fabric of schools within an Ed Board area.
    Appointment of staff for schools was done independently of the actual school by Education Board appointment committees which comprised of a group of School Inspectors using notes about teachers and personal experience of the actual teacher gained through school inspection every three years plus grading inspections applied for by the teachers and attendance at inservice training managed by the Ed Bds.
    So a good background was available on each applicant for a staff appointment and the assessment of the teacher strengths and potential for enhancing the existing staff was discussed among the inspectorate who had an in-depth professional hand in improving schools across all areas and subjects.
    But in addition to that the very nature of any school was very much dependent on community and inservice training given to school staff. That training brought staff in contact with advisors who were expert in their subject areas as well as a rich mixture of teachers from a broader area so sharing and collegial links were continuously forged making schools a richer place.

    Tomorrows school are isolated and can become ghettos of staff appointed by a principal and parents who have little professional understanding of what is needed. Applicants fill in paper and have an interview, and on the strength of how that presentation pleases the appointments committee mainly of lay people, a choice is made. Some of the best people to have with children are not good at presenting themselves so the kids miss out. Religious and political affiliations often over ride the selection process as does a Principals perceived need for a particular type of person such as a rugby coach or ethnic flavour.

    Education Boards had a plethora of functions and supports for schools.
    I won’t go into my long experience but will say that relationships with children was a focus of many in service training opportunities that school inspectors organised. Whole staff training was also a feature of the Inspectorates thrust to manage positive change in a school and that would be followed up and further managed until the desired results were evident. Various methods of maintaining newly established good practice were used including training events bringing staff together from the immediate district.

    I am ranting on about a lost resource that was accepted at the time but not really appreciate until Lange in his egotistical mania dumped a system that had taken nearly a century to evolve.
    Lange admitted later that he did not know what he was doing but was angry at the local school and Education Board both of whom rejected his complaint about his child’s teacher. Lange would not enter discussion to resolve the matter and was an arrogant egotistical bully who abused his power as PM.
    To get buy in with change in schools an agency is needed to have power to managed and direct schools for the good of the system. Kind and inclusive fostering of growth for every child is the basis for learning.
    Subject material is also in need of radical revision. The world is heading towards extermination of humans and hundreds of thousands of other species yet schools have precious little in their curriculum subject matter to help children have an understanding of where we are heading and how to personally manage the enormity of that.
    They need to have some sureity that there are processes to change the direction of human exploitation directed by a few and what can they and must be involved in to change the present course.
    Extinction rebellion exists because school fail absolutely to inspire critical thinking and a basic understanding of political processes that people need to engage with to change direction away from the for profit short term thinking that our society accepts because critical thinking and relevant information just is not a part of present education.
    Schools are alone and parents frightened of change and deny what lies ahead. That needs to be broken.
    At present if a teacher ventures into future preparation they do not have Education Dept material or guidelines, so have to forge their own path in this difficult area and be exposed to censure from principal and parents.
    This is a crazy situation that utterly neglects the needs of this growing generation and their preparation for becoming functioning members of society.

    • +1 John W

      They need to look at how they structurally ran things, when NZ had a much better education outcomes.

  6. Great summary of the situation with schools and a reminder of why we chose to homeschool our kids. It’s hard to over-estimate how bad a father I would have to have been to undo the advantages this gave my kids.

    btw Homeschooling would be better referred to as World-schooling since my kids didn’t spend their time locked up at home but instead were out engaging with the world. Most of the many homeschooled kids I know are strong-willed, thoughtful individuals who don’t feel the need to conform – basically the sort of people we will need to lead us out of the mess that has been created by our hierarchical culture.

    • They’re easy to find – even in a small town where there aren’t many other homeschoolers the same age there are sports teams, dance classes, drama groups, horse riding, nature groups…

      • Interesting response from you Aaron, all of the things you mention are extra curricular activities all of them cost and some cost quite a lot. I am not at all opposed to home schooling, I am sure it would suit some of my grandchildren more than the rigid environments they currently ‘learn’ in. I love the idea of that new ‘expensive’ school that has been set up in Wanganui area I think, by a couple who made lots of dosh out of HRV.

  7. There are plenty of real problems in the education system, without people inventing imaginary ones like a supposed need to “decolonize” education. Some real problems:

    – School “donations” that make a travesty of “free” education. Yes I know the govt wants to get rid of them, but they’re still there in some schools.
    – Class sizes – they need to be reduced, despite what the last govt tried to convince us.
    – Undermining of teachers’ authority by so-called “human rights” culture, making it hard for teachers to cope with disruptive and violent kids.
    – Truancy. Only 58% of kids attend school regularly! https://www.newshub.co.nz/home/new-zealand/2020/02/new-government-figures-show-school-attendance-plummeting.html. The author of the above article seems to blame perfidious Albion and her wicked colonizing ways for problems like this – apparently parents are off the hook?
    – Boys falling behind at school – could this be related to the increasing feminization of our education system? (hypothesis).
    – Our universities are now unicorps, operating in an environment that requires maximization of output, rather than quality of output. Maximization of “student satisfaction” rather than maximization of the quality of education.

    • Of course de-colonisation’ of our education system would help. I don’t see this as a made up problem at all. The Brits brought their system here, a system that does not necessarily cater of tangata whenua. But then the British systems dominate everything in Aotearoa.

      Boys have always been behind girls of the same age we know that, they develop later. Nothing to do with feminism. We need more male teachers in primary, but the pay is poor and many women do this job who have husbands doing jobs that bring in better money. And of course males are put off by the issue of touching kids which can be misinterpreted.

      There are so many other ways of educating other than in the structures that we have, not all kids are suited to sitting at a desk all day, well practically all day.

      • Specifically, how would “decolonization” of the education system help anyone?

        The gender achievement gap at school is widening in developed countries, including NZ. Imagine the howls of protest from feminists if it were moving in the other direction.

        But one point you might be right about is the potential for spending less time sitting still at school, which appears to be more difficult for boys.

    • PPII
      In NZ state education as set up in primary schools is Free, Compulsory and Secular. State schools cannot legally charge fees and any practice of doing so creates a two tier system within state primary schools.
      Many activities are only available to children from “paying” families.
      This should be a human rights issue in the context.

      The word “donations” used to be used and using the word “fees” is an aboration quite counter to any ethical management of a state primary school. There are creeps who use “fees” and they should be re-educated or thrown out. Kids from families who can’t or won’t pay “illegal fees” feel second class citizens. Its a shocking situation not to be ignored.

  8. Our school system is based upon the needs and desires of capitalists. Easy to understand grades and social training that makes it easy to put people into boxes.

    A uniformity that is debilitating to the majority of people.

    • Our exam systems are to judge students on a ranking to suit employers and have little to do with education.
      Most students hate exams and what the exam structure does to their level of anxiety and self concept.
      Stuff the employers. Let them get to know the people they want to employ and find their strengths.
      Their are many aptitude tests both written and oral that an employer can use which will find strengths that exams cannot.

      Teachers do not need exams to know where student are in their learning. Most good teaching programs have diagnostic information contained within the and that is a help to students unlike exams.

Comments are closed.