National’s approach to education policy 2008-2017 [part 2 of 2]

Professor Martin Thrupp, Waikato University

This is part two of a two-part series providing thematic analyses of the past nine years of National-led education policy in Aotearoa New Zealand. Part one is available here.

The politics of blame

One of the most serious shortcomings of the National-led Government has been its enthusiasm for seeing teachers and schools as the problem instead of acknowledging the impact of wider socio-economic issues. Such ‘politics of blame’ are common internationally and have been seen under Labour-led governments in New Zealand also, but were taken to new heights by Minister of Education Hekia Parata over 2012–17. In a 2015 newspaper opinion piece entitled ‘Socio-economic factors are often overstated’ Parata wrote:

“What makes the biggest difference to a kid’s education is something every kid and parent knows—the quality of the teaching in the classroom. Other critical variables are the quality of school leadership, parental engagement and community expectations.”

Parata also claimed during Parliamentary debate following the publication of New Zealand’s Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) results that

“… analysis of those results showed that socio-economic status accounts for 18 percent of the differences seen in the student achievement data. That means that 82 percent are factors not about poverty. Decile is not destiny.”

Nevertheless, this 18 percent claim was only based on PISA’s narrowest definition of family socio-economic influence. Using PISA’s wider criteria that included neighbourhood and school socio-economic factors, about 78 percent of New Zealand’s results became explained by socio-economic conditions.

Unfortunately, whenever the education sector considered the National-led Government to be treating schooling as a silver bullet, it undermined work on promoting achievement for ‘priority learners’. By August 2017 the decile indicator is being removed and comments from the new Minister of Education Nikki Kaye suggest that she also hopes socio-economic factors will drop out of sight:

“We want to change the conversation as a country to be not about the socio-economic status of a neighbourhood, but to be about teaching and learning as schools”.

This book about education and poverty in New Zealand provides another way forward, giving many examples of New Zealand schools contextualising their practices in order to respond to socio-economic issues rather than ignore them.

Policy claims, policy processes and the use of power

One risk when trying to characterise the education policies of the National-led Government is to focus too much where policymakers ask us to look—signature or soundbite policies—while neglecting less obvious patterns. For instance, the National-led Government has repeatedly highlighted the building of new schools but much of this has just been keeping up with rampant population growth. Analysis of the 2016 budget showed that in fact spending on public services was shrinking with “tangible reductions in spending on health, education and family support”. Budget 2017 provided only a little relief—‘a trickle not a tide’.

There has been a similar gap between rhetoric and reality with claims around being consultative or evidence-based. This National-led Government has been especially ‘tribal’ with the ‘Ministerial Cross-Sector Forum on Raising Achievement’ being an important echo chamber in this regard. Potentially dissenting views were also removed by having members of the Education Council (created in 2015) appointed by the Minister of Education rather than being elected representatives as was the case with the Teachers’ Council it replaced. University Councils also lost their student, staff and union representatives in 2015.

Looking in-depth at one of the most contested education policies of the National-led Government, National Standards, illustrates a cynical use of power by politicians and senior policymakers in order to prevail. There was the repeated use of an inaccurate figure (the ‘1 in 5’ students deemed not succeeding), the initial cherry-picking of expert arguments, the misreporting of consultation feedback, outright dismissal of early critiques, the shutting down of an unwelcome Parliamentary Library briefing paper, Ministerial criticisms of university teaching on scant evidence, hastily made up justifications for the developing policy, pressure on schools through the ‘78J’ provision, the rise and fall of advisory groups, the lack of any wide-ranging evaluation, the dismissal of contrary research evidence, the list goes on and on … As Australian academic Bob Lingard has commented,

“The analysis of Kiwi Standards … seems to demonstrate that instead of evidence-informed policy what we have here is more a case of policy-based evidence, with the political in the Kiwi Standards very much overriding research evidence … to the detriment of the reform”.

The contestation of policy

The campaign around National Standards was particularly feisty, a world-class example of teachers pushing back against an unwanted policy using dozens of different strategies. But education policy has been contested under the National-led Government in many other areas as well including charter schools, ‘Investing in Educational Success’, Christchurch schools, and privatisation reforms in tertiary education.

The ‘Investing in Educational Success’ reform was particularly complicated in trying to decide the intent of the policy and in its subsequent enactment. With the primary and secondary sectors taking different stances and academics also divided, useful pressures were applied both from ‘within the tent’ and without, leading to what was possibly the best outcome in the circumstances. For those concerned about the dismantling of public education, the response to ‘Investing in Educational Success’ perhaps illustrates that doing something is the most important stance in the end. It is also worth noting that the primary and secondary sectors have been able to find strength in unity again as they have contested more recent education funding reforms.

An international perspective

Lewis and Lingard remind us that the OECD does political work at the local level as well as being a global influence:

“PISA clearly demonstrates the work of the OECD ‘reaching into’ local spaces but also, and at the same time, national and subnational school systems ‘reaching out’—to the OECD, other systems and schools — to justify or legitimate particular local actions.”

We have seen good examples of both of these in New Zealand. The month following the announcement of ‘Investing in Educational Success’, Andreas Schleicher, the OECD’s chief education spokesperson, endorsed the policy in a four-minute video on Hekia Parata’s National Party website. Watching the highly scripted video clip, it became apparent that Schleicher was willing to endorse the new policy in an abstract, non-contextualised way without entering into the controversies it was causing in New Zealand. Meanwhile when disappointing New Zealand PISA results were released in 2013, Parata told Radio New Zealand that “[t]his PISA result comes out of OECD and their recommendations of what systems need to do to improve are ones that we are implementing and I have actively been advocating and promoting.” Lingard describes this “as a classic case of what Juergen Schriewer refers to as ‘externalisation’, that is, the use here of comparison on international tests—externally generated data—to legitimate already underway government policies”.  Declining PISA results may be a burden, but the OECD also acts as a higher power that governments can refer to in times of trouble.

Global influences can certainly be seen in recent Aotearoa New Zealand education policy but they have been mediated by local history, politics and culture. How this happens is important for all New Zealand educators to understand lest we only think about global influences in the generic and abstract rather than recognising how they are playing out in our own backyard.


This is part two of a two-part series on nine years of National-led education policy. Part one is available here.

The material in this series is adapted from this article by permission of the author and in accordance with the Creative Commons licence.

We also refer readers to the full contents of the 2017 special issue of the Waikato Journal of Education, edited by Martin Thrupp, for further analysis of the last nine years of education policy in New Zealand (open-access).

Cover image: Creative Commons


Thrupp squareProf. Martin Thrupp is Head of Te Whiringa School of Educational Leadership and Policy at the University of Waikato. His research interests are in education policy with a particular focus on the lived effects of policy across socially diverse and unequal communities. A lot of his work over the last decade has been around the National Standards policy and he has a book on this topic coming out in September 2017: The Search for Better Educational Standards: A Cautionary Tale (Springer). Martin was the 2016 recipient of the NZARE McKenzie Award (citation) for his significant contribution to educational research and to NZARE over an extended period of time.

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