How likely is an authentic thirty-year strategy for public education?

Professor John O’Neill, Massey University

The Labour-NZ First coalition agreement includes the goal of working together to develop a thirty-year strategy for education in Aotearoa New Zealand. If this goal can be realized, it would constitute a long-term policy consensus on the ideal national public education system following several decades of ideological ping-pong about what the system should look like and why. In other words, the goal here is to achieve a broadly non-partisan ‘education settlement’ (as defined at the end of this article).

Ambitious aims

Prior to the 2017 election, the Labour Party Education Manifesto set out an ambitious agenda to restore a free public education system. By my count, the Manifesto contained just short of 150 pledges covering early childhood, schooling, tertiary and community education sectors. The subsequent coalition agreement between Labour and NZ First contains six shared education goals, and the supply and confidence agreement between Labour and the Greens a further two.

A proportion of these pledges and goals seeks to abolish major education policies implemented by the National-led government over the last nine years. Another proportion involves re-orienting education policies arising from previous Labour-led government reforms (1984-1990 and 1999-2008) that are now seen to have had adverse consequences or been put to unintended uses by their opponents. A third proportion attempts to put in place new public education policy settings that are asserted to be fit for a fragmented Aotearoa New Zealand society that in 2017 we know comprises everything from ‘gutted’ to ‘gated’ communities.

The issue, though, is not so much whether Labour and its partners will remain in government long enough to implement their policies, but what fraction of the education policy agenda might survive the next centre- or (perish the thought) radical-Right coalition that, sooner or later, will return to the government benches. In this context, of all the current education policy statements, the most ambitious to my mind is therefore the goal to develop a thirty-year strategic plan for Education.

Looking back: policies and ideologies

If we look back, the last thirty years of public education have been dominated by one form of hotly contested public education policy mix. This has often been somewhat simplistically characterised by those of us on the left as neoliberal in its underpinning ideology. Most recently we have referred to it using the disparaging GERM acronym (Global Education Reform Movement). However, over thirty years, our local version of the neoliberal GERM has in practice enacted a paradoxical hotch-potch of market-liberal and New Public Management policy settings. As such, it has never achieved sufficient consensus to become an ‘education settlement‘.

Since the late 1990s in particular, this hotch-potch has been significantly shaped by the politics of recognition, the partial resolution of historical treaty of Waitangi grievances, the emergence of an influential iwi-based economic and social development discourse, and what Annette Sykes, in her 2010 Bruce Jesson lecture, has challengingly referred to as ‘the politics of the brown table’ (a riff on the New Zealand Business Roundtable).

Malaises of modern society

To a degree, the antecedents, characteristics and consequences of our version of the neoliberal GERM are captured in Charles Taylor’s essay on The Ethics of Authenticity or the quest for self-fulfilment. Taylor begins by describing three so-called malaises of modern society. They are malaises in the sense that they are perceived by some as a threat, a loss or a diminishing of earlier social ideals. In this context, the lost ideals are the so-called ‘progressive sentiment’ that shaped the previous consensual public education settlement in New Zealand, between the mid 1930s and the mid 1980s, which is seen now as our greatest long-run period of collective social cohesion and social mobility.

Taylor names these malaises as:

  • individualism – to illustrate the point, let’s use the NZ examples of Aspire scholarships, and charter schools that purportedly provide greater ‘choice’ to families;
  • instrumental reason – e.g. the recent application of social investment and value-added algorithms to quantify the ‘efficiency’ of state education funding ‘subsidies’; and
  • soft despotism – e.g. mandating National Standards and Better Public Services Targets as the officially prioritised outcomes of formal education.

Taylor argues that it would be a mistake to simply dismiss these values – and their policy enactments, and their proponents – out of hand as having no moral basis and no popular mandate. Equally, he argues against a simple trade-off between individualist and collectivist values (i.e. the ‘third way’ compromise between central planning and the market) and in favour of a more robust effort to ‘steer these developments towards their greatest promise and avoid the slide into the debased forms’ (p. 12).

Moving beyond partisan politics

The new Labour-led government would no doubt look back at its signature legislative and policy achievements since 1987 and see clear evidence of these being dismantled or debased by National. For instance:

  • Many of the social democratic building blocks of the Labour party’s 1989 ‘Tomorrow’s Schools’ reforms were recast as distinctly liberal democratic policy levers just a year later under National’s reviews of ‘Today’s Schools’ in 1990.
  • Some of the key provisions in Labour’s Educational Standards Act 2001, which introduced an explicit policy focus on student achievement outcomes, were subsequently re-purposed by National to enable both National Standards reporting accountabilities and a diminishing of Board of Trustees’ freedom to plan and set local educational goals suited to local educational needs.

So how can the LabourNZ FirstGreen government avoid its new progressive agenda (to re-embed the reality of free public education via a thirty year strategy) simply being dismissed as partisan politics and consequently abolished or re-engineered at the first opportunity? History suggests that this new government is most unlikely to survive beyond nine years, so in what sense can it establish an education settlement that gains sufficient cross-party and popular cultural support as the most ‘ethically authentic’ way to organize, fund and deliver public education over ten electoral cycles?

To borrow Taylor’s terminology, Labour has to persuade both its ‘boosters’ and its ‘knockers’ that the new education policy agenda is not only ethically authentic in its own ‘social democratic’ right, but that it also acknowledges and incorporates ethically authentic elements of National’s ‘liberal democratic’ agenda (i.e. choice, contractualism and privatisation) over the periods 1990-1999 and 2008-2017. At the same time, it has to avoid their self-evidently harmful effects (i.e. elements that inhibit or impair the possibility of meaningful self-fulfilment within a society that is geared to meet social and economic needs of ‘all New Zealanders’). This may well seem an impossible task given the way public education strategy in this country has stumbled from one partisan setting to the next and back again since the 1980s. But, arguably, unless LabourNZ FirstGreens are able to secure both a political and a popular consensus on what a morally good, desirable public education system looks like (in terms of both ends and means), the goal of developing a thirty year strategy will sooner rather than later be consigned to history as mere aspirational coalition deal rhetoric.

Considering the ‘Overton Window’

The English columnist and social activist Owen Jones uses another metaphor of policy change that may be of some use here: the ‘Overton Window’. A term developed originally by the American right in its efforts to make the then fringe ideas of neoliberalism credible, it refers to the relatively narrow range of political ideas that are seen as ‘mainstream’ or widely acceptable at a particular historical juncture. In the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s, NZ’s local ideological struggle was between market-liberal and NPM versions of an ethically authentic public education system. Since 2008, the National-led government has worked assiduously over three terms to shift the Overton Window further to the right. On my reading, National has tactically leveraged its relationships with:

  • the Act Party as its ‘policy outrider’ (also an Owen Jones term), to test the limits of how far it can travel to the hard right; and
  • the Māori party as evidence of its ‘social conscience’ so that consumer choice, privatization, user pays, and instrumental education for employment are seen as ethically authentic by greater and greater fractions of our ‘citizen taxpayers’.

One more term in government and I suspect National would largely have succeeded in excising the progressive sentiment from the Overton Window. For me, that is a seriously terrifying thought. So the enormous education policy challenge for the new Labour-led government is to both shift the Overton Window to the left and persuade significantly greater fractions of society at large that an ethically authentic, centrally planned, genuinely free public education system offers the best possibilities to secure individual fulfillment for all, the most rational use of a combination of taxation revenue and public debt, and the optimum civic participation of children, families and communities in determining the ends and means of public education for the foreseeable future. Kia kaha!


John O’Neill is Professor of Education and Director of the Institute of Education at Massey University. His research interests include the relationships between education policy and teachers’ work and learning, educational charities, and informal teaching and learning in everyday settings.

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