December 10th, 2011

One thing that becoming a father got me thinking seriously about is where I want my child to be educated. The Chinese and New Zealand education systems each have advantages and disadvantages. The big thing in New Zealand’s favour is that it gets pretty decent educational results in a relatively low-stress environment. And then the results of the election came in and I have to say I’m worried.

Fourty seven point something percent of those who voted cast their party vote for a party whose policies the overwhelming majority of New Zealanders strongly oppose. That suggests to me that although National got the votes of people who think asset sales are good, an awful lot of people who disagree with asset sales voted for the party that has said clearly and repeatedly it is going to sell shares in state-owned assets. Seriously people, what the hell is going on? What were you thinking? And the good folk of Epsom chose as their local representative a man whose party I can’t see as being anything other than a collection of intellectually and morally bankrupt buffoons. Now, if said party had actually stuck to it’s libertarian/classical liberalism philosophy, I wouldn’t mind them so much. But they keep bringing in the kind of far-right social conservative populists whose chief trick is to bash the underdog, and who get caught out not living up to the standards they wish to impose on the rest of us with alarming frequency. Really, who could possibly think that a lawyer who stole a dead baby’s identity to get a false passport and conveniently neglected to inform a judge of a previous conviction could possibly be fit to serve in parliament?

And now not only is New Zealand going to find itself with a government with policies, clearly and loudly announced during the election, that the majority of New Zealanders oppose, it’s going to have a government pursuing policies that none of the parties involved bothered to inform the electorate of during the election. Brilliant. Can we trust this government?

Still, as many predicted, the special votes took one seat off National and gave it to the Greens. That’s not much of a silver lining, perhaps just a sprinkling of silver iodide, but 61 of 121 seats is hardly a resounding majority and should help to keep the potential worst excesses of this incoming government in check.

But here’s what sparked off this particular rant. The unmentioned policy that’s got everybody all surprised and more than a few all riled up. Charter schools. On the face of it it seems like a potentially good idea, if done right, in that it could perhaps open up alternative avenues of education for those for whom the mainstream state system is an ill fit and whose parents can’t afford other options. “A potentially good idea”, just like national standards, “if done right“, and therein lies the key. National standards, one of those policies rammed through under urgency in the face of massive opposition from teachers and schools, yeah, that doesn’t give me hope. “In the face of massive opposition from teachers and schools”, yeah, like, y’know, the experts, the people who know what education is about. But why on earth would you trust an expert to tell you about their area of expertise when you have ideology and faith to inspire you? There have been a few too many people complaining about the “Americanisation” of their own country’s politics over recent years, but I’m starting to think that’s a club I may have to join. National seems to have based it’s last two election campaigns on the persona of John Key in some bizarre aping of modern American presidential campaigns (ummm…. hello? We don’t elect our prime ministers. We (or at least those of you who have not expatriated yourselves to the point of having lost the right to vote) cast votes for a local representative and a preferred party, and then the governor general invites the leader of a party which can command the confidence of a majority of the house to form a government), and I’m starting to suspect our own dear old National Party has decided that the Republicans and Fox News are somehow positive role models.

They are not.

Not by any stretch of the imagination. Now, I don’t mean to bash America or Americans. Let me just say that I find the current state of American politics – as practiced by both parties – to be an utterly disgusting abomination of what America was supposed to be. Now, back to the topic at hand…

I was reading that article linked to above and started thinking… Hang on a minute? Could it be that just like national standards, is this charter school policy trying to fix a problem that doesn’t exist? I mean, didn’t we already have a national curriculum stating what children at each level of the system should be learning? If so, then how did the imposition of national standards actually fix anything? Reinventing the wheel to replace a perfectly functional wheel on a car with four perfectly functional wheels, much? Could they be doing the same again here with charter schools? I mean, for example:

“There are schools within our state system that are stunningly successful. They just don’t happen to be called charter schools.

“I think it’s a false wish that we fundamentally believe in New Zealand that creating a different school is going to make a difference, when there’s no evidence for that at all,” Professor Hattie says.

Or Gil Laurenson, who, as principal of Otahuhu College, should probably know a thing or two more than anybody in the incoming National-led government about education in South Auckland:

He’s furious Mr Key and Mr Banks have implied local state schools show no flexibility to take on innovative projects and strongly denies this. “A lot of the things they are talking about are already happening.”

He says schools love the Gateway scheme, which allows students to get work experience with local firms, but the funding doesn’t match demand.

Most of all the veteran teacher rejects the Prime Minister linking South Auckland and student failure.

“At [Otahuhu College] – we’ve doubled the number of kids getting UE and we’ve more than doubled the number of kids getting level 3 NCEA in the last three or four years. There’s some really good stuff happening but nobody’s giving any credit.”

And in Laurenson’s bit I see two things:

  1. The dog whistle Politics of the Bash from the other end. It’s a rare sight. Even in today’s world the underdogs have a much harder time of it getting their voices heard. Mention South Auckland and your average, middle-class, middle of the road Pakeha is likely to hear “poor (brown-skinned) failing (Maori and Pacific Island) dropping out committing crime”. Why? Because that’s such a dominant media narrative.
  2. Deliberately ignorning (and quite possibly deliberate ignorance of) success stories that don’t fit that dominant narrative.

So do we actually need these charter schools? Or do we need to be asking what possible ulterior motive National and ACT might have for foisting this particular band aid onto an uninjured patch of skin?

Because New Zealand does actually have real problems that genuinely do need fixing. New Zealand’s culture of violence, and especially violence against children, is pretty high on my list of things that need to be dealt with. But after an election campaign in which, among other oddities, the accidental recording of a conversation between two public figures in a public place at an event to which the media had been invited brought on comparisons with the most evil behaviour of News of the World journalists and a police complaint laid by one of said public figures against the journalist in question, reading, as I did in that article on child abuse, a member of the incoming government quoted as saying things that actually make sense, and not just that, but actually seem grounded in the real world is a very strange and, sadly, quite creepy experience.

But so long as the Politics of the Bash dominates, so long as the right wing parties lash out at their various underdog targets (beneficiaries being the perrenial favourite, overseas student loan borrowers a fairly new target), the left and the Greens waffle largely ineffectualy, that problem is not going to be fixed. Why? How could verbal violence from the political leadership possibly help fix the physical, sexual and emotional violence in so many homes? And please, let’s not try and pretend it’s a Maori or Pacific Island problem. Let’s please admit that us Pakeha need to ask just as many tough questions about how we value and treat our children as any other group in New Zealand.

Now where did I place my train of thought? It’s surprisingly difficult to write blogposts when you’re constantly being interrupted by childcare duties and preparations for Christmas…. Let’s just say I seriously doubt the need for the particular changes to the education system this government is making. I’m very sceptical of the reasons for such changes. And I absolutely can not for the life of me see how this government is in any way interested in fixing the very real problems that actually do plague New Zealand society. What’s most frustrating is that I can’t see how the opposition would actually do any better. There’s a lot in stated Labour and Green policies and philosophies that I agree, or at least sympathise, with, but both parties have given me ample reason to seriously distrust them. Mana’s an interesting development, but it’s very early days yet and I have serious questions about its ability to survive the attempted cold fusion of both several very strong personalities and Maori nationalism with old school, hardcore leftist politics.

But in a world whose leaders seem to easily find money for nuclear bombs and warships and fighter planes but who desperately need to cut back on spending on health, welfare and education – because when you twist your right ankle, the obvious course of action is to pull out one of those big, shiny revolvers you see in cowboy movies and shoot yourself in the left foot then hobble down to the nearest gun store to buy an even bigger, shinier revolver – what can I expect?

What I want is a liberal, open, tolerant society in which every child equally has access to the educational resources they need and every opportunity to achieve their full potential. You talk to me about the state of the economy and I say if we want an economy we’re going to have to put our “you have to spend money to make money” money where our mouth is and invest in the talents of our children. Now, which of these governments and political parties is offering this? I’m struggling to see any, and that has me worried.

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