Kelvin, we wondered what the hell you were on about
By Kelvin Smythe
Kelvin, we wondered what the hell you were on about - Click here.
Kelvin, we wondered what the hell you were on about
An article from the first issue of Developmental Network Magazine, 1990
The next two postings will, in one sense, be retrospectives, but in another sense, morality tales of the Orwellian sort, full of implication and relevance for today. Orwell said powerful elites control the future by controlling interpretations of the past, and in controlling the present, control the past. In other words, powerful elites control the present, which means they control the past, and in controlling the past control the future. Orwell puts it the way he does to drive home the idea that what people believe about the past is decisive in what they will experience as the future.
It is sometimes difficult for me to get a fix on how teachers and principals regard my participation in the education debate. When, in 1989, I left the formal education system, I knew where Tomorrow’s Schools was taking us, and determined to spend my remaining active years in education getting that message across. I did this in two main ways – through advocacy of a liberal perspective of the curriculum to counteract the anticipated narrowing of it, and an analysis of where the imperatives of the managerialism inherent in Tomorrow’s Schools were taking us. As part of this I set out to undermine the credibility of some of the main proponents and beneficiaries of the Tomorrow’s Schools’ philosophy.
Because teachers and principals could sense I was somehow on their side, I had a fair amount of support in a personal way, but there was considerable mystification as to my actual purposes and motivation – as a leading consultant now, but a principal then, recently said to me: ‘Kelvin, we wondered what the hell you were on about.’
And as for the present day, I can sense that a good number of teachers and principals question how much credibility someone from the so distant past has to offer.
Fair enough. But my response is Orwellian: The present government, its bureaucracies, and commercial dependants (private and academic), are controlling the present by reinterpreting and propagandising the past to their advantage and setting themselves to control the future. Schools as a result, need those from that past, who know that past, to help teachers in the present, control interpretations of that past (in the sense of having teacher knowledge respected) to control the present to control the future.
The two postings referred to are, first, an article that appeared in the initial issue of my Developmental Network Magazine (1990) pondering the nature of primary education as Tomorrow’s Schools was making it; and, second, my battle with Tom Nicholson in his ruthless promotion of phonics and the undermining of the status of teachers.
The second of the two postings, about my battle with Nicholson, is in a manner reminiscent of the way I battled with John Hattie. The culmination was a lengthy five-part series in the early days of networkonnet, headed ‘The battle for primary school reading’. The posting selected from that five-part series will be Part 2 (though I will have Part 1 at hand).
This phonics versus teacher’ knowledge issue has been brought to the fore again with the confirmation, through some highly credible research findings, that the New Zealand whole language approach had it right, oh so beautifully right. (The newspaper item carrying these findings will accompany the posting.) The findings had Nicholson a few weeks ago spluttering in a resultant interview on National Radio. This is the academic, along with William Tunmer, who introduced the 20% mythology and the early reading panic still plaguing us today, and who nearly brought down reading recovery.
In her final years Marie Clay was cruelly harassed by these men of oh such narrow outlook. And our wonderful old-style stjc’s were virtually wiped out. ‘The battle for primary school reading’ series is my hymn to those terrific women. I pursued Nicholson and Tunmer for years, spooking their conference presentations and analysing their writings. The point is this, Nicholson and Tunmer imposed their reading interpretation on the past, which is now our reading present, and set, unless we do something about it, to be our reading future. (By the way, Nicholson was trundled out to be an academic expert on one of Anne Tolley’s bogus advisory committees – you’re not surprised are you?)
The first posting, the one that follows, is an article from my first issue of Developmental Network Magazine. This article can be characterised as predicting the future, but was not consciously written to do so. Its purpose, written in some anguish, was to try and explain where we were at the time. I was deeply affected when I read it recently. I had forgotten I had written it – yet there it was, the future, our present, laid out from the present from over two decades ago. This article, looking back on it now, can be seen as setting out my fundamentals of faith that saw me travelling the length and breadth of the country for over a decade (the 1990s), getting into many scrapes, being mainly resented by the teacher organisations though generally good-humouredly tolerated by schools, and battling away, but dwindling in influence in the latter years of the millennium as an education force, to more something of a flailing (yes, flailing is how I felt) minor identity.
In what way is this article a morality tale of the Orwellian sort? In the article can be seen the New Right interpretation of the philosophical bases for education as being inappropriate, inefficient, and needing radical rejection – an interpretation communicated by a propaganda campaign of unprecedented education proportions. This, in Orwellian style, gave control of the present to the proponents of managerialism, in other words, control of the future now our present.
The implications of the managerialism of the 1990s are still being playing out. In response, we need to interpret both our recent past (the managerialism of Tomorrow’s Schools), and more distant past (Beeby and, say, Elwyn Richardson), to the advantage of a liberal, humane education – if we don’t, we will ineluctably get the future that is in the managerialist pipeline, not our mind’s idealistic eye.
There follows the brief editorial to the first issue of the magazine (the magazine ran for ten years), then the article itself.
Welcome to the inaugural issue of Developmental Network Newsletter (Issue No. 1, 1990)
Network will be an independent voice for teachers speaking out on matters that need to be spoken out about. As well, each issue will contain practical advice on school and classroom practice.
To make Network a success, your continued support will be necessary. This can be done by taking out an individual subscription, encouraging others to be subscribers, and writing letters and contributions [1800 of 2000 schools subscribed].
Network is intended as a co-operative enterprise – a way for teachers to share ideas, and to support one another in these very different times.
Good luck to us all.
[Network No. 1, 1990]
Network asks: Who can teachers rely on?
The television advertisement goes: ‘Who can you bank on? Who can you trust?
And concludes: ‘You can rely on us.’
These thoughts were prompted by a pamphlet from the ministry of education delivered to letter boxes around New Zealand. The pamphlet had a picture of a smiling, wide-eyed young girl, and a heading that stated, ‘It’s time you knew what’s going on at your local school.’
What a sly heading. It can be read a number of ways, but the real intention, as made clear enough inside the pamphlet, is that with parents in charge you’ll really get to know what has been going on, and you’ll be able to straighten it out.
This is so typical of the propaganda that accompanied the Picot implementation.
The pamphlet, however, was not from the Implementation Committee but from the ministry of education.
The previous supports for teachers seem to be disintegrating.
Can teachers rely on the new education bureaucracies for a fair go?
The pamphlet was propaganda – it looked like propaganda, and read like propaganda.
Will the bureaucracies be instruments of government to an extent they have never been before?
When will the propaganda campaign stop?
Teachers, in the Picot implementation, had their voices drowned in a propaganda campaign of unparalleled proportions.
Non-facts, weasel words, anti-teacher and anti-teacher union innuendo, emotive images, simplistic arguments, and misrepresentations of what went before and what was to come were piled onto a debate which was, in reality, a debate that wasn’t.
On National Radio, the morning after the announcement of the Picot proposals, Ivan Snook from Massey University used some overseas research findings as the basis for criticising what he had heard; an academic on the Picot committee [Peter Ramsay] demurred and said he looked forward to debating those findings at some future date.
This debate, however, like the wider debate, never occurred.
Consultation, in technocratic fashion, became an instrument of control. Consult widely, ignore largely – and use the fact of having consulted widely to legitimise the fact of having ignored largely.
To have done all this to that remarkable institution – the New Zealand primary school; to that group of high integrity – New Zealand primary teachers, was a disgrace.
The failings of New Zealand society were somehow made the failings of New Zealand schools. In other words, the failure by adults to succeed in what they wanted to do in the wider sphere was blamed on schools, which eventually meant New Zealand children had to bear the consequences of adult failure. For example, the failure to continue with compulsory superannuation, the main election plank used by Robert Muldoon to gain power, and fear-mongered by the conservative media, had nothing to do with schools, everything to do with right-wing mythology and the quest for power. Schools, however, are bearing and will bear the scapegoating social and economic consequences of this monumental failure of adult imagination and judgement.
The consequential economic failure had the ironic and unfair effect of rewarding the creators of that failure, bringing a rich catch to the cast of the New Right net: in the net were the 1960s’ liberals lured by the power of the power-to-parents’ slogan; those who they saw opportunities for women and Maori in the dissolution of existing structures; academics with what I consider distorted research; and others from tertiary institutions who saw an opportunity for greater administrative and ideological control over schools.
A key to all this was the many who had shifted from the liberal tradition to the libertarian one and in doing so left themselves vulnerable to the beguiling arguments of the New Right: a case of Simon Walker meet Ron Trotter – the cement between the old liberals and the New Right being the desire for minimalist government. After all, to the old liberals, weren’t governments the old enemy?
The old liberals have allowed themselves to be deceived as governments never willingly relinquish any of their power, they simply make adjustments to the manner of its expression.
Network readily acknowledges that there was a need for change in the education system – for instance, more budgetary control to schools, more school say in appointments, the abolition of personal gradings, simpler administrative procedures to set up te reo schools, and more women and Maori in the bureaucracy. A willingness to accept such changes was widespread in the teaching profession. No great upheaval was needed. It was political not professional will that was lacking.
What has been imposed on education is a technocratic administrative model which is grossly unsatisfactory for an education system. A model which, when all the costs are added up, will be more expensive to run, and less effective in providing the foundations for high quality education. The sense of loss, especially when measured against what might have been, is great.
Education has been trivialised and politicised. The media in the years ahead will have a field day as the multifarious symptoms of an unsatisfactory system are revealed. Teachers will now have to spend more time pleasing the wants of parents and politicians, and less on meeting the needs of children. Education will become more image and less substance.
Picot is a philosophy, not a particular set of administrative ideas. A philosophy yet to unfold in its entirety. Allowing liberal-libertarians to tinker with a particular set of ideas (for instance, the ostensible shift of some powers to schools) during the implementation was a small cost for the ideological right to pay. It had other fish to fry.
The Picot implementation was an example of the technocratic way of going about things – the resort to the New Right philosophy, a Treasury Report, State Services Commission control of proceedings, and a thorough use of the propaganda powers available to the governments. The main thing present-day governments ensure in any debate about important education policy is that there isn’t any.
And always you should note, the origins of the main ideas deriving from technocratic administrative theory are from overseas. Giving highest value to ideas from those origins increases the power of the technocrats – firstly, it is their administrative theory (not one developed from teacher knowledge and experience) and, second, they are the ones who get paid study trips overseas or claim they know what is occurring there.
Picot was an exercise in the failure of imagination. It was a signal display of a lack of confidence in New Zealanders to generate ideas for their own further development. As we know it was a wilful display from ideological self-interest.
The sad outcome has been that the New Zealand primary system, one of the best in the world, has had fixed on it the failed ideas of decidedly inferior systems.
The Treasury Report was a key expression of the ideas that gave impetus to Picot. The Report was a combination of radical chic, libertarianism, the ideological right, and calculated buffoonery.
The calculated buffoonery is best observed in the way the Report writers looked at education statistics and research, disingenuously accepted at face value the differences in learning outcomes amongst various groups of children – and proclaimed schools a failure. Ipso facto, the education system should be turned on its head.
In other words, the Report writers took a concern from the radical perspective – how children from poorer households were failing – and used it to advance the ideological right one. Academics and radicals who, naively, left such ideas hanging out there will eventually come to see they have been hoist by their own petard.
The effrontery of the Report is breathtaking. The Treasury has contributed more than most institutions to the social and economic inequities that prevail, and then berated schools for not redressing these inequities when expressed as education outcomes.
New Zealand children, teachers, principals, and education administrators – male or female, Maori or pakeha – are caught in the same harsh, hierarchical accountability system. The welfare of all in education is bound up in each other’s. Some may have thought otherwise for a time. But the reality is surely becoming clearer – a sense of professional unity is required if education is going to get back on the right track again.
One of the keys to this getting back on track is to lay bare the deceptiveness of a particular Picot weasel expression – that of parental involvement and co-operation being central to what Picot is about. What Picot is about is control and hierarchical accountability. The minister watches the ministry and review office, they watch the boards of trustees (which includes the principal), the boards of trustees the principal, the principal the teachers – and everyone watches one another.
All schools are hostages to the fortune of this situation. It is just a matter of time before those at the top of the hierarchy push for dominating control and arbitrary decision-making.
Network says to the ministry of education: The Picot propaganda campaign is over – or should be. The New Right has had its way. Now leave schools in peace for awhile so they can get on with the job of limiting the damage.
Teachers should be able to place a good deal of trust in their bureaucracies. They have until now – but now could be very different.
Network hopes that with good will, and some beneficial structural changes, that over the years ahead, the ministry and review office can say with credibility: ‘You can rely on us.’ But I’m not betting on it.