Suck It Up, Minister: Education Minister, Hekia Parata, was forced to reverse her government's own policy on class sizes in the face of massive public opposition. Had she possessed sufficient critical intelligence to challenge the policy's prime promoter, Treasury Secretary, Gabriel Makhlouf, she could have saved herself - and her government - a very large serving of very dead rat.
IN THE END, it all comes back to Treasury. Education Minister, Hekia Parata, like so many politicians before her, has taken the advice of Treasury’s ideologues, and paid the price. This willingness of right- and left-wing politicians to drag their careers over a cliff, by following the lead of an agency which has consistently failed to tender either reliable or useful advice to government, bears testimony to ideology’s uncanny knack for over-riding the urgings of electoral common sense.
The debacle over class sizes may be traced back to Treasury’s advice to the incoming Minister of Education following the 2011 General Election. Faced with an intensifying fiscal crisis, Treasury Secretary, Gabriel Makhlouf, saw an opportunity to attend to Treasury’s unfinished business with this country’s disconcertingly independent educationalists.
The proudly professional culture of New Zealand’s highly regarded education system (we rank sixth out of thirty-four OECD countries) continues to stand athwart Treasury’s relentless ideological advance.
It thus constitutes a standing rebuke to Treasury’s otherwise unassailable neoliberal mandarinate. Its collegial values and altruistic purposes sit most uncomfortably within the neoliberals’ highly individualistic and competitive reading of human nature. While achieving a large measure of success in the universities (attributable mostly to New Zealand academics’ timidity and lack of solidarity) Treasury’s neoliberal policies have been staunchly and successfully resisted in New Zealand’s primary and secondary schools. This is due, almost entirely, to the strength of New Zealand’s two main teacher unions – the NZEI and the PPTA.
Before New Zealand’s teaching profession can finally be “neoliberalised”, it will first be necessary to break these teacher unions. There are two ways of doing this. The first, and most brutal, is to do what Scott Walker, Governor of the US state of Wisconsin, did: pass legislation stripping state employees of their right to collective bargaining. The second, and much more effective, way to break a union is to undermine its members’ solidarity: to divide and conquer.
The classic method of decollectivising a workforce is the introduction of performance pay. Once workers’ remuneration ceases to be reckoned by the job to be done, and is set, instead, by the boss’s perception of how well each individual worker is doing the job, the ability of the workforce to maintain collective cohesion and purpose rapidly falls away.
New Zealand has, of course, already attempted a legislative “final solution” to the union problem. But, although the Employment Contracts Act (1991) proved highly successful at breaking the power of private sector unions; public employees – especially teachers – by sticking together and fighting back, have resisted every attempt to set one colleague against another, undermine the union, and hand the education sector over to Treasury (and its political handmaidens) for neoliberal “re-education”.
It is, therefore, very difficult not to read the Treasury Secretary’s advocacy for trading-off a few extra pupils in every class-room for a lift in the quality of the country’s teachers, as a way of admitting performance pay (and undermining the teacher unions) by the back door.
Prime Mover: The author of the "class-size-increase-for-improved-teacher-quality" trade-off, Treasury Secretary, Gabriel Makhlouf.
Citing the highly contestable figure of “one in three” school-leavers entering the New Zealand workforce as an educational failure, Mr Makhlouf argued strongly, and very publicly, that this scandalous “output” of the system could only be rectified by encouraging better teaching. By this he did not mean that we should embrace the Finnish policy of keeping a very high teacher-student ratio while, at the same time, ensuring that teaching remains one of that country’s best qualified and well-paid professions. No, what Mr Makhlouf wanted was an opportunity to pit teachers against one another in a quest to find “the best” teachers, and then, presumably, offer them individual employment contracts and higher pay. This competitive model would also have identified “the worst” teachers, allowing them to be purged from the system. School staff-rooms would thus become battle-grounds where “winners” prospered and “losers” lost their jobs. Collegial values, ill-adapted to Treasury’s new “survival of the fittest” environment, would be driven to extinction – followed closely by the teacher unions.
The triumph of the competitive market model within the teaching profession would, inevitably, see its operating principles installed in every class-room. The transmission of skills and knowledge, the system’s outputs, would be subjected to detailed empirical measurement. Every pupil would be “tested”, and every school’s resourcing determined by the results of those tests. New Zealand’s internationally admired education system would very quickly join the derelict systems of the United States and the United Kingdom.
Was Ms Parata really seeking this disintegration of New Zealand’s education system? Of course not! Why, then, couldn’t she decode Mr Makhlouf’s policy prescription? The answer is simple: to decipher neoliberal ideology one needs to adopt a critical perspective; and that presupposes ideological agnosticism.
Had Ms Parata felt equal to challenging Treasury’s ideologically-driven recommendations, she’d never have been required to undertake her embarrassing political “reversal”.
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 6 June 2012.