Tuesday, 12 June 2012

It Was A Fair Cop, Hekia, And Treasury's To Blame

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. 


Jono said...

That's not the Treasury Secretary, its Arnold Vosloo's Mummy in a starched collar! The Left needs Brendan Fraser as a ringer...

Anonymous said...

My text is not that of a well-read Marxist, where I am coming from is the position that says all those who claim to be ideologically free are very likely either fooling themselves or seeking to mislead us. So perhaps like a Marxist I am not against ideology, however I use a voice that speaks against hegemonic positions and is cautious of those who claim that they are ideologically free. Chris, in your blog text, you seem to hold a view different from my own, where you see ideology as necessarily bad.

You are valid in presenting the pitting of each person against each other as a poor method inside the education profession if real cooperation and quality of work is to be achieved. Like you I too find the neoliberal politics of modern societies deeply problematic. Finally I share you view that critical social theories are the ones I have the most faith in. In NZ’s current social and political mood that puts me inside a minority, that much seems very obvious if one takes into account the way NZ politics is currently being managed.

I opened by saying I am not a Marxist, for all that I do want the left to be much more forth coming in generating critical accounts that allow us as a country to talk back to this neoliberal discourse and help that NZ politics I refer to become more human as well as more successful.

Brendan McNeill said...


National was clumsy in the way it handled this entire process, and was left with no option but to listen to parents who were concerned over the impact increased class sizes would have on their children's education.

I understand however that over the last decade, teaching staff in NZ schools have increased by approximately 12% whereas students by only 2% during that corresponding period. (Interview on National Radio).

Has there been a corresponding 10% improvement in student outcomes across the board during that time? I suspect we all know the answer to that question.

What exactly is wrong with performance based pay anyway? Isn't that how the rest of us live, out here in the real world?

Loss of collegiality? Nonsense. You simply make 'cooperation with peers' a measurable performance requirement of their position description. If teachers fail to cooperate fully and professionally, then it impacts on their pay review.

I doubt that teachers are such slow learners themselves as to miss the point entirely.

It would bring a refreshing change to an environment that has been dominated by Teacher Unions, and presently rewards conformity and mediocracy, over innovation and entrepreneurship.

Goodness knows we need more of the latter if New Zealand is to improve productivity and competitiveness on the world stage. I'm sure we all agree that education should be a significant driver towards obtaining that outcome.

More of the same will certainly result in 'more of the same'. And that is exactly the dreary path we are on.

I'm not blaming teachers. What is needed is a complete paradigm shift in the way we educate children and young people in this country. Unfortunately that will never happen while Unions are controlling the institutional outcomes, because they are rewarded for maintaining the status quo amongst their members.

SHG said...



Just in case you missed it!


Anonymous said...

'What exactly is wrong with performance based pay anyway? Isn't that how the rest of us live, out here in the real world?'

Brendan, if you think schools aren't the 'real world', then you don't know much about them.
I work in a low decile high school and the job would be an absolute nightmare without a unionised workforce. The ministry pinheads want to cut teacher salaries- that is the truth. Mcwages at Mcschools is the vision.
If you think performance pay is a measure designed to increase educational outcomes for students then you are plain ignorant of what teaching & learning entails.

Brendon said...

Brendan I once thought like you but when I grew up I learnt to think for myself...

Anonymous said...

>>>What exactly is wrong with performance based pay anyway?

In a nutshell, because it is impossible to measure "good teaching" and any attempt to quantify it would lead to perverse incentives. No-one would want to teach the "dumb" kids for a start.

Phil said...

And where I work in the 'real world' I sometimes have to work on projects that are the equivalent of 'dumb kids'. It doesn't stop me cooperating with my colleagues (some of whom are paid more than me) to achieve the best results.

guerilla surgeon said...

Tell you what - all those who slag off teachers try it for a year. I've seen people quit qfter 1/2 a day with 4 Eng. 2. Mind you it's a sad day when veterans of '51 claim that the teacher's union's are the most effective in the country. We all know that's the police and lawyers anyway :-).

KjT said...

Performance pay rarely works in the real world also.

Enron anyone?

Brendan McNeill said...

It seems the notion of performance pay has engendered a response.

To KjT, I would have thought the problem at ENRON was moral failure amongst their senior executives. I don't recall they claimed "performance pay made me do it" at their trials.

I know many on the left find this hard to believe, but 95% of Corporate Executives in America behave ethically, just as they do in NZ.

Just like 95% of employees behave ethically.

Moral failure is not confined to any one societal group.

As an aside, I always find it interesting when the left claim that white collar corporate criminals are evil and deserving of punishment, whereas 'other' criminals are victims of society and require understanding, compassion and rehabilitation.

Anon 9:44 PM. You must have missed the bit where I said "I'm not blaming teachers". I have two children in the profession. I wouldn't swap roles with them or with you. That said, you are all there by choice.

You teach at a low decile school by choice.

If you truly think your Educational 'masters' are 'pin heads' why continue in the role? Life is too short to work under 'pin heads'.

You are educated, you have options.

Anon 8:27 AM. Impossible to measure good teaching. Really? I'm sure all teachers know who is 'great' amongst them, and who is just filling in time. Just like their students know, and just like their senior management knows. Disclaimer: I'm speaking generally, there are exceptions of course....

Anyway, isn't that what standard testing is supposed to determine? Not how exceptional the children are at the end of the year, but how much they have progressed along the learning continuum?

I would suggest that 'fear of failure' is the most significant reason why many (but not all) teachers oppose performance pay.

thegreatgonzo said...

If the National Party genuinely cared about education, they would start by ensuring that the best and brightest fought tooth and nail to get into teaching as a career (the Finnish model), rather than driving them away with the prospect of massive classes and mediocre pay.
And let's not forget - children spend most of their time not under the care of teachers but with their parents, so a bit more work on tackling poverty would do far more to raise educational achievement than any amount of "performance"-based pay...