Ivan Snook & John O'Neill

Just over 30 years ago, OECD examiners reported on our education system: “To an extent greater than in some other OECD countries the parents, citizens, employers and workers of New Zealand appear to be reasonably happy with what is done for them in schools, colleges and universities.” (OECD Report, 1982)

In his reply the Minister of Education, Hon Merv Wellington (1982) stated that our education policy is “very much determined by the size of the community, by the importance of the prevailing philosophy of egalitarianism and by an approach that stresses incremental improvement rather than radical convulsion”

Yet within a few years “radical convulsion” arrived and with it, as an overseas commentator put it, “what is arguably the most thorough and dramatic transformation of a state system of education ever undertaken by an industrialized country.”

What basically happened was that a system which had stressed fairness was replaced by one which stressed competition. This was in line with the wider changes initiated by the Lange/Douglas government after 1984 in which the so-called “free market” was given its head and state assets were sold to the private sector. This began the ever increasing gap between rich and poor, well documented by social commentators.

In relation to education, the Treasury, business interests and the State Service Commission argued that:

  • unemployment was high because educational institutions had not provided sufficient work related skills
  • schools had focused on “frills” and neglected the basics such as literacy and numeracy.
  • there was a “long tail of underachievement” particularly with Maori and Pasifika and this was the fault of the education system.

Between 1987 and 1990 these powerful groups secured major changes at all levels of education . It is interesting that, 25 years after these massive upheavals, exactly the same criticisms are still being made along with demands for more major reforms: clearly, on this basis, the “dramatic transformation” was in vain!.

The reforms in education were “sold” to the public as giving power to local communities which many in education had wanted for decades. Thus the reforms were widely welcomed but the promises soon turned sour: the recent developments in Christchurch are perhaps the most dramatic evidence of the failure of “local power.”

The real agenda of the educational reforms of the 1980’s are now exposed. Early childhood centres, schools, and tertiary institutions were turned into markets, each institution competing for students. Competition not Fairness was the new slogan . A first step in this agenda was the full bulk funding of each institution. This was quickly accomplished in:

  • the tertiary sector where, for example, private training institutions are funded essentially on the same basis as state institutions such as polytechnics and universities; government agencies pit private against state institutions and often give contracts to the private sector in defiance of sound logic, and
  • in early childhood where there has been a proliferation of private providers competing with the kindergartens and other state providers. Many of these are “for profit” but they attract the same “subsidy” as others. (The state now merely subsidises rather than funds its own ECE sector.)

In both the ECE and tertiary sectors, the result has been that state institutions are constantly short of cash and constantly having to cut back on staff and programmes.

Recently there have been more attempts to control higher education and to harness it to serve government policies. In this year’s budget, the Minister of Tertiary education, Hon Steven Joyce, announced a further $40 million over four years for Education New Zealand to promote tertiary education in “key markets”, as part of a plan to double New Zealand’s income from international students to $5 billion by 2025. He has also changed the councils of Institutes of Technology and Polytechnics to increase the proportion of members with business skills, and reduce staff, student and community representation. Similar proposals for the university and wananga sectors are before Parliament. Plans for tertiary education also include incentives to ensure that publicly funded research more closely meets the needs of industry, and increased funding for science, technology, engineering and mathematics while funding for the arts and humanities is capped.

Bulk funding was resisted in the compulsory sector and this slowed up the privatising of schools. However, new ways have been found to further the agenda: increased funding has been provided to independent and integrated schools so that they can more readily compete with the state, and charter schools have been set up to provide even more competition. As a result there are vast inequities in the funding of schools:

  • According to NZ Education Review (Sept 25, 2009) there were in 2007/8 nineteen secondary schools that raised more than $2 million from the community (in addition to the state funding), while 190 secondary schools raised less than 1 million. Other raised a lot less. Of course, most of the schools in the “2 million dollar club” were high decile schools and those struggling to raise a fraction of this were low decile schools. (The rich get richer and the poor get poorer).
  • When private schools are looked at, the situation is even more dire: they receive large amounts of state funding and charge compulsory fees ranging from $17,000 to $20,000 per year as well as securing extra funds from investments, donations and rents. Overall, their income per student is far above that of most state schools.
  • Integrated schools receive full payment of all salaries and the same operations grant as state schools. Only capital costs are borne by the proprietor of the school. Most of the original integrated schools, provided by the Catholic Church, have incomes similar to the state schools. (There are, however, some scandalous exceptions. In 2008, Sacred Heart College in Auckland raised more than six million dollars and Baradene more than 3 million dollars. In both cases, of course, this is additional to almost total state funding.) Many of the more recently integrated schools have huge incomes on top of their significant state funding. Hutt International Boys School charges some $7000 dollars in compulsory “attendance dues” while Whanganui Collegiate charges day students $11,000 with sundry other “fees” and “donations.” All this is additional to massive state funding and, in the latter case, to huge assets built up over more than 100 years.
  • Charter schools have added to the unfairness in funding: the first five to be set up have income per student of more than double that of similar state schools. This can be supplemented by “donations”, sponsorship and other fund-raising. 16 more charter school applications are currently being considered and these were not costed in the 2014 Budget. Charter schools do not have to disclose their profit margins or answer official information requests about their suspension and expulsion rates. Recently, the Minister of Education, Hon Hekia Parata, has called for an extension of charter schools to the early childhood sector, while the ACT party policy is to enable any state school to become a bulk-funded charter school.

It seems that the denigration of state education and the glorification of private (including for profit) provision are far advanced. Charter schools are a new type of school: provided by the private sector but fully funded (one might indeed say “overfunded”) by the state and given privileges which are denied to state and integrated schools. They are tax-payer funded but are not accountable to the tax-payer.

Are charter schools the “Trojan Horse” which will finally bring about the dismantling of state schools (as has occurred in Sweden, UK and to some extent in USA)? In suggesting such a “hidden” agenda we are not propounding a conspiracy theory. The agenda was proudly announced by two leading figures in the “revolution” of the 1980’s and 1990’s:

  • Roger Douglas, the minister of finance in the Labour government 1984-1990 and later leader of the ACT party and its education spokesman, proposes in his book that all state schools should be handed over to a trust which would sell all state schools to private enterprises.
  • Ruth Richardson, the minister of finance in the National government after 1990, advocates a competitive market in which “Entrepreneurs would purchase state sector assets and the government would gradually divest itself of all the schools it owns.”

The agenda is clear and its progressive realisation over the past 25 years has been documented. The only question is whether New Zealanders will sit back and allow it to continue or whether at some point they will say: “we still value a quality state system of education, which is available to all, adequately funded, and genuinely supported, by the government. We therefore demand that it be funded fairly so that all children have access to high quality education.”

Categories: Education
Ivan Snook & John O'Neill
About the author

Ivan Snook & John O'Neill

Professors – Massey University
Ivan Snook is Emeritus Professor of Education at Massey University. He took his BA and MA (First Class honours) at the University of Canterbury and gained his PhD from the University of Illinois. He has published many articles in philosophical and educational journals and is the author or co-author of several books including The Ethical Teacher. In 1994 Professor Snook received the McKenzie Award of the New Zealand Association for Research in Education. In 2012 Massey University conferred on him the degree of Doctor of Literature (honoris causa). John O’Neill is Professor of Teacher Education at Massey University. His teaching and research interests include education policy, teachers’ work and learning and teaching and learning in everyday activities and settings. He is an education spokesperson for the Child Poverty Action group and a vice-chairperson of the Quality Public Education Coalition. Professor O’Neill benefited hugely from a free state education system funded through general taxation and is committed to its return for the benefit of all our children and grandchildren.