ANDREW GIBBONS says the government’s legislative plans to open the market for online primary education contradicts its existing early childhood education policy.

The Government position on early childhood education is that full participation in early childhood services is desirable; for as many years as possible until they reach school age, children should attend an early childhood service for more hours a week than their parents are working.

However, with the proposals for online learning, the Government imagines that at school age, children should return home to learn online. The common denominator for these contradictory approaches is the marketization of education.

There needs to be ongoing debate around the COOL announcement because on both sides there are assumptions about what happens when a child attends school that may not hold up to scrutiny. The idea of school and how school happens, has to be challenged regularly if it is going to be the kind of institution that responds to a complex world – and in part this means not overstating what school is and what it can do.

For instance, assumptions about the socialising effects of school when compared to online communities, neglects that school classrooms and playgrounds can be highly individualising and anti-socialising while online communities can be highly connecting; context matters and universal evaluations are unhelpful.

Such assumptions also lead to further assumptions that children growing up in remote areas should be sent to school in order to get socialised. Home schooling networks would be justified in their concerns about these kinds of assessments of the benefits of some forms of schooling over others and narrow understandings of being social in the world. Have we forgotten the messages in Hunt for the Wilderpeople already?

In addition, the ways in which we as a nation individualise assessment and achievement creates a false consciousness in children with regards to the nature of knowledge, its ownership and uses.

The Ministry of Education’s Communities of Learning (COL) programme (not to be confused with the COOL programme) and networks like Reconceptualizing Early Childhood Education, are a pushback against regarding school as an individualised journey.

Instead they advocate for new approaches to learning and teaching together as students, teachers, parents, school communities and wider communities. The COLs do not gel well conceptually with an education market. The COOL on the other hand entrenches market thinking at our educational roots.

The Minister of Education’s warning to providers that “accreditation would be removed from providers who had poor results” signals a future in which providers increasingly seek to ‘teach to the test’ to ensure they get the right results to protect their market, and arguably give up on any aspirations for nation of students well-equipped for the complexities of 21st century communities.

Potential online education providers have a responsibility to resist the temptation to compete for a market share and instead explore the ways in which they might support existing school communities in greater flexibilities in provision of curriculum, stronger connections with communities and greater attention to the support of teachers.

Andrew Gibbons is an Associate Professor, Early Childhood Education at Auckland University of Technology. This year AUT will host the Reconceptualising Early Childhood Education conference, Oct 30-Nov 3 in Taupo.


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