I waddled back to school the other day after a year’s leave. The Blues were blearing on my iPod. The headmaster addressed the staff. He had taken exception to an article I had written in support of the Tomorrow’s Schools reforms. He was passionate in his denunciation of the proposed reforms. The front row had to dodge the spittle as he approached full stride. Fortunately I was sitting at the back. He is quite a big guy. I couldn’t help but reflect that my year has maybe not started too well.  Yet while I disagreed with some of his points I totally agreed with his main issue. There is little point in significant reform of the school governance system without addressing the elephant in the room. This is the issue of teacher supply and retention. Without quality people in teaching and education administration, any other reform is meaningless.

This got me thinking about the Archilles’ heel of the current government. It is the enormity of trying to roll back a deeply embedded ideology after thirty years.

At the start of each year I teach my students a brief overview of the history of economics. At the heart of economics and politics is the tension in any society between the role of government versus the role of free markets. This tension largely defines politics. In the 19th century, economics was called the study of “political economy”. It shed that label as it aspired to be an objective science like physics. Yet economics is very political. What is taught as an objective science often favours the powerful.

The proposed reforms in the governance and operation of our schooling system is a classic illustration of the tension between market forces and government. This government is proposing rolling back 30 years of a market driven schooling system. Although this competitive system has been tempered in recent years, vestiges still remain. This is the idea that competition between schools will enhance the education outcomes for everyone. But the proposed reforms highlight a crucial issue. It is much easier to shrink the quality and scope of government than to build effective quality government services. Those who preach less government and more market have a far easier task. The proposed reforms illustrate this conundrum. After decades of a market-driven society, where are the skilled personnel going to materialise from to facilitate alternative reforms?

This problem has plagued Kiwibuild. This has been viciously exposed in the past few weeks by the lack of new housing builds under Kiwibuild. It is impossible to roll back three decades of “less government, more market” in a three-year parliamentary term.

I appreciate this government because at least they are acknowledging the ugly issues in our society created by a naive belief in more market and less government. These issues include homelessness, a decline in equality of opportunity, huge inequalities of income and wealth,  and the ongoing damage to the environment.

But trying to sort all these issues in a single parliamentary term is totally unrealistic. It invites voter disillusionment. What is needed is a focus on achievable results. The alternative will be a reversion to the norm of “winner takes all” while our society continues to fray at the edges, as well as the Middle.

Kiwibuild is flawed. Providing affordable housing for the middle class children of middle class parents is not the solution to our housing crisis. The first issue is providing housing to those struggling to put a roof over their head.

The Tomorrow’s Schools reforms are only a possible part of the solution to the inequalities being magnified by our schooling system. My Headmaster is  correct, though I am still keeping well away from him. The first step must be a pay system that attracts and retains quality teachers and administrators for all schools. But it also needs to ensure that they are accountable for their performance. History shows it was governments that provided access to universal school education,  not free markets. Market forces do not always ensure the best outcome for a society.

I tell my students I am a firm believer in free markets. I believe that markets work well for ensuring the efficient production of many items such as tomatoes, apples, milk, cars, computers, TVs and a vast variety of other goods and services. The profit motive encourages enterprise and innovation and efficiency. But free markets don’t work well in the provision of education,  healthcare, social housing and certain other key services. Unfettered free enterprise is particularly flawed in the financial sector. This lesson was learned during the Great Depression and has been sadly forgotten. Central banks were created because it was recognised that a competitive banking system can wreck an entire economy on a periodic basic.

The intentions of this government are laudable. But they are trying to do too much too soon. The  resources are simply not there. Particularly skilled competent people. They need to narrow their targets and focus on the achievable. Otherwise the polarisation will continue as we revert back to the “same old, same old”. We have witnessed the inevitable outcome of this process in other countries. It is the rise of extremism and the erosion  of democracy. This government needs to focus on the achievable.

Peter Lyons hopefully still teaches at Saint Peter’s College in Epsom and has written several Economics texts.

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  1. Bravo, Peter Lyons – and hopefully you will remain teaching! “The elephant in the room” is never talked about.
    That, however, makes not one iota of difference to its importance. Teacher supply and retention will be the deciding factors, whether we like it or not. And the Minister of Education can make as many plans and decisions as he likes – but unless he solves that one problem all his plans and decisions will come to nought.


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