Events of the past few weeks have highlighted how seductive, yet destructive an ideology can be. An ideology is defined as a set of ideas and beliefs that shape our interpretation of reality. Nationalism, fascism, Marxism, Neoliberalism are examples of ideologies. It could be argued that all religions are a form of ideology.

The danger of an ideology is that it invites division and conflict between people. Ideologies also lend themselves to a further trait in human thinking. Confirmation bias occurs when we surround ourselves with reinforcement of our beliefs. We tend to mix with others who think alike. We have a preference for literature or media that support our worldview. We avoid or dismiss dissenting viewpoints.

Critical thinking is crucial to avoiding the seductive lure of ideology. But the problem with critical thinking is that it provides few certainties. Humans generally prize certainty. They want definitive answers to big questions. Questions such as free markets versus government as the best means of organising a society.

I was reminded of this the other night as I sat in a meeting about the proposed school reforms. The presenters were obviously earnest in their desire to improve our schooling system. They are eager to reduce the unfairness in the access to quality schooling for our young people. Their proposal is to reform the entire school system.

From 1989 our school system was captured by an ideology. It was the free market belief that competition between self governing schools would ensure greater efficiency and more choice for parents. Parents would have greater information about school performance because ERO would collect and publish reports so that parents could become better informed “consumers” of schooling. The ultimate aim was that schools would be funded based on the number of “customers” they could attract. But bulk funding of schools was eventually defeated by union pressure and political change.

Yet three decades on, our school system still retains vestiges of this market driven ideology. The inevitable outcome has been winner schools and loser schools, often based on socio-economic differences. This magnifies the inequalities in our society. This is the unfairness that the current reforms aim to address.

But my growing unease is that they are trying to replace one ideology with another. They want to change an entire schooling system when what is needed is a targeted pragmatic approach to those schools and students who are currently struggling.

The inference of the proposed reforms is that there needs to be a rebalancing. There certainly does. But if this rebalancing is a zero sum game at cost to current winner schools, this will only invite conflict, dissent and stonewalling. We need pragmatic thinking not ideology. If the aim of these reforms to improve fairness for those most disadvantaged then let’s target this directly, rather than attempt to reform the entire system. Large parts of our school system are not broken, just a bit battered due to previous ideological battles. We need more pragmatic thinking and less ideology.

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

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