Planned Government changes in education have been compared to the generation defining reforms of Tomorrow’s Schools, which for thirty years established a competitive decentralised model for schooling. As successive governments embraced the market model that also accelerated the decline in New Zealand’s international standings in education, its creaking inadequacies have become all too clear to see. A two-tiered system where public education can barely compete against increasingly state funded private education and the slithery funding models of charter schools has lead us in 2018 to where public schooling is genuinely in a state of crisis.

The planned reforms and how they will be implemented by this government are very different to those of 1989. They more accurately hark back to the reforms of the First Labour Government. These reforms sprang from an incredible series of public consultations and conferences called the New Education Fellowship Conferences held across New Zealand in 1937. They were attended by tens of thousands of New Zealanders keen to see a public education system that would meet the needs of their children as it recovered from the Great Depression.  Unlike the top down reforms that have marked education policy direction especially in the last nine years, the 1937 conferences sought and generally achieved a national consensus on schooling. Education Minister Chris Hipkins hopes a series of planned hui over the coming months will deliver a nationally shared and agreed set of ideals and direction in the manner the 1937 conferences helped shape education policy for the middle part of the twentieth century.

Chris Hipkins already enjoys a trust and respect in the education sector that recent previous Ministers could only dream of. He has reinforced that with the teacher unions by picking off the low lying fruit of a failed national testing system and the bogus partnership school trial that failed on nearly every count. His planned education forum is designed to bridge the divide between a system that has focused singularly on personal achievement without any regard for education as a public good.  They are planned to bridge the demand for twenty first century skills and assessment practices with a growing clamour for curriculum that also focuses on knowledge.  As STEM runs out of steam the hui are looking for a reintegration of the arts and humanities in our schools. A rich broad curriculum that excites and challenges children to discover the wonders of the world is again possible. The desire of the Prime Minister to see children surrounded by creativity not poverty will frame the changes. The true success of these gatherings will be found in the short term if the National Party drops pushing the ideological agenda of national testing, and charter schools and embraces a non-political approach that recreates the world leading place of New Zealand schools. Former Education Minister Nikki Kaye would be smart in particular to divorce herself from the self-serving and outlandish claims of Act’s David Seymour about the supposed success of charter schools.  Teachers are tired of being ignored by politicians of any party who are determined to push a narrow ideological barrow unwilling to listen to their professional expertise. Hipkins, so far, has shown himself to be smarter in ensuring that what happens next is owned by the teaching profession.  The rest of the country might wonder about seemingly endless hui and discussion about education planned over the coming months, but Hipkins understands the sector. This is exactly how it operates and how genuine change can happen. Something previous Ministers since 1989 failed spectacularly to comprehend. All parties would be electorally smart now if they signed on to a non-partisan approach to schooling. Parents across the country would give a huge sigh of relief if their children weren’t another generation of guinea pigs.

In the long term the education hui will be a success if public education reclaims its place as a national treasure, a public good worth fighting for. Removing education as a political football with an agreed consensus as to what it might be, could be this government’s greatest achievement.  All of us would benefit. Hipkin’s political hero, Peter Fraser achieved no less in 1937 and it benefited generations of New Zealanders for over 50 years. For the sake of our kids let’s hope 2018 will be a similar watershed.

Professor Peter O’Connor is head of Critical Studies in Education at the University of Auckland’s Faculty of Education and Social Work.

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