I've left all the refs and stuff in because I couldn't be bothered taking them out, mmk?
“Won’t anybody think of the children?” - Neoliberalism in education policy in New Zealand.
Are neoliberals right to avoid making any distinction between economic and other issues in the realm of policy?
In the late 20th century, a trend towards neoliberal policy making occurred in many western countries as a panacea to the economic and social problems that were the result of the collectivist (Keynesian) approach that had coloured much of 20th Century policy (Duncan, 2004). But has neoliberalism been the solution it was purported to be? Can policy based in economic ideology be applied to all situations, and are the consequences of this policy fitting for New Zealand society?
New Zealand has historically considered itself to be egalitarian – a society in which equal opportunity for all people is of paramount importance (Davey, 2001). Education is an important social issue identified by New Zealanders (Growth and Innovation Advisory Board, 2004). Most New Zealanders believe that quality education should be available to all children regardless of ethnicity or socio-economic status. How does this ideal fit with neoliberal policy?
This essay explores neoliberalism in primary and secondary education policy in New Zealand in the late 20th Century, and argues that the neoliberal approach is in contrast to the ideal of equality in New Zealand culture.
What is neoliberalism anyway?
The neoliberal ideology contains three assumptions about human nature and the way the world works, based mainly in the work of Smith, Hayek and Friedman. (Duncan, 2004 and Green, 1998). Smith believed that people are capable of responsibility, self-management, and learning from their own mistakes. Hayek argued that government redistribution of wealth limits the individual incentive to strive for success, and that central planning reduces economic, and therefore political, freedom. Friedman advocated the power of the market system to provide for human needs and argued that the dynamic set by supply and demand is more efficient than central planning.
Neoliberalism encompasses these ideas, and values competition, efficiency, freedom of choice and growth as the agents for increasing the wellbeing of people (Duncan, 2004). The main institution of neoliberalism is the market, and consumers are the main actors. “A neoliberal policy analysis is concerned principally with economic freedom and performance. Indeed, neoliberals argue that the economy should supersede all other considerations in a polity … a neoliberal analysis of policy and organisation is likely to conclude that where government involvement exists, this should be scaled back, or the agency concerned refocused or privatised.” (Tenbensel and Gauld, 2000)
Neoliberalism in New Zealand
In New Zealand, neoliberalism came into its own with the Labour government of 1984, which set about liberalising the economy by reducing subsidies and trade barriers, floating the dollar, and privatising many previously government-run organisations (Davey, 2001). After its re-election in 1987, Labour began overhauling the public sector including education. The Picot Report, a review of education administration published in 1988, proposed a radical restructuring of the education system. It recommended that the role of central government be minimised and competition between schools be increased (Codd, 1990). The notion of education as a public good that warrants special attention from the state was challenged, arguing, “Education services are like other goods traded in the market place.” (Fiske and Ladd, 2000).
In response, the government passed the Education Act 1989, which upon the election of the National government in 1991 was followed up quickly by the Education Amendments Act 1991, and “Tomorrow’s Schools” was born – a radical policy reform package designed around these principles. It abolished geographically based enrolment zones, relabelled the Department of Education as the Ministry of Education, and reduced its role to that of setting broad national objectives. Responsibility for running primary and secondary schools was transferred to locally elected boards of trustees, and schools were required to create individual charters negotiated with the Ministry of Education (Harrison, 2004).
In 1993, bulk funding was introduced on a voluntary basis, meaning schools received their total funding directly from the Ministry of Education, from which they would purchase services and pay staff, and a ‘decile rating’ was introduced, in which schools were given a rating based on the percentage of students of lower socio-economic and minority status (Harrison, 2004).
Competition and Public Choice
The abolishment of zoning was intended to allow parents and students to choose which school they attended, thus increasing the opportunity to access quality education. It was also intended to engender competition between schools for students, causing the more effective schools to succeed and grow, and the less effective schools to be forced to improve, thus improving the quality of education overall.
The work of Nash and Harker (2005) indicates that the removal of zoning led to a decline in the size of low-decile schools and an increase in the size of high-decile schools, as parents chose which school their children would attend based on the decile rating of the schools. The growth in high-decile schools was largely due to the movement of Pakeha students from low-decile schools, while the proportion of Maori and Pasifika students in low-decile schools rose, although it is acknowledged that because the proportion of Maori and Pasifika students constitutes one of the criteria for decile allocation, this indication could be partly self-fulfilling.
Nash and Harker (2005), and also Fiske and Ladd (2000) consider the gap in achievement between high and low-decile schools to be noteworthy. As rolls in high-decile schools reached capacity, schools became selective about which students were accepted, ensuring greater academic achievement for the schools and higher demand for places (Fiske and Ladd, 2000). Meanwhile, the rolls of the low-decile schools were falling, forcing them to enrol all students who applied, including those whose academic record or behavioural issues had excluded them from the enrolment schemes of more popular schools – they became “repositories for increasing concentrations of difficult-to-teach students.” (Fiske and Ladd, 2000). This led to difficulties retaining staff, lower achievement outcomes and rolls falling still further, necessitating government assistance to prevent the schools from closing and leaving some children with no school to attend (Nash and Harker, 2005).
Nash and Harker also note that the quality of education had not improved according to their research. “Key indicators of national performance have been essentially flat for more than 10 years, and the last three or four years appear to show a trend for the worse.”
These studies show that the application of market models of competition and choice to the education system did not achieve the objective of improving the overall quality of schools and encouraging improvement in those that were under-performing, and in fact made things worse. Inequalities between schools increased, and results did not reflect the ‘quality education for all children’ ideal that New Zealand society desires.
Self-governance and the decentralisation of control
The decentralisation of control of schools was intended to bring the management of education closer to communities, and to improve the efficiency of schools by application of corporate management models (Fiske and Ladd, 2000).
Most schools were able to recruit, elect and retain enough interested parents to fill their boards, and seemed to generally enjoy the operational latitudes provided by self-governance (Fiske and Ladd, 2000). Many schools responded to their market position by actively marketing, changing policies such as setting or streaming (Thrupp, 2007), or by using resources to improve attractiveness by landscaping and improvement of buildings (Fiske and Ladd, 2000). Those schools that accepted bulk funding were able to appoint more or fewer teachers, and could pay above award salaries to high performing teachers or employ other staff as needed (Harrison, 2004).
However, the gap between high and low-decile schools is evident in the quality of governance, with low-decile schools experiencing significantly more problems with assessment, compliance with legal requirements, judgement of staff performance, and financial and property management. Fiske and Ladd (2000) attribute this to low-decile schools having to draw their boards from parents in areas with lower levels of education and skill, exacerbated by “the parents most committed to education … removing their children from the schools and taking them elsewhere … thus reducing the pool of talent and interest from which to draw.” Public reports from the Education Review Office, intended to induce better management practices, in fact made the situation worse, diminishing the reputation of the schools and making it more difficult to attract and retain students and teachers (Fiske and Ladd, 2000). Falling rolls in these schools led once more to government intervention in the form of removal of management from the boards of trustees to a Ministry of Education appointed commissioner, to avoid closure of the schools.
There is a case for retaining self-governance in schools, as this seems to be the area in which Tomorrow’s Schools has been most successful by bringing the operation of schools closer to the community. (Fiske and Ladd, 2000). It seems clear though, that in the face of the market model and competition, decentralised operation of schools was not enough to prevent the increase of inequalities between high and low-decile schools, or to improve the overall quality of education provided to New Zealand children, and that some involvement by government in the market is warranted.
Where to from here?
After the 1999 election, the new Labour government identified that the market model of economic-based policy was not delivering quality education to all New Zealand children. It immediately passed legislation that reinstated residential zoning of schools with a ballot for out-of-zone school places (Thrupp, 2007), and ended bulk funding arrangements (Nash and Harker, 2005). This represents a movement away from the market approach towards “Third Way” policy, which seeks to “revive social-democratic values while wishing to preserve the achievements of market liberalisation.” (Duncan, 2004). It seems to be more inclined towards the rational model of policy creation, in which specific social problems are identified and addressed (Tenbensel and Gauld, 2000). The government since 1999 has focused spending on operation of schools – training new teachers, increasing access to technology and resources, and developing classroom-based initiatives (Labour Party website, 2008).
It should be acknowledged that neoliberalism was never applied completely to New Zealand education policy, and some feel that it was not taken far enough or given enough time for benefits to be experienced. Harrison (2004) argues that zoning will lead to further segregation through ‘selection by mortgage’ (defined in Thrupp, 2007), that parental choice should be completely free and that low-performing schools should be allowed to close in order to improve overall education quality. The work of Douglas (1993) advocates the introduction of ‘education vouchers’ that transfer funding per student to parents, to spend on their child’s education as they wish.
The ACT Party has taken up this idea. In a speech entitled “Act to Bring our Children Home” (ACT party website, 2008), ACT leader Rodney Hide introduces the ‘scholarship’ policy:
“The government spends $8000 on average for each high school student ... ACT would make that money available to every child as a scholarship. If they want to stay at the school they’re at now, that’s fine and good, but they may choose to go to another school … All schools have to perform or we take our custom elsewhere, and they go broke. This need to compete or die ensures that they give us good and reliable service. If choice works so well with our restaurants, why shouldn’t it also be the norm for something as crucial as where our children are educated?”
Mr Hide has identified the difference between the neoliberal and Third Way schools of thought nicely with his question. Why indeed can’t our education system be like any other business providing goods and services? Why should a distinction be made between economic and other issues in the realm of policy? The answer is in the values of the people that the policy serves.
The introduction of neoliberal ideas into the New Zealand education system, while not a complete swing to free market ideology, did create policy based in economic principles. While this policy revolutionised the way that many schools operated, it created inequalities of opportunity and outcome in education for children of differing socio-economic and ethnic status. These inequalities were at odds with the egalitarian social values of the New Zealand culture, and necessitated government intervention in order to assist some schools to perform and provide quality education to all New Zealand children in line with those values.
I conclude that while economic issues are important and that neoliberal ideology has a place in the creation of policy, a purely economic approach without distinction from social issues leads to inequalities that are unacceptable when applied to situations of social importance such as education of children.
No, Mr Hide, our schools should not be run as if they are restaurants.
Codd, J. (1990) “Educational Policy and The State” in A .Middleton, J. Codd, A.Jones (ed.) New Zealand Education Policy Today. Allen and Unwin/Port Nicholson: Wellington.
Davey, J.A. (2001) “New Zealand – The Myth of Egalitarianism” in P. Alcock and G. Craig (ed.) International Social Policy. Palgrave: Houndsmills.
Douglas, R. (1993) Unfinished Business. Random House New Zealand Ltd: Auckland.
Duncan, G. (2004) Society and Politics: New Zealand Social Policy. Pearson Education: Auckland.
Fiske, E. and Ladd, H. (2000) When Schools Compete: a cautionary tale. Brookings Institution Press: Washington D.C.
Green, D. (1998) “The Neo-liberal Perspective” in P. Alcock, A. Erskine and M. May (ed.) The Student’s Companion to Social Policy. Blackwell Publishers: Oxford.
Growth and Innovation Advisory Board (2004) Research on Growth and Innovation: Research Summary. Ministry of Research, Science and Technology: Wellington.
Harrison, M. (2004) Education Matters: Government, Markets and New Zealand Schools. Education Forum: Wellington.
Hide, R. (2008) Act to bring our children home. ACT Party website http:..www.act.org.nz/act_to_bring_our_children_home (accessed 4 April 2008).
Labour Party website (2008) Schools. http://www.staging.labour.org.nz/policy/education/schools.html (accessed 4 April 2008).
Nash, R. and Harker, R. (2005) “The predictable failure of school marketisation – The limitations of policy reform” in J. Codd and K. Sullivan (ed.) Education Policy Directions in Aotearoa New Zealand. Thomson Dunmore Press: Victoria.
Tenbensel, T. and Gauld, R. (2000) “Models and Theories” in P. Davis and T. Ashton (ed.) Health and Public Policy in New Zealand. Oxford University Press: Auckland, Oxford.
Thrupp, M. (2007)”School Admissions and the Segregation of School Intakes in New Zealand Cities” in Urban Studies Journal 44:7, 1393-1404. Routledge: London.
Library Exercise (Part 1):
Thrupp, M. (2007)”School Admissions and the Segregation of School Intakes in New Zealand Cities” in Urban Studies Journal 44:7, 1393-1404. Routledge: London.
This article was found in Academic OneFile using the search strategy “segregation AND school? AND new zealand”.
The article is relevant to the topic of neoliberalism in education because it reviews New Zealand’s admissions policies and their impact during the period that neoliberal market policies were in application in schools and afterwards, and covers matters of equality in relation to school enrolment and parental choice.
Library Exercise (Part 2) – Find a book not from the reading list using the library calalogue:
Codd, J. and Sullivan, K. (ed.) (2000). Education Policy Directions in Aotearoa New Zealand. Thomson Dunmore Press: Victoria.
Subject heading from the catalogue entry: Education and State – New Zealand.
Wankwankwank rahrahrah - chocolate fish to anyone who read the whole thing.