Education: Beeby’s, Tomorrow’s and Today’s


Published in Education Review, September, 2013

“The government’s agenda is becoming chillingly clear” reported Education Aotearoa in Winter 2011. Charter schools, performance pay, league tables, public private partnerships and class size increases: these proposals continue a trajectory commenced with the Lange government’s Tomorrow’s Schools reforms, driven by free market ideologies. The 2007 curriculum was a more promising Ministry document, including statements on pedagogy derived from a Best Evidence Synthesis. Yet the National government quickly followed it with a “one rule for all” policy at odds with best practice: the national standards scheme first proposed in 1990.

Examining the progressive reforms begun in the 1930s Depression by legendary education director Clarence Beeby, you wonder how a country making such promising progress could veer so wildly off its path. Beeby was the author of the following famed 1938 declaration on education:

The government’s objective broadly expressed, is that every person, whatever his level of academic ability, whether he be rich or poor, whether he live in town or country, has a right, as a citizen, to a free education of the kind for which he is best fitted, and to the fullest extent of his powers.

His work accommodated international thinkers on education, psychology, anthropology, political science, arts and economics, notably John Dewey. The postwar Depression gave a new impetus to the application of child-centred approaches to education, and the work of Beeby and his contemporaries’ anticipates the likes of Ken Robinson today. By 1970, Aotearoa topped international literacy surveys.

Aotearoa’s awareness of the need for equitable education was heightened through the need to adapt educational methods to a Maori population, 80% of whom were still rural in the 1950s, and far from any post primary education providers. In 1944, then-education minister HGR Mason recognised that,

To say that all the children in New Zealand should have equal opportunities for education is not to infer that every child should have the same education. This is particularly true when applied to the education of the Maori. The background of many Maori children is very different to that of “pakeha”.

The ‘Beeby era’ and its initiatives, particularly in physical education, arts and crafts, led to a better balanced, bicultural curriculum and child-centred, creative education and classrooms, with the emphasis on understanding as opposed to rote.

Beeby retired in 1959, going on to become an internally renowned advisor on education in developing countries. Following his departure, the 1962 Currie Report intended to freshly reconcile educational and curriculum objectives with “present and future needs of the country”. The report led to some significant changes in education, including the introduction of the bursary system which would see university enrolments increase 385% by 1990.

It was influenced by the previous year’s Department of Maori Affairs’ Hunn Report, which showed that Maori were disadvantaged in housing, health, employment and education, and recommended the abolishment of Native Schools. These were seen as anachronistic, even though by 1960 many had become an integral part of their communities, with many in Northland becoming hubs of progressive, inquiry-based pedagogies.

Other Currie report outcomes included increasing teacher training from two years to three; new social studies and science programmes, and the modernising of math and modern languages, five-yearly national, standardised tests, and the appointment of a curriculum development officer. Overall though, the Report expressed confidence in the existing education system, seeing the “failure of some teachers to understand modern methods, and not the methods themselves, as a real cause for criticism.”

The most sweeping reforms came with the fourth Labour government, who won power as Aotearoa struggled with a weak economy, high unemployment, and rapid Maori urbanisation (by 1970, over 50% of Maori were urban). As people looked to education for its part of the blame, critics regretted the “increase in emphasis on a wide range of loosely-defined subjects” and spoke of Beeby’s “playway”.

In Britain and America, seductively pragmatic free market ideologies promised to invigorate depressed economies. Here, “Rogernomics” saw Treasury play a greater role in policymaking, dictating that the role of education was to enable the government to purchase outcomes from teacher-providers on behalf of parent-taxpayers/consumers. Education was to prepare individuals for a competitive, global free market. Consumer ‘choice’ and provider accountability were paramount, as in other privatised public services (in finance, forestry, energy, transport and communication). Public schools should compete, and private schools receive bigger subsidies. Needless to say, the sector was not consulted.

No jokes about a “supermarket approach” to education: former chairperson of Foodtown Supermarkets Ltd, Brian Picot, headed the taskforce for education reform. He whittled down the Education Department to a small ministry, with a chief executive presiding over policy formulation and implementation, and property services. The Education Review Office (ERO), was designed to monitor the profession.

The anachronistic provincial education boards were finally abolished, though not substituted with equivalent community forums. Schools became governed by boards of trustees including the principal, five members elected by parents (three of whom must be parents), one by staff, and one by post primary students. Trustees prepared ministry-approved charters and appointed staff. NZEI, parents – and some board members themselves – expressed fears about the amateur nature of boards, particularly with the loss of government advisory services.

The 90s saw increasing inequality in Aotearoa. Jim Bolger’s education minister Lockwood Smith felt that education was still overcentralised, and pushed hard for bulk funding and the disestablishment of zoning, which he felt was an “artificial, bureaucratic” system that took choice away from parents. For years he locked horns with the unions over bulk funding, a divisive scheme sure to exacerbate inequality.

The union argued that putting staff on individual contracts and pay scales rather than national contracts, would see competing boards economise with cheaper staff. Schools in wealthier communities could fundraise, seek donations or ask exorbitant fees from international students. Entrusting principals to select who could enrol in their school through de-zoning, would also lead to “white flight” from schools in lower socio-economic areas, thus increasing the difficulty of those schools – for which there was no support system – to fund competent staff.

In National’s second term, Smith turned his eye to the curriculum, believing fervently that the 3Rs had long been neglected. With the IT revolution, education was to foster a tech-savvy enterprise culture for a global free market, and english, math, science and technology were his core subjects. Assessment was to be improved, with more rigorous reporting of student achievement. Since 1989, communities and teachers had been locked out of such debates.

Under Helen Clark’s centre left government, bulk funding was scrapped for salaries, and the curriculum became more attuned to the needs of the arts sector. Dance, drama, music, and the visual arts become mandatory subjects, as well as languages, and statistics. Statements on the nature of subject areas, a reduced amount of achievement objectives, and information about pedagogy based on the Best Evidence Synthesis were also added.

After 2008, National pulled back on Clark’s emphasis on accessible early childhood education and Artists in Schools programme. While the ministry invests in fast broadband, Aotearoa suffers a wide literacy gap, with low decile schools struggling to attract high quality, long-term teaching staff, and generate sufficient extra funds for the support needed. Notably, Education Aotearoa reported in 2010 that teachers are pouring $8 million of their own money back into public education.

While the last three decades have seen the normalisation of lipservice to biculturalism, free-market driven reform has continued to fundamentally and systematically alienate Maori students, seeing them fall behind in achievement statistics. I look forward to future reform that, like Beeby’s, has at heart the interests of individuals – not producer/consumers seeking to maximise gains in the free market, but learners seeking self realisation within democratic communities of learners.


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