Public education: a women's domain, a feminist issue

Equal opportunity is a cornerstone of education. That all children have the same birthright to education – regardless of their background – is a fundamental democratic premise. Wherever a child is disadvantaged, then, schools should ensure that it doesn’t affect his or her opportunities for learning. Wherever patterns reveal themselves – for instance, if whole communities appear to be disadvantaged – it is a sign that the sector needs to fundamentally reassess its approaches to teaching and to teacher education. A system that rewards privilege and perpetuates disadvantage is a system that is broken; it is not providing honest opportunity. And trying to make a broken system work despite itself requires overcompensation from everyone involved.

New Zealand sports such a broken system. We have what’s called a literacy gap, just like we have a wealth gap. There is a gulf between those who achieve and those who don’t in New Zealand schools; and the difference is privilege. This indicates flaws in priorities, in policy, in design, and in teacher education that are not being addressed.

Women make up 72% of New Zealand’s teaching staff, and it is women who are being left to do the work to overcompensate. It is women who are going above and beyond to see children through a system that would not otherwise serve them.

In 2010, NZCER reports revealed more about the extent to which we rely on women to pick up the pieces of this broken system. A longitudinal study sought to find the primary indicator of educational achievement among students in New Zealand schools. The result: it is not the overall quality of our education system, nor is it the individual efforts of students that see them succeed. The primary indicator of educational achievement for a child here, is the education level previously attained by his or her mother.

This revelation holds further implications, of course, of race and class privilege. It shows that we do not have equal opportunity here, and it shows that the onus is on women to ensure children achieve at school, both as teachers and as mothers. It shows that education is a feminist issue.

The result of the inordinate pressure on women: women are suffering burnout. Multiple academic theses have been written on the prevalence of burnout among New Zealand schoolteachers; it is so common that the profession could be said to have a burnout culture. It’s a staffroom and sectorwide joke – even though the reality isn’t the slightest bit funny. Women are just grinning and bearing it – like we are supposed to.

Staffroom noticeboard humour is actually a sad indictment of the way we treat teachers.

Teachers, typically, even top up their own inadequate classroom budgets, pouring decent portions of their own peanut pay packets back into public education. An NZEI survey showed that educators do this annually to the tune of 8 million dollars. And this is a public education system that already exploits women’s education, and women’s student loans, to keep up its image, as stated.

Teacher education even helps to normalise this culture of burnout. When I began my own teacher education diploma in 2011, I remember a lecturer announcing to my cohort that we would all most likely have several crying sessions in her office before the year’s end – as though it were a rite of passage. Do we want our teachers on the constant brink of breakdown, I wondered?

Why don’t we fix this situation?

Teachers here often envy and valorise the public school system in Finland, which boasts good international rankings and minimal testing – as well as a cultural perception of teachers as respected and highly valued. Herein, perhaps, lies a clue.

Finland scored second in the world in 2016’s Global Gender Gap rankings. That survey looks at a range of indicators of women’s advancement: including political representation, health, education and economic opportunity. Education is women’s work and Finland – like other Scandanavian countries – values women.

New Zealand, on the other hand, has a prime minister who claims not to know what feminism is. Ex-prime minister John Key was famously misogynistic and had the nerve to suggest on Campbell Live in 2007 that “our children are important,” because “they’re the consumers of the future”. These statements bring to mind the work of Marilyn Waring, who writes the following in her book Counting for Nothing.

We frequently hear from politicians, theologians and military leaders that the wealth of a nation is its children. But, apparently, the creators of that wealth deserve no economic visibility for their work.

Waring is talking about women. Her work shows that if you look worldwide at the kinds of work that are considered genuinely economically productive and valuable, and are financially rewarded; and the kinds that are not valued, not remunerated, and not even considered “work” – the overriding trend is that work that’s not paid is the work that women do. Women’s work is underpaid and undervalued for no other reason than that women are undervalued. This is also proven by studies revealing that when women increase in number in any given sector, the average payrate drops. It’s not the work that is undervalued. It’s women.

The result is that globally, women own a negligible 1% of the world’s wealth, while doing two thirds of the necessary labour. We are certainly expected to do the unpaid labour of raising children (“consumers”) with minimal support, while bearing the burden of blame for society’s ills – as mothers and teachers both.

In fact, in this economic system women’s real economic “value” lies in the industries in which we can be exploited for reproduction, and sexual gratification. We supply demand for prostitution, pornography, and surrogacy, but none of these industries allow us economic or political advancement. In fact, our very vulnerability helps maintain supply in these trades. It should be noted that in Finland, which often tops international education rankings, brothel owning is illegal as a form of exploitation of women. In New Zealand, brothel owners are celebrated contributors to GDP; while teachers are often disparaged and New Zealand’s “gender pay gap” continues to widen. There are certainly links here.

What’s more, one in three women are sexually abused in New Zealand, and only 13% of rapes reported by women in New Zealand result in a conviction. While there is a domestic violence callout in New Zealand every seven minutes, Women’s Refuge and Rape Crisis centres continue to be underfunded and even shut down. Abortion is still in New Zealand’s Crimes Act. Women’s basic needs are not being met, in a culture that endorses our exploitation at every turn: in the courts, in motherhood, in prostitution, in the sectors and industries we dominate.

This is the broader context in which women deliver the government’s curriculum in classrooms. This is the context in which women live and are expected to perform miracles. This is the context in which women are expected to offer equal educational opportunity to children, even though New Zealand has not achieved this, nor made the necessary systemic changes to enable it to happen, since colonisation. Women are expected to do it, with hands tied, burdened with debt but forking out, whilst raising children with minimal support, and being burdened with blame for every negative social indicator from crime to obesity.

This is why feminism exists. To move women out from under the boot of patriarchal rule. To grant women freedom from violence and exploitation, safety, reproductive rights and autonomy, economic empowerment and political representation. Feminism exists so that women can have our needs met; so that we can then contribute to our full potential. 

We need to see improvements in education: it’s our democracy’s backbone. But to do that, we better starting giving a hoot, and some representation, to those tasked with turning it around. While teaching children is women’s work at present; anybody who cares about it would do well to get their own education – in feminism.

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