Education reforms chance to bring back fairness to system

Proposed changes to education in New Zealand are not ‘Stalinist’, but simply common sense, Peter Lyons writes.

What's the difference between an education hub and an education board? The answer is 30 years of misguided market-driven education policy.

The Government's Education Task Force has released its recommendations. It has decided to go back to the future, albeit with New Age terminology.

The recommendations have predictably been labelled ''Stalinist'' by some winner schools under the current system.

There is an irony that the furore over winner schools using their affluence to subvert the Auckland First XV rugby competition has also hit the headlines this week. The allegations are that Saint Kentigern College has used its superior resources to poach players from other regions, therefore creating an unfair competition.

This could be an analogy for the entire New Zealand schooling system over the past 30 years. If the task force recommendations are adopted, this could go a long way to achieving greater fairness in our schooling system. Especially for the most disadvantaged communities.

In the 1990s, New Zealand's schooling system was dominated by a market-driven philosophy. Competition between schools would ensure greater efficiency and improved performance. Winner schools could even ''take over'' loser schools just like in the real world of business. The legacy of this ideology still dominates our schooling system.

But there are some tragic flaws in this ideology. There was never a level playing field to start with. Winner schools have far greater access to additional funding. This may be through international fee paying students, wealthy alumni, affluent fee paying parents or even black tie dinners that can raise an additional $100,000 in a single evening.

Winner schools could then poach higher quality staff or top performing students and sports stars. They could offer state of the art facilities and infrastructure. They could fund professional sports academies staffed by professional coaches.

The market for schooling resembled a running race with some participants on steroids and others with their legs tied. The losers were then castigated by ERO for their failure to perform.

This task force has recognised the flaws and limitations of schools being regarded as independent stand-alone business entities in competition with each other. Schooling has huge spillover benefits for the wider society.

The market model of schooling fails to recognise or capture these spillover benefits. It treats education as a pure private good. These spillover benefits are the reason for state-funded education in the first place. Winner schools and loser schools inevitably mean winner pupils and loser pupils. The pupils who lose in such a system eventually cost us all. We can ill afford to have a sizeable rump of our population being failed by our schooling system.

The task force's recommendations are aimed at ensuring greater fairness for all New Zealand children in their schooling. Children from affluent backgrounds will always get a better deal because their parents can afford to pay more. At least this reform aims at some rebalancing.

Let's hope these recommendations are adopted. They make sense to me. There will be an inevitable backlash from those ''winners'' who benefit under the current regime. The recommendations are not ''Stalinist''. They are common sense.

-Peter Lyons teaches economics at Saint Peter's College in Epsom and has written several economics texts.

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