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Speaking candidly abroad about our education system

Speaking candidly abroad about our education system

by Martin Thrupp
February 3, 2014

The recent furore about Eleanor Catton’s comments in India highlights the tension between those Kiwis who see themselves working for ‘New Zealand Inc.’ and those who want to give a more warts-and-all view of this country when they speak to international audiences.

If you are trying to sell New Zealand abroad you tend to market it by glossing over any problems. The ‘100% Pure’ tourism campaign is the most obvious example. It was criticised by a freshwater ecologist from Massey University, Mike Joy, much to the ire of the Key Government.

But Mike Joy was only pointing out the truth behind the marketing hype. Data recently collected by regional councils and unitary authorities suggests that two-thirds of more than 160 monitored river swimming spots in New Zealand are now unsafe for swimming because of poor water quality.

International audiences need to know the real situation in this country so they can better understand their own problems. I was thinking of this when I gave a public lecture about the state of the New Zealand education system in Santiago, Chile, last week.

Over the years following the Pinochet military coup, Chile became an experiment in neo-liberal thinking and policy. It has created a highly privatised education system where many of the children of the middle classes go to for-profit schools and the poor are left behind in the public school system.

The Chilean government is now effectively buying for-profit schooling back into the public system with the hope of reducing segregation between schools and the related achievement gap. It's a controversial set of reforms, partly because it involves having to increase taxes.

So what did I tell those in Santiago about New Zealand education? I focussed on the way that New Zealand’s mainly public education system has numerous strengths but also significant inequalities within it, and how it is being gradually privatised.

These are some of the main points:

Important strengths of the New Zealand state system include the way that diverse schools and communities have been able to be included, nation-wide approaches to pay and infrastructure, and compensatory funding for schools in poorer areas.

There is also a broad and progressive school curriculum and a valuable professional culture that has built up in schools over time.

The only reason New Zealand is able to have a mainly public education system is that public education in New Zealand allows for middle class advantage in various ways. If it didn’t, more New Zealanders would want to opt for private schools.

Government policy is gradually nibbling away at the public system, bringing in the private. Although privatisation developments remain more embryonic in New Zealand than in Chile, New Zealand is probably heading for the same problems.

Some of the privatisation could be considered hidden but a lot of it is becoming pretty obvious now. New Zealand’s privatisation of education is through public apathy as well as by stealth.

The overall message to Chile was clear enough. A public system holds the best promise of delivering a high quality education to families regardless of how rich or poor they are. But the case of New Zealand shows that moving to a mainly public system is no paradise. Developing socially just education provision remains a long struggle.

Speaking to an overseas audience is usually a great opportunity to sum up what’s happening in your own back yard. As a result, New Zealanders should be listening to how its academics and other experts are portraying this country to the world, and not be threatened by their critique.


Martin Thrupp is Professor of Education at the University of Waikato. His Santiago lecture can be found here.

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