Friday, 13 April 2018

"The Most Socially Retrograde Piece of Legislation"

Oh, What A Lovely School

The New Zealand education system labours under a quadruple jeopardy.  The destructive consequences of the threats are now beginning to emerge.  In order to understand, however, just how bad things are (and almost certainly will be in the future) we have to begin by looking first at the UK education system.  Many of the developments of that system have filtered through into NZ.

In his book, Postwar historian Tony Judt writes:
. . . the most important innovation of the (UK) Labour government of the nineteen sixties--the introduction of un-streamed comprehensive secondary education and the abolition of entrance examinations to selective grammar schools, a longstanding Labour commitment--. . . was welcomed less on its intrinsic merits than because it was deemed 'anti-elitist' and thus 'fair.'  That is is why the education reform was even pursued by Conservative governments after Wilson's departure in 1970, despite warnings from all sides of the perverse consequences such changes might have. [Tony Judt, Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945 (London: Vintage Books, 2010),  p.371.]
This egalitarian mania led politicians and talking-heads to confuse fairness with equality.  Judt goes on to aver that this false utopian dream has produced some profoundly bad outcomes.  What were some of those unintended consequences?

The destruction of the selective state schools of England merely drove more of the middle class to the private sector, thus improving the prospects and profits of the fee-charging 'public schools' that Labour's radicals so despised.  Meanwhile the selection continued, but by income rather than merit: parents who could afford it bought a home in a 'good'school district, leaving the children of the poor at the mercy of the weakest schools and the worst teachers, and with much reduced prospect of upward education mobility.  The 'comprehensivisation' of British secondary education was the most socially retrograde piece of legislation in post-war Britain. [Ibid.]
Egalitarianism is a naive dream that runs counter to the structure of the creation in general and of mankind in particular.  Judt points out that egalitarianist or "comprehensivisation"  did not produce an egalitarian education system at all.  It had the opposite effect.  It made the system more discriminatory in favour of the wealthy, and more destructive to the lower socio-economic groups.  In other words,  the policy of "comprehensiveness", where supposedly every school pupil is treated the same, delivers the exact opposite outcome.

Firstly, it significantly increased the demand for elite private schools (called "public schools" in the UK).  It meant that private schools could ramp up education fees because demand was artificially propped up by benighted government policy.  Most private schools in New Zealand now have more applicants than they can cope with.  The price they can charge is thus ridiculously and artificially high.

Secondly, since human society is decidedly not egalitarian, and that some schools are better than others, many parents who were able to do so sold up and moved to a "better zone"--that is, to be near a superior "comprehensive" school, which would provide an automatic right of entry to that school.  In most cases, parents paid more for a house in the desired zone which meant that they were paying higher indirect education fees for their children (inter mediated via higher house prices).

Thirdly, the best teachers were drawn to the public school sector and the better comprehensive government schools like ducks to water.  The professional rewards meant significantly increased job satisfaction.  The best schools got better; the worse became worst.  Whilst these were unintended consequences of "comprehensivation" they are nonetheless real, and have been entirely predictable.

No wonder, Judt calls "comprehensivation" the "most socially retrograde piece of legislation in post-war Britain".

New Zealand--driven by the same utopian fervour--has copied the UK, with one further egalitarian act of nonsense, discussed below.  Our private schools are able to charge way beyond true market rates for their educational offering because demand is artificially jacked up by state restrained supply of  private schools.  Like the UK, private schools have blossomed under "comprehensivation".

We also face the same market driven reaction to comprehensive state schools.  Some are better than others, and parents zone-shop.  That is, they attempt to sell up and buy a house in a superior zone.  Thus, schools like Auckland Grammar and Rangitoto College on Auckland's North Shore face artificial demand caused by the scarcity of superior educational offerings.

Thirdly, many state schools face dwindling staff numbers because they are sub-standard schools and parents would much prefer to enrol their children in better schools.  This is one of the cruellest blows of all to the less wealthy households.  Most cannot escape to a better zone.  They are locked in to underperforming schools, struggling with inadequate teachers--in both quantity and quality.

But to this mess, New Zealand has added its own particular ideological madness.  It has sought to deny basic metaphysical reality and pronounce a fundamental equality of all subjects.  It has pushed an egalitarianism of subjects!  It has declared that a qualification in tiddlywinks is of equal merit and weight as a pass grade in statistical maths.  This represents Bolshevik style central-planning.  The objective is that no-one ought to leave our government schools without an educational qualification in some subject or other.  This is extreme egalitarianism stretched to inanity.

This radical retrograde step has (thankfully) been first resisted, then rejected, by our universities.  Entrance into our universities depends upon achieving pass rates in certain specified core subjects (which vary according to the particular degree attempted).  This defensive move by our tertiary schools was vociferously criticized by the school teacher unions.  But, thankfully, our universities--facing stiff international competition--held firm.  This has not solved all the problems, however.  Universities have found that some students holding high school "achieved" status in these core subjects are still not ready for tertiary level instruction and must complete remedial, catch up courses (run by the universities) before they can enrol in a degree programme. 

It has taken some years for the destructive impact of these school system policies and ideologies to bear the inevitable rotten fruit.  But slowly the malodorous crop has begun to ripen.  New Zealand is now slipping away in OECD league tables of educational achievement.  We expect the slip will rapidly develop into a slide, until we are at the bottom decile of international results.

Judt's indictment of the "comprehensivist" UK egalitarian system is equally applicable to New Zealand: The 'comprehensivisation' of British secondary education was the most socially retrograde piece of legislation in post-war Britain.   So also, New Zealand--only worse.

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