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Clash of ideologies turns education into battleground

Dr Leon Salter

As education undergoes further reviews and changes, new research examines previous tensions between government policy and teachers that flow into current media and public debates about the kind of system New Zealanders want.

Dr Leon Salter, a tutor at Massey’s School of English and Media Studies, graduated in Wellington yesterday with a PhD in communication and journalism. 

“At the heart of my thesis is a question of whether education exists to create workers and consumers to fulfil market-driven economic goals and growth [a neoliberal model], or to educate people so they can participate and engage in a society with a wide range of perspectives and skills,” says Dr Salter.

His study focuses on how, and in what ways, school education in New Zealand has been “neoliberalised” over the past 30 years, and how this trend shaped the three policies of National Standards, class sizes and charter schools.

Dr Salter also investigated the role of newspaper representations in “the hegemonic reproduction of neoliberalised education policy discourse”, as well as “what alternative visions for education were articulated through collective resistance against neoliberalisation?” 

Titled Neoliberalisation, media, and union resistance: Identity Struggles in New Zealand Education 1984-2014, his thesis brings together his interests in “the intersections of education, social movements and media representations.”

Dr Salter identifies two fundamentally opposing visions of educational philosophy and models at play in New Zealand education scene for the past 30 years. One is the trend coined as the Global Education Reform Movement that advocates for increasing assessment and measurement around standardised student achievement and performance. It came about as a response to a perception that the education system was failing because of the “one in five” students underachieving in literacy and numeracy – deemed the result of ineffective teaching.

The other is represented by the largest teachers’ union New Zealand Educational Institute Te Riu Roa and its Stand Up for Kids: Protect Our Schools campaign, framed as a way of preserving New Zealand’s quality education system and fending off practices that undermined a more holistic educational model.

He says his investigations show how media coverage often feed into antagonism and division between teachers and parents, positioning teachers who opposed National Standards as “lazy, elitist, self-serving.”

Dr Salter interviewed people across the education spectrum, including teachers who were forced to meet in secret so that they could discuss ideas around holistic and play-based learning, amid the period when National Standards were imposed. This is despite the fact that play-based learning was introduced here in the 1950s, says Dr Salter, who argues in his research that many of the answers to current problems could be found by “rediscovering New Zealand’s rich educational heritage.” 

A holistic approach to education can also have broad benefits for wider society, he adds. His interest in the topic stems from a concern that “ongoing neoliberalisation threatens the very fabric of society itself, through imposing limits on the way we see ourselves and how we relate to others.

“I see formal education as a highly important (if not the most important) site of identity construction,” he says in his thesis, “and therefore its increasing commodification, marketization and instrumentalization as contributing to our seeming inability to escape a state of permanent alienation, isolation and despondency, thereby preventing political action to change the world for the better.”

He was inspired to pursue the topic have moved from the UK to live here in 2011 with his New Zealand-born wife, who is a teacher. She was disillusioned at the impact of neoliberalism through standardised testing on learning and on the teaching profession in the United Kingdom. They returned home to what she hoped was a fuller, fairer, more comprehensive system only to find, to her dismay, that National Standards were being introduced here.

Dr Salter says that while education policy looks set for further restructuring, his research highlights important factors that could determine future directions – such as how to balance the burden of educational bureaucracy and the demand for auditing and accountability of teachers’ performance and student achievement with a broader, humane, inclusive approach to a child’s learning and wellbeing.


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