June 25, 2013 1:57 am

A New Zealand perspective – the GERM is spreading

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QPECBy Bill Courtney

Hi to all Network for Public Education members worldwide.  I am the chairperson of a small but vocal advocacy group in New Zealand called the Quality Public Education Coalition, or QPEC for short.

At our recent meeting, QPEC members agreed that we should become an ally of the NPE as we share many of the same challenges faced in America, the UK and other countries as we get sucked into the maelstrom that is the Global Educational Reform Movement (GERM).

An overview of our country’s education system past and present

New Zealand is a small country in the south-west Pacific and, no, you cannot walk across to Australia at low tide!  (It takes 3 hours to fly to our nearest neighbour.)  With a population of only 4.4 million people, we are about the same size as the states of Kentucky or Alabama.

Like many countries in the 1980s, New Zealand underwent a series of “economic reforms”.  We privatised many of our state-owned assets and industries, floated the currency, deregulated financial services and underwent a sea change in attitude towards public services generally.

One of our most significant changes was in the field of education.  In a sweeping reform known as “Tomorrow’s Schools” the Department of Education was abolished and every school, big or small, became an autonomous, self-governing institution.  The governance of each school was the responsibility of a Board of Trustees comprising the Principal, another staff representative and community members (mainly parents).  Boards are elected by parents on a 3-year election cycle.

Each school now receives its funding directly from the central government, with no regional or local administrative body of any sort being in the middle.

Supporting this arrangement are two main government bodies: a new Ministry of Education and an Education Review Office.  The main role of the Ministry is to advise the Minister of Education on policy matters, and the main role of the Education Review Office is to review individual schools and report publicly on their findings.

The OECD has looked at this arrangement and ranks New Zealand right up there with the Netherlands on the issue of school autonomy.  But what really lay behind these reforms was the desire to see schools competing with each other…

To bring us up to speed, the last feature of the New Zealand school system to note is how state, state-integrated, and private schools fit together.

“State” schools are fully funded by the government and governed by Boards of Trustees as outlined above.  In addition, in the 1970s, previously private schools were legally permitted to opt in to the state system.  This was done mainly to help the many Catholic schools that were struggling to survive the inflationary 1970s.  These “State-integrated” schools benefit from full government funding but retain their (usually religious) “special character”.  (State schools are essentially secular.)  Private schools stayed outside the state system but do receive a smaller amount of government funding.  They retain the right to charge tuition fees.

New Zealand now has one of the widest arrays of school choice available, with a total of 2,138 state schools, 331 state-integrated schools (including one Hare Krishna and two Muslim schools) and 89 private schools.  Around 85% of our students attend state schools, around 11% attend state-integrated schools, and 4% attend private schools.


In response to the changes in New Zealand education, QPEC was formed in 1997 by a group of people who were concerned by what they saw happening.

QPEC is a broadly based group involving parents, teachers, students and researchers whose core belief is to promote education as a basic human right, available to everyone through a quality public education system, based on social justice and equity.  QPEC supports or opposes ideas or developments on the basis of their effects on the education of all people in our community.

Our two main battles since the change of government in 2008 have been the introduction of highly controversial National Standards in our primary (elementary) schools and, after the last election in 2011, the completely unmandated introduction of the charter school concept.  Charter Schools were not even mentioned in the education manifesto of the party that drove its introduction, the ACT Party.  By the way, the ACT party is similar to the Tea Party in the USA.

Unlike the USA we do not have mandated national tests of any sort.  The good point about National Standards has been the focus on teacher judgement as the determinant of whether a child is “At Standard” or not.  That’s the good point.

But the bad points have been the design of the system of standards, their rushed development, a lack of trialling of any sort, and now controversially the release of student achievement data at individual school level, published and pored over in the national press.

Our biggest concerns regarding National Standards are around the use of the achievement data.  The initial set of data is highly suspect given the poor design of the system, the lack of moderation and the reliance on teacher judgement only (both a good and a bad point!)  Some of these issues may improve over time, but the poor design features, including the single point of reference at age or year level, will not.

Treasury has written in its official advice to government that developing “value-added” analysis of achievement data is a vital part of making the teaching workforce more “professionalised”.  QPEC is very concerned that New Zealand is heading straight into the GERM ideology where teachers are deemed the cause of the problem and need “sorting out” if we are to further improve student achievement.

Our second big concern  is the introduction of the charter school concept into New Zealand.

Marc Tucker, in a guest post in Valerie Strauss’s Washington Post column, made the following observation:

“The country with the most aggressive school choice system in the world is probably New Zealand.  New Zealand has embraced choice as a value and has developed policies that provide widespread choice for parents and students among public schools.”

So, how does that square off with this comment from a former ACT Party politician:

“Our education model is a top-down, Wellington-knows-best system.  There is no school autonomy and parents have no say over the schooling of their own children. It’s run by Wellington dictate. That’s what did it for the Soviet economy.  And that’s what’s failing students.”

Confused?  So are many here in New Zealand, listening to some of the worst rhetoric you will ever hear about why we need the market model etc. etc.

But it’s not all doom and gloom!

The resistance to National Standards has seen the support of parents fall away as they became more familiar with the system and fail to see the dramatic improvement in school reporting that was promised.  Also, there has not been widespread popular support for charter schools, and most people polled recently do not support the concept of for-profit operators entering the education sector.

But will that stop the politicians?

We are fighting back at grassroots level and using the wonders of modern technology to get our message across.  One of the campaigners is Dianne Khan, a Wellington based at-home mum, while her teaching career is on hold.  Dianne is an active blogger and you can read her writing at the Save Our Schools NZ blog site:


Dianne also appears on New Zealand’s The Daily Blog and the at the Chalk Face blog that many of you are already familiar with.

QPEC is working on revitalising its online presence, currently working on a launching a blog, Facebook page or group, and Twitter account to run alongside each other and share information more widely.

So, how can you help us?  We’d love to hear from you with feedback and ideas on a few key areas for us:

  • How do we promote stronger parent feedback on issues such as standards, league tables, school reporting, testing and narrowing the curriculum?
  • Charter school analysis and evaluation.  We keep an eye on sites such as School Finance 101 and Mercedes Schneider’s excellent insight into Louisiana schooling but we need more insights and stories about charter schools and their impact on the public school system;
  • How do we fight the GERM agenda in our country and the raft of common policies it seems to generate?

I’ll keep in touch with Anthony and keep him informed of developments here in New Zealand.  Maybe we’ll get another guest spot in the newsletter soon and let you know more about our fight against this global movement and its powerful supporters.

In the meantime, I’d love to hear from you.  Contact me on: bill.courtney@xtra.co.nz

Kia kaha,

Bill Courtney
QPEC National Chairperson
12 June 2013