When I went to school, examinations results were scaled. The system was essentially rigged so that half the country's kids passed, and went on to university, and the other half failed, and either dropped out or took up a trade.
As it turned out, the tradies amongst my school friends had the last laugh, given almost all of them now earn precisely double those of us who went into so-called professions like teaching, nursing, and journalism.
But it wasn't planned that way. In the virtual command economy of the early 80s, boffins in Wellington tried to work out how many people would be needed to fill a variety of occupations and adjusted exam results to fit. It was brutal, unconscionable and unjust.
I'd thought that centrally-controlled, one-size-fits-all approach to education policy had disappeared with the introduction of Tomorrow's Schools more than 20 years ago. But I reckoned without the teacher unions.
The vitriol spouted by the Post-Primary Teachers Association (PPTA) and the Educational Institute (NZEI) at the Government's announcement last week that it would fund five privately-run Partnership Schools took me back in a flash to my early days as a reporter covering teacher union rallies and marches.
Back then, it was bulk funding and the devolution of central control to community boards of trustees the teacher unions didn't like. Oh, and Lockwood Smith.
They went on to oppose NCEA, National Testing, religious schools integration, private school funding . . . in fact pretty much anything that threatened the status quo and the teacher unions' privileged position within it.
Now, as then, the teacher unions claim they have their students' best interests at heart. And now, as then, they are a powerful voice. After all, they teach the children of most of the nation's voters. And they have great political linkages, particularly within Labour. But when the Ministry of Education itself admits 20 per cent of students are still failing in the state school system, you do start to wonder whether there might be a better way to help them. And whether those who oppose change are more interested in their own employment conditions than improving the lot of those at the bottom of the heap.
Espiner (C) makes a very good point here; the teacher unions have opposed pretty much every innovation in education in the last 30 years. He is right too when he talks about the political linkages between the teacher unions and the parties of the Left, especially the Labour Party.
In fact those linkages are so entrenched it's a bit of a chicken-and-egg scenario with partnership schools; do Labour and the Greens so oppose partnership schools because the teacher unions do, or vice versa? It's an interesting question.
Espiner (C) continues:
Admittedly, Partnership Schools are very much an experiment. The Government is putting just $19 million into funding five schools in Northland and Auckland that will not have to operate under the normal strictures of the state system. They can choose their own hours, employ unregistered teachers, and offer subjects outside the standard curriculum.
The schools must, however, meet standards set down in contracts with the government, signed off by a board of independent experts from the fields of education, commerce, politics, and Maoridom.
Scandalous, cry the unions. "Barking mad" yells Labour. A "body blow for the public education system," opines the Green Party. A body blow? If that's true, the state system is in worse shape than I thought.
What's so wrong with trying something a little different? With offering students failing in the mainstream education system an alternative? A little military training wouldn't go amiss with some of them. And is a spot of faith-based teaching and some Maori immersion learning really going to do any great harm?
Apparently. According to the PPTA, these schools are so evil the union is considering asking its members to boycott all cultural, sporting, and professional events involving Partnership Schools. Marvellous - that'll help those kids already alienated from the mainstream feel like they're wanted.
If the state system was providing exemplary service and a top-notch education for all students, then the union might have a point. And there probably wouldn't be much public appetite for alternatives. But it's clearly failing some students, and parents who can't afford to send their children to private schools currently have no other options.
We agree wholeheartedly. The proposed boycott being suggested by the PPTA is petty and spiteful. If the PPTA's creative people had deliberately gone out and chosen one action that would turn the public against them, and in favour of the five partnership schools, a boycott would be high on the list.
And we agree with Colin Espiner's conclusion:
No one is suggesting the state education system should be dismantled. It provides a mostly adequate, sometimes excellent, service. But even the bureaucrats in Wellington admit they don't have a monopoly on good ideas. So what are the unions so afraid of?
Possibly more flexible working hours, fewer holidays, a greater range of pay rates, and non-unionised workers. A system outside state control, where commercial success is actually encouraged. A bit like the world the rest of us live in.
At worst, these schools will not live up to their potential and will be shut down, probably by Labour. But what if they succeed? It won't just be the students who stand to benefit. It'll be all of us.
He is dead right. Partnership schools could just be the means by which a small number of students, currently struggling in the established education system, find their way, connect and go on to live productive lives instead of potentially being a burden on the state.
The unions and politicians should stop their vitriolic scaremongering. The sky is not going to fall at the start of Term One 2014 when these five partnership schools open their doors. No parent is going to be compelled to send a child there. But if they can achieve the success that they hope for, they may provide a template for improving the lot of the 20% of students who are being left behind by the traditional education model.