Sunday, January 1, 2012

Karl du Fresne: The teacher unions are at it again

Auckland University academic Peter O’Connor at least got the first line right in his overwrought article attacking the proposed charter schools trial. “There is a fight brewing in schools,” he wrote. Yes, there is a fight brewing. But we should be clear about who’s forming the battle lines, and why.

It’s the teachers who are gearing up for a stoush, and the reason is that they see a limited trial of charter schools as a threat to their control of the education system. Teachers believe the only changes governments are entitled to make to education are those that they approve. No other branch of the public service operates in this fashion. The police, the armed forces, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Treasury – all accept that governments are elected to make policy and the job of public servants is to put that policy into practice. Teachers alone consider themselves exempt from this principle.The teacher unions haven’t revealed how they intend to oppose charter schools, but you can be sure they will do everything in their power to thwart the experiment.

As in the past (most recently with national standards) they will present themselves as taking a principled stand on the public’s behalf, but their primary motive is good old-fashioned self-interest. They will fight tooth and nail to preserve the status quo.

Unfortunately, timid governments have encouraged teacher intransigence in the past by backing down whenever the unions dug their toes in over reform initiatives.

It remains to be seen whether the Key government is made of sterner stuff. That it stuck to its guns over national standards suggests it may be.

Perhaps Hekia Parata, the new minister of education, should talk to Julia Gillard, the head of Australia’s Labor government. As minister of education, Ms Gillard overrode teacher opposition to push through some of the very changes the unions have steadfastly opposed here.

As for associate professor O’Connor, we should remember that what’s proposed is only a small-scale trial. To read his lurid rhetoric, you’d think the government was proposing a wholesale reinvention of the system from the ground up.

His slogan-laden article, in which he described charter schools as a “corporatist attack” serving the interests of a “transnational capitalist elite” was an example of the drearily predictable, left-wing group-think that passes for rigorous analysis in the universities.

The PPTA is even more hysterical, likening charter schools to Dotheboys Hall in Charles Dickens’ Nicholas Nickleby – a place where boys are whipped, starved and abused by the ghastly headmaster Wackford Squeers.

In a provocatively insulting letter to John Key, PPTA president Robin Duff suggests the prime minister might like to watch the DVD of Nicholas Nickleby rather than read the novel, as it’s a long book with small print.

It would be idle to expect rational debate from these people. They have spent so much of their lives confined in classrooms with adolescents that their emotional maturity is irreparably impaired.

Karl blogs at  This article was first published in the Curmudgeon column, The Dominion Post, December 20.

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