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A critical interruption in the governance of a New Zealand state high school

The governance of contemporary Western education aspires to serve the intertwining values of human emancipation and social inclusiveness in both the organisational form of educational institutions and their pedagogical direction. In New Zealand (NZ), what is understood as ‘good’ governance of education has varied over time according to economic conditions and political interests. The fourth Labour government (1984-1990), which undertook a widespread, rapid commitment to neo-liberal principles, reorganised the provision and governance of education along quasi public-private sector lines, explicitly using a business approach to guide practice, yet retaining hegemonic characteristics. This commitment to neo-liberal principles has been continued by all subsequent NZ governments. The intended transformation of the education system from a centrally-governed bureaucracy to a community-governed process has not been easy. Underpinning the new governance regime is an implied notion that school communities share a common understanding of what is meant by education, processes of representation, and of ‘good’ governance. However, due to the different aspirations members of school communities’ can hold for their respective schools this commonality of meaning can be a false dichotomy resulting in schools being governed in a state of tension. This tension serves to highlight contradictions and disconnections between the espoused aims of devolved governance and a State-mandated process that works to exclude certain factions of a school community. Increasing numbers of NZ school Boards of Trustees are experiencing these tensions and contradictions resulting in an interruption in school governance. The interruption I am interested in takes the form of the commodification of education that has been taking place in NZ since the mid 1980s. I argue this to be an interruption with profound effects on both the flourishing of individuals and the cohesion of communities and usefully serves to draw attention to the disconnection between the broad ideals of education, as articulated by the early promoters of a State-funded education system, and the neo-liberal re-visioning of State education. Fairfield College is a NZ State high school where the tensions and contradictions surrounding the meaning of education, processes of representation, and of good governance have generated a crisis resulting in a critical interruption in school governance. The school’s Board of Trustees received considerable media coverage between 2008 and 2009 regarding a critical interruption to their governance. This interruption presented a unique research opportunity to explore how the words used to frame the problems facing the Board of Trustees, the words used to explain and justify State intervention in the governance of the school, and the words used to propose solutions to perceived problems were invested with meaning. With my interest in connotative meaning, I illustrate how these words were used to encourage and endorse actions that comply with prevailing public policy. In this case study I examined how the school’s direction has been reconfigured according to the principles of corporate governance using a companion lexicon of business. Directives have been devised by various NZ governments to align education with the neo-liberal principles that have prevailed in the governance of this country since 1984. The multiple meanings attributed to ‘governance’ and ‘corporate governance’ in the relevant literatures, and the various implications for applied governance processes and dynamics, influenced my decision to adopt the dual orientation of social constructionism and critical theory to underpin this research. Social constructionists focus on how individuals and groups produce, disseminate, and validate their perceptions of reality. Critical theorists aim to create awareness of constraints to emancipatory potential and inclusiveness. They seek to expose the contradictions between espoused aims of justice and the flourishing of individuals and that which is practised, with the intention to contribute to changes that would enhance justice and the flourishing of individuals. One such contribution is to give voice to those who feel their voices are not being heard. Both theoretical schools regard the use of language as pivotal in the construction of social processes in which meaning is continually negotiated and re-negotiated by the stakeholders. In this research I engaged in audio-recorded semi-structured interviews with members from four stakeholder groups involved in the governance of Fairfield College: the Whānau Support Group (a predominantly Māori special interest group), parents and caregivers, teachers, and those previously or currently charged with governance responsibilities for the school. These narratives were then analysed using thematic analysis to provide important insights into how ‘governance’ of the school was interpreted, challenged, and/or endorsed. My research at Fairfield College indicates that the different constructions of ‘governance’ are associated with identifiable overlapping issues arranged in a hierarchy. The foundational tier represents the outcome of various NZ governments’ preference for market-generated principles of organisation at a macro State level, namely the commodification of public services – in this instance education. The middle tier addresses concerns raised by some stakeholders regarding their notion of inclusiveness and the vulnerability of the democratic process as experienced at community level. The top tier encompasses the twin issues of communication and consultation processes at a management level that appear to demonstrate a conflict between the State’s espoused principles of good governance and their application at Fairfield College. As a result of examining the critical interruption to the governance of Fairfield College I conclude that when viewed through the lens of a social constructionist orientation informed by critical theory, ‘governance’ in the education sector can be interpreted as a process supporting neo-liberal preferences for market-orientated approaches to education. Such preferences overshadow any other ideals held by members of the school’s community and, according to a critical understanding of neo-liberalism, weaken the principles of emancipation and inclusiveness. The insights generated from this research provide a basis for further research into the governance of other organisations with emancipatory and inclusive aspirations.
Type of thesis
L’Huillier, B. M. (2011). A critical interruption in the governance of a New Zealand state high school (Thesis, Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)). University of Waikato, Hamilton, New Zealand. Retrieved from https://hdl.handle.net/10289/5140
University of Waikato
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