The “Political Spectacle” of England and New Zealand’s Free and Partnership Schools

Last week I presented a poster at the Comparative & International Education Conference 2013 of some tentative findings from a discourse analysis of education policy implementation in England and New Zealand. The purpose of the analysis is to see what were the reasons given for the policy and whether their use was justified. Finding out how rhetoric is used by a government is important for advocates wishing to provide an opposing viewpoint (they can then address the rhetoric being pushed), and it is also useful to uncover ‘successful’ rhetorical pattern so that future policymakers will know paths through which they can promote additional policies.

The policy being looked at was the introduction in both countries of state-funded ‘independent’ schools that can be opened by applying to a government-led organisation. Based on US ‘charter schools’, in England the schools are called ‘free schools’ and in New Zealand they are ‘partnership schools’.

By analysing the newspaper articles, policy documents, ministerial speeches, parliamentary debates and press releases about the legislation in both England and New Zealand I sought to find out how evidence about the policy in other countries (particularly the US) was being used. The theory of ‘political spectacle’ argues that governments often employ two techniques – symbolic language and rational illusions – in order to pass legislation that if talked about more frankly might not be palatable to the electorate. The data showed that both governments used symbolic language, although in quite different ways (England more directive, New Zealand more concilliatory). The main ‘rational illusion’ however was the use of ‘achievement gaps’ as the reason for the policy. In England ‘free school meals’ pupils were continually referred to as the group who would most benefit from the change. In New Zealand, Maori and Pasifika students are labelled as those most in need.

The “evidence” used to show that the change to state-funded independent schools would close the gap tended to rely on international ‘example’ rather than anything more substantative. The US chain KIPP were regularly referred to in both countries. In the UK Harlem Children’s Zone was occasionally referenced as a school which had closed gaps, however across the documents very little evidence was considered. The Stanford CREDO study was commonly used by people opposing the policy, and in the UK an article by Caroline Hoxby was referenced to show the difference charters had made.

The poster presentation can be viewed (in very tiny writing!) below, or is available for download here:



Categories: Accountability Reforms, Education Reform, Free Schools, UK Education Policy

2 replies

  1. Key conclusion? Even more reason to keep politics out of education …

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