Alternative education policy in New Zealand: illegitimacy, tolerance and inclusion (?)

Year: 2019

Author: Schoone, Adrian

Type of paper: Abstract refereed

A concern shared by many Western nations, is the large numbers of students disenfranchised from mainstream secondary education. In New Zealand, approximately 5000 secondary aged students are categorized by the Ministry of Education as ‘at risk’, and in need of education provision beyond conventional education. One such programme is alternative education for 13 to 16 year olds who have been, so called, ‘alienated’ from mainstream provision due to exclusions, multiple suspensions or truancy. The emergence of alternative education in New Zealand coincided with neoliberal policies of the 1990s that introduced a market approach to education. As a result, schools competed against each other for high performing students. This left struggling students vulnerable. As McGregor and Mills (2011, p. 8) have observed, ‘Credentialing and rank-ordering of students demand regimes of comparability and uniformity of assessment that takes little account of the life circumstances of marginalized youth.’ In New Zealand, students and whanau (family) sought community-based alternative education centres as refuges from antagonisms they faced in conventional schools.

In this presentation, I critically examine government and Ministry of Education policy positions and their implications regarding alternative education, between the years of 2000 to 2018. Through undertaking a critical discourse analysis of key policy documents and Ministerial speeches from the period, I identified three policy motivations, and conceptualised them as policies of illegitimacy, tolerance and inclusion. Given alternative education centres were grassroots initiatives, the government loathed to embrace unauthorised education visions and pedagogical approaches. During the early 2000s, the government was compelled to find ways to legitimise alternative education centres, owing to the sheer numbers of students attending, while at the same time appearing not to endorse a dual education system. During the mid-2000s to early 2010s, the government showed little care and no responsibility for the growing alternative education sector; freezing state funding of alternative education to focus on enhancing inclusive approaches in conventional secondary schools in the hope that alternative education would no longer be required. Recently, alternative education has been re-imagined as a legitimate intervention under Learning Support for students with additional needs. While this approach signals a softening towards alternative education, it is unclear whether the organisational and pedagogical approaches that currently make alternative education ‘alternative’, will be allowed to continue under the new policy settings, or whether the ‘new alternative’ will be, in many respects, conventional education on a smaller scale.