Year: 1992

Author: Codd, John A

Type of paper: Abstract refereed

One of the most striking features of recent educational reform in New Zealand has been a radical transformation in the language of policy. This is strongly evidenced in the policy texts and official documents that have shaped both the form and direction of public debate in recent years. These texts constitute a major break with the discursive tradition of the post-war era - a tradition in which education had come to signify shared values relating to national identity, group and community aspirations, and citizenship rights. In the new discursive order, the language of neo-liberalism and economic rationalism has acquired doctrinal prominence, entailing not only the emergence of a new set of key words, such as "choice", "efficiency" and "outputs", but also the adoption of a related set of basic metaphors, such as "consumer demand", "provider capture" and "contestability". This new language has had a major influence in legitimating the agenda for educational reform and defining the parameters of public debate. A common strategy in the critique of New Right educational policies is to argue that their legitimation is purely ideological. This line of argument suggests that the language of market- liberalism is simply an appropriation of liberal discourse by dominant and powerful groups in pursuit of their own political interests. The problem with such analyses, however, is that they are based, in most cases, upon an idealist conception of language and are unable, therefore, to recognise the deeper structural causes of social change. This paper takes a materialist position and argues that to understand properly the significance of policy texts in the process of educational reform, it is necessary to explain the material conditions within which such texts are produced and to examine critically the institutional practices which they are used to defend. The paper begins, therefore, by giving a materialist account of policy texts and their political functions within a capitalist welfare state such as New Zealand. It then suggests that the ascendancy of neo-liberal discourse is a consequence rather than a cause of structural changes within the New Zealand state and examines the theoretical bases of some of the educational policies that have resulted from those changes. Finally, it concludes that the language of educational reform is important because of the theoretical assumptions upon which it rests and the institutional practices that it circumscribes.