Young New Zealanders deserve better

It’s been a predictable, depressing week in politics. Coinciding with a spate of appalling murders, Helen Clark and John Key gave us their policies on youth education with John Key throwing in a boot camp for good measure.

Bits of both policies won’t work. Labour’s preference for keeping kids in school till they are 18 won’t and neither will National’s forcing alienated youth into military-style camps.

However when the policies are boiled down there is little difference between them and once the policy details are settled there will be even less to distinguish them.

The most worrying aspect of both sets of policies is the focus on education for the needs of employers rather than education for citizenship. Training in specific employment skills should always been paid for by employers but over the past 15 years the cost has been shifting onto taxpayers. The latest moves will see the expansion of “on-job” training with extra government funding to employers like McDonald’s. Coincidently in Britain last week Prime Minister Gordon Brown came under attack for allowing McDonald’s to offer national qualifications of dubious quality. It will be more of the same here. A McJob will now come with a McEducation.

Underlying Key’s proposal is the concept of a voucher for 16 and 17 year olds to leave school for study at a polytech, wanaga or private tertiary establishment. Just at a time when Labour is moving away from this “bums on seats” funding National wants to introduce more of the same. It seems for National anything goes when it comes to expanding the private sector at public expense. The policy also gives the opportunity for National to soften up the public to accept vouchers for schooling which is National’s holy grail in education.

It is important to remember that a 2005 Tertiary Education Commission survey of 480 PTE qualifications found 64% of the courses were of either low quality or low relevance. In other words we don’t need 30 bad hairdressers in Temuka but just as Labour finally begins to tighten up on this waste of public funds National wants to open the purse strings again.

Let’s also remember this policy is not for students from well-heeled families who will continue at school till form seven and then move on to university. Instead it’s for students leaving school in earlier years and disproportionately these will be students from lower income areas such as Maori and Pacifica Students who are already lured out of school onto a merry-go-round of low quality courses. They gain a few credits here and there but no meaningful qualifications. The waste of funding is a disgrace. 

Neither National nor Labour’s proposals deal effectively with alienated students whose greatest risk factor is family income. These are predominantly students from low-income families where there is a cycle of disaffection exacerbated by free-market policies which have increased levels of poverty and encouraged the anti-social attitudes and behaviours which follow. Trying to keep these students in education will not succeed in most cases but getting Labour or National to address the problem honestly seems a hopeless task. They both prefer to pour more money into band-aid programmes at the bottom of the cliff instead of confronting economic policy at the top.

John Key’s “modern” boot camp is the soft face of the violent, authoritarian streak which runs close the surface in many New Zealanders. Christchurch City Councillor Barry Corbett revealed just how close when he commented that if he were a juror in the trial of the man who allegedly stabbed a tagger to death he would probably let him off. The thin veneer was gone. A day later he was softening his stance saying he agreed it was a silly thing to say but in the next breath said he’d had lots of support for his comments.

Here is a man with all the credentials for recognising the causes of poverty and alienation but who is stuck getting angry at the symptoms.

According to his promotional material he is a trustee of the Christchurch Casino Charitable Trust. He helps distribute profit from pokie machines but is blind to the enormous damage they cause to low-income families and youth whose anti-social behaviour he deplores.

Corbett should remember that youth behaviour is a reflection of the society they live in which he helps create. He is a greater part of the problem than the young taggers he so vehemently despises.

Young New Zealanders have had a fair political battering recently. Instead of automatically being seen as problems we should all remember how sensitive and vulnerable they are, despite the bravado and occasional stupidity.