Bryan Bruce is a bad teacher
Bryan Bruce is a bad teacher

Pop CultureMay 25, 2016

On Bryan Bruce’s truly diabolical education documentary

Bryan Bruce is a bad teacher
Bryan Bruce is a bad teacher

Education is a topic critical to us as a nation. It deserves so much better than the pandering polemic Bryan Bruce delivered last night on TV3.

Last night TV3 screened a “special report”, “written, directed and produced” by Bryan Bruce, the veteran of dozens of documentaries over the years, many of which he has fronted with a familiar, bleakly beseeching on-camera presence.

This one was called World Class? Inside NZ Education – A Special Report, and was comfortably the most asinine of those I’ve seen from the man, a windy and handwringing collection of reckons and I thinks which saw him jet around the world to have confirmed for him what he had already decided – that our education system is fucked, and neoliberalism is to blame.

It was a rambling, incoherent mess of a product, at once disdainful of testing and reliant on it, dated in its construction, sloppily assembled and wilfully misrepresentative of both the intent and reality of the teaching systems it assessed.

Bryan Bruce is a bad teacher
Bryan Bruce is a bad teacher

So it was not good. We opened with scenes from the final day of Phillipstown School – to which the documentary was self-importantly dedicated – prior to its merger with Woolston. The pupils and principal were, understandably, upset. But rather than delve into the arguments on either side of the merger, he simply railed against change in and of itself – a recurring theme of the piece.

We see some kids getting on a train to go to school in Wellington, which he unaccountably finds offensive – choice is an enemy in his mind. Next, citing a passing reference in an OECD report, he told us that small schools were always good, and thus should be kept open. This might be the case – but beyond a brief and perfunctory interview with a professor from Ohio, we were never told why.

Instead, like so much of the documentary, we’re supposed to rely on Bruce’s experience as a teacher and his mushy theories of teaching. He neatly summed up his frame of reference in what was supposed to pass as a history lesson, referring to Lange’s education reforms of 1987, which devolved more power to parent-led boards of trustees and the schools themselves.

Again, this might have been a good or bad thing, and the answer was likely complex – but is instead characterised by Bruce as moving from “all schools being essentially the same” (which seems unlikely) to what he characterises as, despite us having what he describes “amongst the most highly trained and best qualified teachers in the world”, our education system is “a shambles”. 

Wow. We must be doing something pretty unusual to have the best teachers and such terrible outcomes, right? But exactly what constitutes a shambles is never made clear. We just have to take trusty Bruce’s word for it. Having done the most cursory of diagnoses, he’s off on a plane to find a cure. In the air we’re told that New Zealand’s PISA rankings have fallen drastically. Which is true. But have they fallen because we magically became terrible at teaching between 2009 and 2012, or because other countries have been charging ahead? We’re never told.

The PISA scores are a fascinating thread throughout the documentary. We’re told they reflect our poor performance. Then we’re told that all testing is just plain bad, because kids and schools should just be free to be creative. Then we’re told that PISA tests are terrible and we should stop doing them. At no point does Bruce wrestle with this apparent contradiction, or any other.

Instead he stops in Shanghai, to ask them how they do it, then Finland to do the same. At each stopover on this wonderful-looking trip he nods wisely as an educator makes bland pronouncements which could just as easily be said of our own schools. He doesn’t acknowledge the that Finland’s education system, rightly lauded for its results, has even less of the top-down, central control he is demanding we return to in New Zealand.

Graphics in a documentary written, directed and produced by Bryan Bruce
On screen graphics in a documentary written, directed and produced by Bryan Bruce

There is a shocking absence of hard data from the documentary, particularly for an area which has, over the recent times, produced such a volume of it. Similarly, the evolving nature of education is barely touched – charter schools in particular were nearly entirely absent, despite being one of the biggest stories in education over the past 20 years. The only time we enter one is briefly in Harlem, where some poor sap tells us that the “authoritarian” teaching Bruce says he witnessed is an attempt to get these impoverished kids to read and write, which the teacher says is essential before you attempt to learn “critical thinking”.

Seems fair enough, right? “It’s an argument I’ve heard before,” says Bruce, “but I don’t agree.”

And that really is the crux of the myriad problems with this truly woeful documentary. Bruce went into this project with supreme self-righteousness and certainty of his perspective. He was driven by the powerful nostalgia so many of a certain age and gender experience for life before the fourth Labour government. He sought out people who would echo his opinions. Then he delivered us his findings from the mountain, and sat back waiting for the applause.

I doubt it will come. One of the few things he said no one would argue with is that education is supremely important to this and every other country. It’s a critical area, and New Zealand clearly has problems in the area, particularly in early childhood teaching and for Māori and Pacific kids, whose progress lags other ethnic groups. But his end note, of a trailblazing, R Kelly-singing Manurewa school sounds a message of hope – that in this supposedly awful system we’ve made, smart principals can build cultures which work for the surrounding areas.

Unfortunately that represents precisely the kind of innovative and locally-driven pedagogy he would have abandoned in favour of a return to central control. Indeed he nodded approvongly earlier in the documentary as another principal said “the risk of self-managing schools is that they will manage themselves.” Isn’t that what we just saw?

In the end the enduring image I’ll take away from this truly awful hour is the unedifying spectre of an old pākehā man, wandering slowly toward the camera and plaintively asking – certainly not for the first time – why the world has to change. I hope I never have to see him pose the same question again.

Keep going!