“I’m feeling nervous because of the heightened emotional political intensity in this country, which could easily descend into all sorts of nastiness… where daring to put your head above the parapet and say ‘we think maybe this’, can lead to all sorts of difficulties for people,” he told EducationHQ, the day before the March 27 launch.

“New Zealand is entering into very, very, very different times, not just in education. Lots of things that there was a consensus around, it seems like there isn’t anymore,” O’Connor explains.

“If you’re not necessarily fitting in, this can be a really difficult time.

“And it’s been really interesting to watch my fellow education academics decide to just sit out for a while,” he adds.

And so the AEC has been formed, an umbrella collective aiming to support and provide a safe space for education thought leaders interested in promoting progressive ideals in education.

The group includes academics, principals and teachers and is not aligned to any political party.

“It’s informed also by thought leaders in the university and school leaders, so that we bring what we know theoretically together with the lived experience, to provide a space for dialogue about shaping schooling and education that springs from there, rather than from an ideological perspective,” O’Connor explains.

Fellow AEC member Lynda Stuart, principal of Auckland’s May Road School, says the Collective is also about creating a strong vision for education, beyond the political football it is today.

“One of the things many of us have been concerned about over a number of years now, is the fact that when we have a change of government in the country, no matter what colour that change of government is, we get a change of direction within education,” Stuart says.

“I think we look to countries like Finland, where they’ve had bipartisan consensus for decades now, and you see them as high-performing for all [students].”

Stuart also says that as a result of “political churn” the “real issues” in education are often neglected.

One of these real issues, she says, is the lack of equity across New Zealand’s schooling system.

“We see inequity on a daily basis and there’s a real lack of resourcing where the needs are greatest,” Stuart says.

As a primary school principal, Stuart is seeing the impact of Covid lockdowns on children, many of whom missed out on valuable preschool experiences.

As a result, she’s seen a marked increase in children experiencing toileting issues, on top of high health needs, learning support needs and some coming from trauma.

“And there’s a real lack of specialist support, we’re not growing the support people that we need to actually help our children,” she says.

“Our teachers are dealing with [these issues], because this is their job, but they’re dealing with really high needs and they don’t have the resourcing that they need to actually do it.

Stuart claims they’re “doing it on the smell of an oily rag”.

“And then we get the whole comment around, ‘well, why aren’t the children reading or why aren’t the children, doing maths at a particular level?’

“Well, actually, we’ve got to have some of these other needs met,” Stuart asserts.

“And that's the crisis we're seeing in the country, we just don’t have the resourcing.”

“And no government has really been able to address that, because that’s the gnarly, hard stuff.”

Tied in with this issue is the teacher shortage, and O’Connor who works in a university, says the number of initial teacher education enrolments have “fallen off a cliff”.

“You cannot sustain an education system, if you’re not attracting fresh teachers into the system. That is an enormous crisis,” he says.

O’Connor and Stuart say one of the AEC’s goals is to shift the debate in education towards these issues, rather than focussing on “distractions” such as the cell phone ban.

The group also plans to promote what they call, ‘progressive ideals’.

Some of these ideals, O’Connor says, were at one time taken as a given.

“In New Zealand six months ago, this would not have been controversial, but somehow it is now, that education in this country would centre around Te Tiriti o Waitangi,” he says.

“So that would include the way in which we work with Te reo and we honour that, and that now suddenly seems to be up for debate.”

“Progressive ideals which were that, at the heart of an education system, we’re in the business of protecting democracy by creating critical, creative citizens who have a sense of agency in the world, and instead we have a focus on the basics and how you do those brilliantly,” O’Connor adds.

“Those are to me, key progressive ideals about education, a rich, broad curriculum that serves the needs of all children, rather than a one-size-fits-all regime of national testing.”

For Stuart an education system where developing relationships with students and whānau is key, is one ideal she hopes to promote through the AEC.

“And I think the other progressive ideal, might be that actually those of us who have trained and as teachers and know their stuff, actually might know better what should happen within schools and for children, than those who are elected to power,” she adds.

“There’s a little thought that seems to miss people sometimes, but it is actually fundamental.

“Leave the professionals to do what they do best.

“And my message to politicians of any ilk, I hasten to add, would be actually ‘you go and find the resourcing that we need … to meet the needs of our little people and their whānau.”

Following their official launch, which was attended by more than 200 people, we can expect to hear more from Aotearoa Educators Collective in future.

“My colleagues are in a space where they want to be able to speak out, they want to be able to say what is important to them and what is needed within their schools and for their children,” Stuart says.

“And they’re very, very interested in the work that we’re doing with the Collective, because I think they see that as a way that they can have a voice.

“It shouldn’t be like that, but it is.”