Education Secretary Lesley Longstone quits
TRACY WATKINS, VERNON SMALL AND MICHELLE COOKE
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Prime Minister John Key is backing Education Minister Hekia Parata over her handling of a breakdown in relations with Education Secretary Lesley Longstone.
Key said through a spokesman he had complete confidence in Parata as Education Minister after Longstone's resignation today sparked calls for her to leave the portfolio.
State Services Comissioner Iain Rennie confirmed strained relations between Parata and Longstone were largely behind the resignation, which comes just a year into Longstone's five year contract.
He also confirmed there would be a payout reflecting the fact that Longstone's $500,000-plus a year job had been terminated early.
Rennie would not confirm the size of the payout, but it is potentially hundreds of thousands of dollars.
DECISION MADE 'WEEKS AGO'
The decision for Longstone to quit was made two to three weeks ago, Rennie said.
"The last six months have been especially challenging.
''Despite the best efforts of Lesley to work through a number of issues there now needs to be focus on rebuilding critical relationships that have been strained.
''Lesley and I have decided the best interests of the ministry will be served by her stepping down,'' Rennie said.
He confirmed strains in the relationship with Parata were an important factor in the decision.
Meanwhile, Parata thanked Longstone for her efforts leading the ministry.
"It has been a difficult period and there have been a series of tough issues to deal with," she said.
"Our Government is working hard to ensure that all our children get a better education. I continue to be focused on raising achievement in our schools so that our kids have the opportunities they need to reach their potential."
Parata said she would be making no further comment on Longstone's departure, but wished her well for the future.
Longstone will complete her role on February 8.
"Lesley and I have agreed on a package. Further details of this package will be released in the new year once details are finalised," Rennie said.
Former public service chief executive Peter Hughes had been appointed acting secretary of education.
Hughes was former head of the Ministry of Social Development.
GREENS, LABOUR CALL FOR PARATA'S HEAD
Labour and the Greens are calling for Parata to stand down, saying Longstone had taken the blame for her "stuff ups".
Labour MP Chris Hipkins said Parata needed to follow Longstone's lead and resign.
"Hekia Parata has been a disaster as Education Minister. Everything she has touched she has stuffed up - from class sizes and school closures to Novopay and charter schools - her tenure as minister has been a series of blunders, botch-ups and bungles.
"It is just not tenable for Hekia Parata to continue as Education Minister. She is not up to the job, her credibility is shot and New Zealand's children deserve better," Hipkins said.
He said he wasn't surprised the relationship between the minister and Longstone was strained.
"Hekia Parata has tried to blame everyone but herself. She might want to point the finger Lesley Longstone, the Ministry and her officials, but the buck stops with the minister.
"She is responsible for the litany of failings in education this year...The prime minister should think long and hard whether she is up to the job."
Green party co-leader Metiria Turei said the Government needed someone to take the blame for Parata's "stuff ups".
"Lesley Longstone looks like she is its woman," Turei said.
"It must have been incredibly difficult working for a minister who didn't communicate, and blamed Ms Longstone for her own failures...This minster has overseen a massively destructive year in education and must go."
Rennie said he didn't talk about the performance of chief executives in a public environment.
"I certainly was of the view that a change in leadership was part of the way forward. To be really honest we came up with it at the same meeting."
In a statement, Rennie said Longstone's severance package fell within the Auditor General's guidelines for such payments in the public sector.
Referring to the strains between Parata and Longstone, he said it was "fair to say the issues between the minister and chief executive had been raised with me by the minster and chief executive."
He confirmed Longstone had four years remaining in her contract, and the severance package included a consideration for the fact the contract had been ended early.
Rennie left the door open to Longstone being appointed elsewhere in the public service and said she was a highly competent and dedicated individual.
He said it was not the first time relations between a minister and chief executive had become strained, but usually that was resolved and "most of that never becomes public".
He referred to former Corrections Minister Judith Collins refusing to express confidence in Corrections boss Barry Matthews, but that situation had been resolved satisfactorily.
Longstone came from England, where she held a senior role at the Department for Children, Schools and Families.
The mother of three left two of her children at university in Britain, while her youngest son attends Wellington College.
It was widely understood Longstone was leaving for a holiday in Britain on Friday.
There have been a series of difficulties at the ministry which has been under fire over the Novopay payroll debacle, the Christchurch schools merger and closure consultation process, the court-ordered u-turn of the closure of Nelson's Salisbury school and the blunder and backdown over increased class sizes.
In October, Longstone created controversy when she wrote in the Education Ministry's annual report that New Zealand could not claim to have a world-class education system because Maori and Pacifika children and children from poor communities were underperforming.
Public Service Association national secretary Brenda Pilott said the resignation undoubtedly came as a result of ministerial pressure and interference.
“Lesley Longstone was put under enormous pressure by the education minister. She has been forced to front the issues while the minister has consistently ducked for cover.
‘‘It’s time for Hekia Parata to take some responsibility for her own mismanagement rather than making others pay the price.”
The PSA said it believed it was time for the States Services Commission to take stock of the way it appoints and supports chief executives.
Longstone’s resignation follows the resignation of Work and Income head Janet Grossman who was also headhunted from Britain, but returned earlier this year after just nine months in the position.
“The Commission needs to think long and hard about making overseas appointments and consider the unique complexities, demands and pressures of the New Zealand context,’’ Pilott said.
“High level public sector management requires not only competence, but a deep understanding and experience of the issues past and present.
“Lesley Longstone was allowed to walk into the eye of a storm. I think it’s fair to question whether she was armed with the right knowledge and experience to weather it, and whether she was given adequate support – particularly in the face of strong ministerial challenges and very high political stakes.''