Union leadership key to education success

ROSE PATTERSON
Last updated 14:38 23/06/2014

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OPINION: This month the primary school teachers' union, the New Zealand Educational Institute (NZEI), and the body representing principals, the New Zealand Principals' Federation (NZPF), gave a thumbs down to the $359m Investing in Educational Success (IES) policy announced by John Key in January.

This represented a major system change and is designed to build collaboration among teachers.

The rejection of the policy is baffling at first: the government wants to pay teachers more and encourage collaboration, and teachers and principals are complaining?

Stranger still, by all accounts, those involved in thrashing out the details of the policy over the last six months, including the NZEI and the NZPF, have been happy with its general direction. I am told that some fantastic collaborative work is happening among sector groups, at least at the national level.

But NZEI National President Judith Nowotarski says that the regional NZEI groups are sending this message: the policy is unacceptable. So, no matter how nicely people are playing together in Wellington, that level of discussion and debate with 30,000 teachers around the country is impossible.

The NZEI and NZPF recently held a joint hui in Wellington with 72 delegates from around the country. After a day of discussions, in a straw poll, the majority rejected the policy.

Should we just throw our hands up and give up then? No. It is union leadership that holds the key to success. I'll come back to this, but before that, let's acknowledge two probable real reasons why NZEI and the NZPF members in the regions are not happy in the first place.

First, it was announced by the blue, and second, it was announced out of the blue.

It was announced by the blue - the National-led government. If Labour had announced the exact same policy, my bet is that teachers still would have identified its pitfalls, but they would have been less likely to deem it completely unworkable.

We are all guilty of using shortcuts in our thinking to weigh-up the credibility of information and ideas. No doubt teachers will be looking at the policy on its merits, but this is tainted by the fact that the policy is highlighted in blue.

These groups will say they are about policy, not politics, but it's fair to say there is a bias in one direction.

The policy does have merits. Despite the rhetoric, there is no intention to helicopter heavy-handed bosses into schools nor is there a hidden agenda (who would throw $359 million at a hidden agenda?).

The policy recognises that the key to unlocking the potential of all teachers is among teachers. Yes, this collaborative learning already happens at many schools around the country, but making it a formal policy and putting the resource behind it gives it real weight.

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The second reason for signaling rejection of the policy, I suspect, is that it was announced out of the blue. In all fairness to NZEI, they had been working on a similar policy for years to create new expert teacher roles and had negotiated successfully for this last year. This new policy potentially steamrolls over the top of that. 

The frustration that stems from that is completely understandable, and the NZPF made this very good point too: the government wouldn't develop health policy without input from doctors and nurses, so why do they develop policy without giving teachers the same respect?

There is a third possible reason that NZEI and NZPF members in the regions think the policy is unworkable: it might actually be unworkable. Unfortunately though, these groups do have a reputation for having rejected everything the National Government has come up with in the last six years. One cannot help but question whether the NZEI and NZPF have cried wolf too many times.

In contrast, the secondary teachers' union, the PPTA, is against many ideas in education policy, but they are careful to pick their battles. Granted, it could be that the policy is better suited to the secondary setting, but there is a more general theme here: the PPTA have figured out that rejecting everything outright actually diminishes their credibility as an organisation that claims to act on behalf of student interest (which by the way I believe all the unions, in part, do).

The NZEI and NZPF are supposed to represent their members. But influence goes both ways. The union leaders situated in Wellington, by all accounts, had been happy with the direction of the policy. It is also up to them to convey to their members that this is a genuine attempt by government to put the power into teachers' hands. Of course the NZEI and NZPF should point out the potential pitfalls, of which they have serious and valid concerns. But to call it unworkable may actually be doing a disservice to their members.

This risks further entrenching mistrust. Indeed, the NZEI and NZPF don't trust government. As president of NZPF Phil Harding has noted, the policy was partly rejected because "there is a huge mistrust of the government's true agenda".

But trust is a two-way street. While government should have given union members time to consider the policy before its sudden announcement, why would they when their reaction - to reject it completely - is so predictable anyway?

We have a public education system, and a public education system is arguably the key foundational policy for unions.

The reality under a public education system is that teachers work in a political environment. So, it is up to these groups representing teachers and principals to work constructively with the government of the day elected by the people.

This may sound like a sophist argument to some: principled but not practicable. But unless someone takes the moral high ground this deadlock is likely to persist for years to come, to the detriment of those the education policy is supposed to benefit: students. And because governments change, the onus is on unions to take the first step.

Someone needs to show leadership and be the grown up.

Rose Patterson is a research fellow with the New Zealand Initiative

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