Parata hits stormy waters

23:49, May 31 2012

She would never admit it, of course, but Anne Tolley appeared to take just a smidgen of ironic pleasure at the travails of her successor, Hekia Parata, in Parliament this week.

Mrs Tolley could be forgiven if she privately remarked something along the lines of 'Not so easy being education minister, is it?'

Mrs Tolley battled her way through a drawn-out struggle to implement the controversial National Standards in primary schools.

Ms Parata seems to be at the start of an even tougher assignment. In last week's Budget, it was confirmed she would drive through changes to the teacher/pupil funding ratio that will probably cause hundreds of thousands of children to be taught in bigger classes.

The announcement did not exactly come as a surprise - Treasury chief Gabriel Makhlouf, Education Secretary Lesley Longstone and Ms Parata had for weeks all hammered the case in favour of any new spending that was available going into teacher quality, and not quantity. Ms Parata travelled to the United States for an international conference on teacher quality in March and returned brandishing what she called "irrefutable" research evidence that teacher quality had a lot more to do with a child's success in life than the size of class.

"The fact is that it is probably more comfortable to teach a smaller class," Ms Parata said at the time, "but the research is really clear that a bad teacher teaching in a smaller class is going to do exponentially more damage than a good teacher teaching a very big class."


Ms Longstone, less than six months in to her job after arriving from Britain, was similarly emphatic late last month.

"There is quite a lot of research . . . that shows that the impact that you get from investing your dollar in class sizes is not as good as the impact that you get from investing in teaching," she said.

But the determination to shift funding away from teachers goes back further than this year.

In 2009, a reversal of the reduction in funding ratios for new entrants was within days of being announced. Mrs Tolley signed off a plan that would have seen the funding ratio bumped up from 1:15 to 1:18.

That would have cut funding for 772 full-time equivalent (FTE) teachers, affected 1106 schools and saved the Government about $50 million a year.

A communications plan to handle the announcement in the Budget was mapped out to "help minimise concerns".

"This reduction is likely to be perceived by the sector and parents as conflicting with the Government's literacy and numeracy objectives," official advice to Mrs Tolley said at the time.

"In addition to potentially sending a negative message to the sector, reducing staffing may make the sector less willing to implement Government priorities, in particular the national standards."

Just before it was to be announced, Mrs Tolley backed out when she realised there would be forced redundancies.

"The minute I realised that we were actually talking about people on the ground, I immediately sought advice and talked to both the minister of finance and the prime minister," she said in September 2009. "None of us would countenance that."

You might have imagined that Mrs Tolley's "error" would have served as a salutary lesson not only to Ms Parata, but also to Prime Minister John Key, Finance Minister Bill English and senior advisers at the Ministry of Education. But that seems not to have been the case.

It was only at the beginning of this week that a group of senior ministers was convened to speed up a "transition" plan for the approximately 245 schools worst hit by the changes.

Ms Parata seems to have not realised or not been briefed on the added impact of spreading targeted technology teacher funding across years 2 to 10, instead of the existing focus on year 7 and 8.

When the policy change was announced a week ahead of the Budget, the funding ratio for years 7 and 8 appeared in the paperwork as an improvement from 1:29 down to 1:27.5. But for intermediate schools, which attract the extra and focused technology funding, the effective ratio was actually 1:23.36. And since intermediate schools have no students at year levels where there will be actual funding ratio improvements - years 4, 5, 6, 11 and 12 - there is no way to offset their losses.

How could Ms Parata have missed this? Some have blamed the ministry, but others say she simply failed to ask the right questions. A former Cabinet minister from the fifth Labour government recalls that Helen Clark ran any policy changes across a handful of schools in her electorate. Her education minister would do the same, apparently.

The Education Ministry does not have a great record for clarity of policy advice: an independent review by the economic research institute NZIER last year found one-third of its papers to ministers were "poor or borderline" and only one-tenth were "good". So the Clark tactic of road-testing any policy shifts would seem like a good idea.

Some commentators have suggested Ms Parata became fixated on the 90 per cent of schools that would either lose or gain less than one FTE and failed to pay enough attention to the more significant remaining 10 per cent. The raw numbers - 245 losing more than one FTE and around half of those being the 123 intermediate schools - set off much louder alarm bells. Ms Parata is paying dearly for only now heeding the danger.

Related Story:

Minister needs to do her homework

The Dominion Post