Education minister should come out and say it

Education Minister Hekia Parata
Education Minister Hekia Parata

The education minister's gone publical. She's written an open letter to the principals and teachers of Christchurch. A cynic may wonder why the minister didn't just send out the letter with each teacher's pay.

But the cynic has forgotten that, with the ministry's new pay system, half the teachers wouldn't have received it. So the letter went into the newspaper at taxpayers' expense and we all got to read it.

It began thus: "I am writing an open letter to publically thank you for your hard work and your commitment over the past two-and-a-bit years since the first earthquake struck on 4 September 2010."

It's a cracking start. There's a date for the history teachers, two-and-a-bit for the maths teachers and an original adverb for the English teachers. It's the syllabus in a sentence along with a dollop of thanks. The profession will be delighted.

Having thanked the teachers for doing their job, you might have thought, the minister would have then got on with what she had to say. But she wasn't done yet. She reached for the trowel. She heaped it high with many a redundant adjective (difficult and challenging) and many an abstract noun (strength and support, professionalism and commitment) and spent two more paragraphs thanking the teachers for doing their job.

At this point a cynic might be reminded of a coy daughter sidling up to her father, leaning against his thigh and looking lovingally up at him. Daddy's nostrils twitch and he looks around for a rat. "Daddy," says the little girl, batting her winsome eyelashes, "you're the very best daddy of all daddies and I love you more than I love the Twilight series."

"Thank you, darling," says daddy, "and I love you more than I love rugby. Now what do you want?"

Here the cynic may be closer to the mark. "Given the extent of the damage to some schools, and the population movement following the earthquakes," continues the minister, "the sector simply cannot be returned to how it was."

Well, that's not true. It would be perfectly possible to rebuild the schools as they were, and with smaller classes that would be good for everyone.

What the minister means is that it would cost too much.

And that, if she had said so, would have been a fair point.

So the minister wants to reorganise things. It was to this end that a couple of months ago she dispatched her chief executive to Christchurch like Father Christmas with a sack of snakes. The chief executive brought proposals that had been decided in secret in Wellington.

She gathered the city's principals in a room and issued them with coloured badges, like little children playing a game. The colours dictated the fates of their schools. Some would stay, some would merge and some would go, although those were not the verbs used. According to the ministry, the schools would be restored, consolidated or, delightfully, rejuvenated.

Astonishingally, this did not go down well. The principals felt insulted and demeaned. Their outrage registered even on the eardrums of the distant minister.

"There is no doubt," she concedes, "that we could have handled the announcement of change better." This is as close as any minister can get to saying "we screwed up".

In an effort to limit the damage, the minister came to Christchurch herself and attended meetings at some of the schools affected. And in the open letter she thanks everyone who came and "shared [their] experiences" with her. I know a woman who attended one of those meetings. She did not go to share her experiences with the minister. She went to tell the minister her opinion, publically.

"I am committed," the minister goes on, "to working with you to build something better ... And so is the Ministry of Education. We want to get this right."

The minister concludes with yet more thanks. "This long weekend is a well-deserved break," she writes, "and I hope you're making the most of it. I once again thank you for your continued hard work – education in greater Christchurch is the better for it."

There are two possible interpretations of this letter. One is that the minister has undergone a conversion. She has at last understood the role of schools and the importance of teachers.

The other is that this is a PR exercise and that, by sucking up to teachers and spouting patronising platitudes, she is pretending to have undergone a conversion to keep her job.

The Dominion Post