Kick the tyres before driving policy

17:00, Jun 11 2012

The stylish Hekia Parata was bound to stumble at some stage. The extraordinary thing is that the education minister's slip should have been over something as fundamental as school class sizes.

And the unforgiveable sin was not to have prepared her caucus, Cabinet and Government support parties, who were all left unready for the storm the numbers would provoke.

Some of her party colleagues are probably secretly delighted to see the rapidly promoted high-flier get her comeuppance. Some have not forgiven her for speaking out against former National leader Don Brash's assault on the Treaty of Waitangi gravy train.

Her outspoken criticism of Dr Brash's Orewa speech, and her resignation from the party, was seen by some as disloyal, particularly as the comments struck a resounding chord with the electorate. National suddenly surged in the political polls.

The Labour government, panicked by the reaction, performed five U-turns on Treaty gravy-train policies. National came within a whisker of winning the 2005 election.

Ms Parata is regarded as a protege of Finance Minister Bill English. He was ousted by Dr Brash from the party leadership and was himself no fan of the anti-Treaty rhetoric. Mr English and his new treasury secretary, Gabriel Makhlouf, have for some time been publicly supporting research that shows slightly increased class sizes are not detrimental, especially when the money saved can be spent on teacher quality, which is the real issue.

However, both were missing in action when Ms Parata ran into her firestorm. And that is not surprising. Smaller class sizes have been a classic objective for education ministers of all governments over the years.

To suddenly abandon that philosophy, and advocate larger classes for the supposedly greater good of improving teacher quality, was asking for trouble. It needed much greater groundwork and preparation, not only for the Cabinet and caucus, but more importantly for parents if this were ever to be sold as a realistic solution for a time of economic stringency. This needed more than just a few published articles. An explanatory booklet for every parent would have been a start.

Ms Parata's policy also had the huge disadvantage of thrusting parents into the arms of the teacher unions. The Government's national standards policy on the other hand, while also vilified by the teacher unions, was largely welcomed by parents fed up with the politically correct jargon that permeates report cards and the view that there are no failures, just different measures of success.

It is to be hoped that the class-size backdown and Labour Party warning shots do not dissuade Mr Makhlouf, who has taken a refreshingly outspoken approach in his short time in the job.

Among other things, he has condemned the outbreak of middle-class welfare under the last Labour government, with its interest-free student loans and Working for Families policies. He also, in effect, chides National for not being willing to address the superannuation age issue.

Ms Parata, touted as a future leader as a result of her widespread experience in the Wellington public sector, will now have to prove herself afresh. Clearly class sizes are off the agenda, although she may well have succeeded in this had she demanded in advance to know the effect on all schools of the changes.

This would have alerted everyone to the more serious effect of the new policy on intermediate and middle schools before it was too late to make changes. Assurances that 90 per cent of schools would lose less than one full-time teacher, or possibly even gain a teacher, were then totally lost in the rush to condemn the small number of worst-case scenarios.

This was the biggest Government backtrack since plans to mine on Conservation land. The Government's strategy committee will be inclined to kick the tyres of new policy a bit more thoroughly from now on. It is extraordinary that no-one demanded a check on the details of this before it turned into such a debacle.


The Dominion Post