OPINION: The difference a good teacher makes to a classroom is obvious to every student and most parents.
Why, then, is the Government having so much difficulty convincing the public of the wisdom of investing more in teacher quality and slightly less in teacher numbers?
On the evidence of the past few days, the answer is that the mediocrity in some of the nation's classrooms is matched only by the mediocrity within the Education Ministry and the Beehive.
The case for spending more on training should be incontrovertible. Over the past decade, teacher numbers have increased by about 6000 while student numbers have barely changed. However, as Treasury Secretary Gabriel Makhlouf pointed out earlier this year, results have stagnated. On average, New Zealand students compare favourably with their peers internationally, but the system is still failing three out of every 10 students. That is the number who leave school without NCEA level 2 the minimum qualification considered necessary for the modern world. As he also pointed out, parental wealth continues to be a bigger determinant of student performance here than elsewhere. In other words, our teachers are good at educating children from well-to-do families, but not as good as their counterparts overseas at educating children from poorer backgrounds.
For having the courage to tackle a politically contentious issue, John Key's Government should be roundly congratulated. Instead, it finds itself mired in yet another debilitating row with teacher unions, principals and political rivals because the formula devised to make savings within the system to fund extra teacher development unfairly penalises intermediate schools and primary schools with intermediates attached. While 90 per cent of schools stand to lose, at worst, only one teaching position, some stand to lose up to seven.
A hasty backtrack by the Government has seen Education Minister Hekia Parata guarantee that no school will lose more than two teaching positions over the next three years. She says the Government was always aware the new formula would throw up some strange results and that it was always its intention to put in place transitional arrangements. She has convinced no-one.
The guarantee was unveiled on Tuesday, but it was almost 24 hours before Ms Parata was able to answer questions about how much it would cost.
The impression left was of policy being made on the hoof. A rational readjustment of spending priorities has been made to look like an ideologically driven exercise.
New Zealand needs to lift student performance to compete in a fast-changing world. It particularly needs to do a better job of educating the Maori and Pacific students who are most likely to leave school without qualifications.
Lifting the quality of teachers is the best way to do that. However, if the Government is to gain the confidence of parents it has to look like it knows what it is doing. The Education Ministry, the minister's office and the minister need to do their homework.
- The Dominion Post