Editorial: Chief executive not solely to blame

Departing Education Secretary Lesley Longstone has paid the price for the embarrassing headlines that have bedevilled her ministry this year. She has lost her job.

She should not be the only casualty.

Prime Minister John Key is sticking by Education Minister Hekia Parata for now, but it will be startling if he does not use the reshuffle caused by the appointment of Primary Industries Minister David Carter to the vacant Speaker's chair to appoint a new education minister.

Ms Longstone has presided over the worst year for a major ministry since Christine Rankin crashed Work and Income NZ on to the rocks of public opinion in 1999. Under Ms Longstone's stewardship, the ministry has stumbled from cock-up to cock-up to cock-up.

A planned increase in class sizes has had to be abandoned because of the public backlash against it. Plans to merge, close and restructure Christchurch schools in the wake of the Christchurch earthquakes are in disarray for the same reason. A judge has ruled the planned closure of a residential school for girls with special needs unlawful and, four months after the introduction of the new Novopay pay system, school staff are still being under- and over-paid.

However, Ms Longstone's has not been the only hand on the tiller. She has been ably assisted by the minister with whom her relationship has become so strained that State Services Commissioner Iain Rennie had no choice but to negotiate Ms Longstone's departure.

With the possible exception of the Novopay debacle - a legacy of the last Labour government - the common theme in each of the ministry's cock-ups has been that they have been avoidable.

There have been other common themes too - a lack of attention to detail, a lack of foresight, and a lack of familiarity with the sector.

A case can be made for modestly increasing class sizes to lift the standard of teaching, but before abandoning the conventional wisdom that smaller classes equate to better education, that case needs to be made. The decline in Christchurch's population was always going to result in some schools closing and others having to merge, but rather than leaving the details to bureaucrats in Wellington, the ministry should have co-opted Christchurch principals and school boards into the process.

And the minister should not have needed a judge to tell her that relocating vulnerable girls to a residential school for special-needs boys in Christchurch would put them at increased risk of sexual and physical abuse.

The Education Ministry is one of the biggest and most important government departments. It has an annual budget of $12 billion. In its hands rests the future of children and the country itself.

This Government is rightly demanding excellence from teachers. It should be delivering the same itself but it has failed to do so. Ms Parata, who has a reputation for ignoring advice, cannot duck responsibility for her share in the debacle.

The prime minister should act to restore public confidence in the education system.

The Dominion Post