School fix-it experts to get top dollar

FIRST SHOT: Lifting standards in education is set to be a key plank of John Key's National’s election campaign.
FIRST SHOT: Lifting standards in education is set to be a key plank of John Key's National’s election campaign.

Struggling school principals could be sacked and successful leaders offered top dollar to replace them under the Government's radical plan to arrest the slide in performance of New Zealand students.

Prime Minister John Key kicked off the election year yesterday with his annual state-of-the-nation speech - and targeted schools for a big shake-up if National gets back into power.

He acknowledged that the reforms were based in part on the success of similar schemes in countries like Singapore, whose children have shot past New Zealand students in international rankings in recent years.

Under the changes, National is promising a $10,000 to $50,000 boost for top performers through the creation of four new positions - executive principals, expert teachers, lead teachers and change principals.

To be rolled out from next year, there will be more than 6000 of the new positions created, including 250 executive principals, who will be paid $40,000 a year to mentor other schools in their community.

About 1000 expert teachers will get an extra $20,000 a year to work in their own and other schools to lift performance in specialist areas like maths, science, digital technology and literacy.

A further 5000 lead teachers will be paid an extra $10,000 a year for acting as role models for other teachers in their community.

Boards of trustees worried about their school's performance will get a boost with the creation of new "change principal" positions, which will attract a $50,000 a year allowance.

The allowance is designed to bridge the pay gap with top principals at bigger schools, which currently acts as a disincentive for top performers to shift to smaller, struggling ones.

Education Minister Hekia Parata yesterday confirmed some boards may seek to replace their existing principals with "change principals" but said there would be strict criteria and performance standards for schools to qualify for the extra funding. The Government anticipates about 20 such positions coming up each year.

The Opposition reaction was muted, with Labour leader David Cunliffe labelling the reforms underwhelming.

He signalled that Labour was looking at even wider reform - an acknowledgement that education is set to be one of the big battleground issues of this year's election.

But the reforms seemed to hit the right spot with some sector groups - they were hailed as a "game changer" by the Secondary Principals Association. President Tom Parsons said the changes were "tremendous".

"They've taken the politics out of this and are looking at the welfare and the benefits for every New Zealander at school now, and in the future."

The secondary teachers union, a long-time opponent of the Government, was also cautiously supportive.

Post Primary Teachers Association president Angela Roberts said the policy sounded promising, because it was being resourced. It was a good direction to move towards - and away from a system that was struggling with teachers who were "stretched to capacity", she said.

But the primary teachers union, the NZEI, criticised the Government for creating a new "elite" group of "change principals and expert teachers" and said the proposals did not address poverty and deprivation as the biggest reasons children did not succeed at school.

Worth $360 million over four years, the new allowances represent a big boost for some teachers - secondary school teachers are currently paid an average $74,000 a year while primary teachers get an average $70,000 a year.

Principal pay varies widely but the Ministry of Education cites an average $116,000, though some can get closer to $200,000.

Mr Key said New Zealand's education performance relative to the rest of the world had been sliding for the last 15 years.

As a small trading nation New Zealand students had to be better educated than their international counterparts, not just on a par.

"[There will be] a hell of a lot of New Zealand parents who will greet this announcement with joy and pleasure that we're actually focusing on what really matters to them. Because when they enrol their kids at school in the next week or so, if they hear that their child is going to be taught by a teacher that in the general view of others is not that great, their heart will sink a little bit.

"Because it's their child and they care about their future."

The Dominion Post