Education secretary quits

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Last updated 13:38 19/12/2012
Fairfax NZ

State Services Commissioner Iain Rennie has confirmed Education Secretary Lesley Longstone has resigned.

Lesley Longstone
STACY SQUIRES/Fairfax NZ
LESLEY LONGSTONE: It has been a tough year.
Iain Rennie
PHIL REID/Fairfax NZ
State Services Commissioner Iain Rennie announces he has accepted the resignation of Education Secretary Lesley Longstone.

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Education Secretary Lesley Longstone has been forced to quit over a strained relationship with Education Minister Hekia Parata.

Ms Longstone's resignation, which could cost taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars, will raise questions about how long Parata can remain in the portfolio, after a series of blunders.

State Services Commissioner Iain Rennie has confirmed the decision about Education Secretary Lesley Longstone resigning was made two to three weeks ago. 

He said today said he had accepted the resignation, at a press conference.

"The last six months have been especially challenging.

''Despite the best efforts of Lesley to work through a number of issues there now needs to be focus on rebuilding critical relationships that have been strained.

''Lesley and I have decided the best interests of the ministry will be served by her stepping down,'' Rennie said.

He confirmed strains in the relationship with education minister Hekia Parata were an important factor in the decision.

Parata thanked Longstone for her efforts leading the ministry.

"It has been a difficult period and there have been a series of tough issues to deal with," she said.

"Our Government is working hard to ensure that all our children get a better education. I continue to be focused on raising achievement in our schools so that our kids have the opportunities they need to reach their potential."

Parata said she would be making no further comment on Longstone's departure, but wished her well for the future.

Longstone will complete her role on February 8.

"Lesley and I have agreed on a package. Further details of this package will be released in the new year once details are finalised," Rennie said.

Former public service chief executive Peter Hughes had been appointed acting secretary of education.

 

Referring to the strains between Parata and Longstone, Rennie said it was "fair to say the issues between the minister and chief executive had been raised with me by the minster and chief executive."

He confirmed Longstone had four years remaining in her contract, and the severance package included a consideration for the fact the contract had been ended early.

Rennie left the door open to Longstone being appointed elsewhere in the public service and said she was a highly competent and dedicated individual.

He said it was not the first time relations between a minister and chief executive had become strained but usually that was resolved and "most of that never becomes public".

He referred to former Corrections Minister Judith Collins refusing to express confidence in Corrections boss Barry Matthews, but that situation had been resolved satisfactorily.

Longstone was appointed to the role in November last year for a five-year term.

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She came from England, where she held a senior role at the Department for Children, Schools and Families.

The mother of three left two of her children at university in Britain, while her youngest son attends Wellington College.

There have been a series of difficulties at the ministry which has been under fire over the Novopay payroll debacle, the Christchurch schools merger and closure consultation process, the court-ordered U-turn of the closure of Nelson's Salisbury school and the blunder and backdown over increased class sizes.

In October Longstone created controversy when she wrote in the Education Ministry's annual report that New Zealand could not claim to have a world-class education system because Maori and Pacifika children and children from poor communities were underperforming.

OPPOSITION CALLS ON MINISTER TO RESIGN

Labour and the Greens are calling on Education Minister Hekia Parata to stand down, saying Longstone had taken the blame for her "stuff ups".

Labour MP Chris Hipkins said Parata needed to follow Longstone's lead and resign. 

"Hekia Parata has been a disaster as education minister.  Everything she has touched she has stuffed up - from class sizes and school closures to Novopay and charter schools - her tenure as minister has been a series of blunders, botch-ups and bungles.

'It is just not tenable for Hekia Parata to continue as education minister.  She is not up to the job, her credibility is shot and New Zealand's children deserve better," Hipkins said. 

He said he wasn't suprised the relationship between the minister and Longstone was strained.  

"Hekia Parata has tried to blame everyone but herself.  She might want to point the finger Lesley Longstone, the ministry and her officials, but the buck stops with the minister. She is responsible for the litany of failings in education this year...The prime minister should think long and hard whether she is up to the job."

Green party co-leader Metiria Turei said the Government needed someone to take the blame for Parata's "stuff ups".

"Lesley Longstone looks like she is its woman," Turei said. 

"It must have been incredibly difficult working for a minister who didn't communicate, and blamed Ms Longstone for her own failures ... This minster has overseen a massively destructive year in education and must go."

KEY REFUSES TO COMMENT

Prime Minister John Key is refusing to make himself available to talk about the shock resignation of Education Secretary Lesley Longstone.

Mr Key's spokeswoman said today he would not be taking any questions about whether he retained confidence in Education Minister Hekia Parata, despite calls for her head over the mounting list of embarrassments in the portfolio under her watch.

Longstone's resgnation was announced this morning by State Services Commissioner Iain Rennie who confirmed a strained relationship with Parata was the main reason.

He made it clear that Longstone's position had become untenable.

Mr Rennie also confirmed there would be a severance package but would not say how much. But it will reflect the fact that she still has four years of her contract to run - suggesting any payout could be in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. 

The SSC has not confirmed Longstone's salary but her predecessor was on between $500,000 and $550,000 a year.

There have been calls for Parata's head over the resignation, which follows a series of blunders in education, including the Novopay debacle, Christchurch school closures, a budget blunder over class sizes and other problems.

A spokeswoman for Mr Key this morning refused to take any questions on Ms Parata's handling of the situation and said repeatedly that Mr Key was not available.

She would not say why he was not available or why he would not answer questions.

EDUCATORS REACT

New Zealand Educational Institute national secretary Paul Goulter said Ms Longstone was just the ''fall guy'' for a set of widely unpopular policies promoted by Government in education.

''And while there have been difficulties, she had an unenviable task in trying to promote policies that were contrary to New Zealand's quality public education system.''

Her resignation solved nothing, because it was difficult for anyone in those circumstances to succeed, he said.

''Making her the fall guy is in fact an error. You can put whoever you like in the position, but the task is impossible.''

Post Primary Teachers' Association president Robin Duff was not surprised by Longstone's resignation, but he would ''welcome'' the removal of Hekia Parata and Craig Foss' duties too.

''We've had the most massive, most negative and probably the most destructive attacks on education we've seen in years.''

Ms Longstone walked into a very toxic environment, and it had been a sequence of disasters in implementing changes since her arrival. But it was her role to advice the minister and ministry on the pros and cons of their actions.

''I believe something had to give, it appears at the moment it is the secretary.''

New Zealand Principals' Federation (NZPF) President Paul Drummond said Ms Longstone was destined to fail, and without the necessary cultural understandings and experience.

''I believe there always was a mismatch between the secretary's undoubted qualities and the New Zealand context.

''Coupled with the wrong educational policy this was the wrong appointment for New Zealand.''

- The Dominion Post

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