Shearer hits at Nats' weak spot

When the nation's leader is overseas, it's a good time for pretenders to the position to make a splash.

Labour leader David Shearer has frustrated party supporters by being largely ineffectual in the role, so they will be pleased his speech yesterday about education has become a talking point.

It helps, too, that Prime Minister John Key is busy being a statesman overseas, so the National Party's ability to counter is hamstrung a little.

Mr Shearer is proposing free food for all children at the country's 650 poorest schools, he has ruled out performance pay for teachers, marked out ground substantially different from the Government's on National Standards and promised an extension to reading recovery programmes.

The food could cost the Government up to $19 million a year. Extending reading recovery could cost $20m a year.

"For those who say the country can't afford this, I have a clear message for them. We can't afford not to," Mr Shearer said.

The speech was well received, but Labour's sudden enthusiasm for its leader feels overdone, and his speech is not beyond criticism.

Cliches about education being an investment in the future are not useful. And some of Mr Shearer's positions seem to be more about pleasing teacher unions than making things better for children.

He is opposed to moderating National Standards nationally, but says Labour will bring in "clear and easy-to-understand report cards" so parents will know if their child's school is up to standard. How will this be measured?

But he has hit on some good points.

There can be no dispute that children learn better at school if they have eaten breakfast.

It is presumably widely accepted that too many children arrive at school on empty stomachs.

And it is clear that reading recovery programmes are effective.

So there is no doubt Mr Shearer's proposals would result in better learning outcomes for children. Whether they would do so efficiently is another matter.

And there is a flipside. The state has a high enough opinion of its own parenting ability without assuming more responsibility in that area.

Mr Shearer himself signalled there might be an issue there: "I hear people argue that this is the responsibility of parents. We can debate that endlessly, but it won't change this reality: tomorrow morning kids will turn up to school hungry."

Presented with that argument, who would argue the state should not step in?

The reality is the state already makes a significant contribution.

It's a matter of degree, and where spending has the most effect, but it's also worth considering the mindset behind the proposed changes.

It just so happens that Labour MP Louisa Wall is also calling for a change in the school entrance age, allowing schools to start teaching pupils as young as 4.

"Too many of our kids aren't prepared for school," Ms Wall said. "It hasn't made sense to me for a long time why we've commodified the early years, making early childhood education only available to those who can afford it."

This is a clever little line of argument, but the direction is a worrying one - more public, less private; more state control, less private choice; more state responsibility, less parent responsibility.

And I wonder if the idea of allowing children to be children is being missed.

Nobody actually argues for less parent responsibility, but I wonder if the state's efforts to boost its own responsibility amount to much the same thing.

If there is not an anti-parent mindset within Labour, there is certainly an anti-private sector one and it is clear enough that the party fancies the state in taking up some parenting roles.

Probably, the party has too much faith in the state.

An alternative approach is to think up ways to strengthen the family unit. But such a suggestion would probably draw blank stares from policy analysts.

We have become so used to calls for earlier intervention, more state spending and better communication between government departments that it is easy to fall into the trap of thinking solutions must lie in government policy.

The No 1 determining factor for how well a child will perform at school is the child's home environment.

Taking responsibility away from parents might actually undermine families. There is a risk of encouraging increased dependency on the state.

But Labour knows it can only benefit from being associated with the welfare of children.

National is vulnerable on education after the class-sizes backdown and because any reform it is keen on is opposed by the teaching sector.

It is also potentially vulnerable on poverty.

Mr Shearer has laid down the challenge. It will be interesting to see how the Government responds.

* Grant Miller is the Manawatu Standard's head of content and a politics junkie.

Manawatu Standard