National's standards - a fight it won't win

20:01, Feb 02 2010

In taking on the teacher unions over national standards, Prime Minister John Key is picking a fight he cannot easily win.

The history of the National Party in particular is littered with the corpses of education ministers who thought they could prevail - from Merv Wellington's ridiculous idea of making all school children salute the flag each morning to Wyatt Creech's opposition to pay parity for primary teachers, to Lockwood Smith's plan to bulk-fund secondary school teachers' salaries.

Smith's dream in particular should provide a salutary lesson to Key and Education Minister Anne Tolley as they declare war on the New Zealand Educational Institute (NZEI), the primary teachers' union.

Like national standards, bulk funding was (in the opinion of the National Party) for the good of the country. It would lead to higher standards, more accountability, and more freedom of choice for schools in the way their allocated their staffing. Students would be the winners.

Except the unions didn't see it that way. Indeed, they were implacably opposed. Cue strikes, marches, communities divided, and angry parents and students. The row severely eroded relations between the education sector and the National Party - indeed the divisions have taken 15 years to (partly) heal.

It was also a major distraction for National, employing much of the government's energy over a policy that was doomed to fail.

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Now, I'm not saying bulk-funding didn't have any merit. It might have worked. But you can't bulldoze your way through a sector as highly unionised as teaching without taking the unions with you.

The thing with schools is, they're a lot more plugged in to their local communities than MPs. Parents tend to like their local school, and their local teachers. If teachers are worried, they're worried.

And as Trevor Mallard found out when he closed a bunch of schools when he was education minister, you come between a local community and its school at your peril.

Which is why Key's threat to sack boards of trustees who refuse to introduce national standards is ridiculous. It would be political suicide to do so. Boards are basically parents. Communities support their own. The publicity surrounding any attempt to force schools into national standards would be dreadful.

Are national standards a good idea? I admit I'm not sure. As a parent, I would like more information about how my child's doing. But I don't need to see primary schools ranked in league tables. I accept that a school in Khandallah or Fendalton or Parnell is going to do better in such rankings than those in Naenae, or Aranui, or Penrose.

That says more about simple demography and socioeconomic status than it does about the quality of its teachers.

I'd be happy for the Government to explore the idea further, but only in conjunction with the actual practitioners in the classrooms. Ramming policy through in spite of their strenuous objections makes me uneasy. After all, this isn't a fight over wages and conditions. Teachers' objections are based on educational reasons, and while there may be some vested self-interest involved, I'm prepared to accept the NZEI has some valid concerns.

Key seems to believe that this has become a fight over the quality of our schools and the educational abilities of our teachers - a fundamental good versus evil battle for the upskilling of our children.

Once you start seeing things in black and white, you're on dangerous ground, however. Teacher unions aren't evil, and most teachers are good at their job. Sure, there will be room for improvement. But I've yet to be convinced that introducing more assessment is going to somehow magically improve the quality of our school system, or make us better at maths.

I would have thought if the Government was really serious about improving the quality of primary schools, it might be pumping money into cutting class sizes. Curiously, however, it's done the opposite, and teacher/pupil ratios are increasing.

Even putting the educational arguments aside, however, buying a fight with the teacher unions is bad politics. Key seems to think he can turn public opinion against the NZEI on this one but I think this is unlikely. Far better to take the union with him than try to bash it into submission.

An early sign of the Government's concern over how the public relations war is going is its decision to mobilise its forces and launch a charm offensive to sell the policy, including brochures to every home in the country.

What I don't understand is why Key is dying in a ditch on this. The hallmark of his premiership to date has been his ability to wheeler-deal and negotiate; to extract compromises from seemingly impossible positions. It's served him extremely well and won him grudging admiration even from his political enemies.

I understand the NZEI offered the Government its cooperation in a substantial trial of national standards this year, but this was rejected.

It's almost as if Key is tired of playing Mr Nice Guy and wants to show the steel behind the "relaxed'' Prime Minister.

That's his call, but I think he's picked the wrong issue and the wrong target. The NZEI is a formidable foe.

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