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

Last updated 09:01 03/02/2010

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.

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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Post a comment
Spearmint Sally   #1   09:10 am Feb 03 2010

Phew a new blog to read. Too long between blogs.

eddie   #2   09:10 am Feb 03 2010

Unions are a thing of the past, crush them all.

RichardRight   #3   09:13 am Feb 03 2010

Congratulations to The Herald on it's editorial today....this would not have been printed in the MSM in NZ as little as a few months back....the house of cards tumbles....

Bill Brown   #4   09:15 am Feb 03 2010

Class size has been shown over and over again not to make any useful difference. The key is good teachers and the ERO report last year showed us too many primary school teachers and principals don't know what they are doing. They have no accountability at all for the eight years of schooling we taxpayers fund so too many kids enter high school unable to read or write to the most basic level.

Good for National to try to make things better. We won't make any progress as a nation unless all our citizens are fully literate.

When I saw Trevor Mallard step off the union protest bus they lost any last shred of credibility with me. It's just a Labour campaign and they've got the unions paying for it.

Joshua Teal   #5   09:17 am Feb 03 2010

Colin, you make some good points. I notice that you mentioned Anne Tolley only once - yet she is the person responsible for rolling out the program. Will she become the scape goat when things go wrong? Or do they need a hard-as-nails minister in there to do battle with NZEI? Once again John Key is the critical piece in the puzzle.

On the other hand are the unions simply taking the opportunity to flex their mussles and show the government who's boss? Its hard to get past the idea that the NZEI is just protecting some incompetent teachers. The ERO has some disturbing things to say about the quality of some of our primary school teaching.

jennifer   #6   09:31 am Feb 03 2010

More evidence that the Tories have learned nothing from their own history. Setting up the evil communist unions as the boogie man is just so 1950s. Has anyone told Key the cold war is over? Seems reds under the bed is alive and well in the Tory psyche. I'm waiting for them to single out one individual teacher or union official to crush on television, just like the solo mum who dared speak out against the new totalitarian Tory regime.

Kelly   #7   09:38 am Feb 03 2010

Colin. The NZ public have stated they wanted accountability. They wanted to know what their kids report card actually said. They were not prepared to keep having 30% of kids leave school with little to no reading or writting skills. The status quo was not acceptable.

As a Parent of Primary and High school age kids I am very happy with the new standards. Finally. This country has to get away from mediocrity. No wonder all of the labour party...sorry I mean unions are all upset.

the Herald cartoon today sums it up perfectly

eddie   #8   09:46 am Feb 03 2010

Bill Brown #4

"When I saw Trevor Mallard step off the union protest bus they lost any last shred of credibility with me"

Rather Ironic don't you think, this is the same man who closed so many schools and was in the process of closing more when his boss stepped in and told him to stop....One of the rare occasions where Helen actually listened to the public. Mallard must feel like a fox that's been invited into the hen house. If the Unions and Labour were not practically one and the same thing, Mallard would be told to sling his hook!

Danny   #9   09:46 am Feb 03 2010

The NZEI has been doing incredibly outageous things. I don't need to give any examples but you'll probably know. To cut a long story short, I've seen them jeopardize students' educational well being for their own self interest, I've seen this experience first hand and it's a shame. Though I don't exactly agree with Keys new plan either, nor the way he's executing it

melbournian   #10   09:49 am Feb 03 2010

I must have had my head buried in a cave when the details of how the N.S.'s are going to work was outlined, so I'm poking in the dark a little bit - but to me finding out whether little Johnny is at level A, B or C is neither here nor there. Once everyone meets some appropriate minimum standard, surely the focus should then be on making everyone better.

If the kid who is at the 95th percentile doesn't improve to the 97th percentile then the system has failed. Likewise, if a kid at the 40th percentile improves to the 50th percentile, that's a win.

I don't want to know what level the kids at a school are performing at, I want to know by what percentage they have improved. That will tell us which schools are doing their job properly.

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