National plans to increase the amount of funding for private schools and may also allow the sector to build and operate state education institutions.
National leader John Key unveiled the party's plans in an interview with The Press yesterday after being challenged by Education Minister Steve Maharey to "come clean" on National's plans to "privatise" the education sector.
Key also indicated National was likely to ditch bulk-funding of teacher salaries long a point of contention with education sector unions.
He believed the $40 million cap on state funding for the network of independent schools was too low, and this was forcing fees up beyond the reach of middle New Zealand.
"The fees are too high in private schools. This means the system has become too elitist. Obviously that makes the choice of independent schooling increasingly less affordable for many New Zealanders," he said.
Key said independent schools would always represent a small part of the education system, but parents deserved a choice over where they sent their children. "I think a lot of New Zealanders make significant sacrifices to send their children to independent schools."
Key's two children attend private schools in Auckland.
He would not say how National planned to increase funding to independent schools, but it was likely to raise the $40m cap.
"Is there room to move it a little bit? I think so," he said.
Key's remarks follow a week in which National has unveiled plans to part-privatise state-owned enterprises and allow the market to decide how much GPs should charge. They are likely to intensify political debate over the role of the private sector in areas such as health and education.
Key said he did not see why the private sector could not become involved in building and running state schools.
"Do I believe that the private sector could build a school and operate it on behalf of the state? Yes, I do," he said.
Key denied the party was planning to "privatise" the education sector.
"I don't think a wholesale programme of privatisation would be acceptable and nor would we embark on it," he said.
He believed many New Zealanders were interested in allowing the private sector a greater role across the state sector, and Labour's "hysterical" reaction this week was not representative of middle New Zealand.
"I do think we have to move with caution and a great deal of transparency. I want to lead a long-lived government, and one sure way to lead a one-term government is to deceive the public. We won't be doing that."
Asked whether omitting National's plan to lift the cap on GPs' fees from its health discussion document this week was transparent, Key said it was not.
"That was a mistake and we've acknowledged that and learned from it," Key said.
National, however, appears to be planning to cut itself loose from another controversial education policy from the 1990s.
Key said yesterday the party was likely to dump bulk funding as a policy at the next election.
National has endorsed bulk funding of teachers' salaries since it was first mooted in the late 1980s but it has never been introduced beyond a controversial trial because of the vehement opposition of the teacher unions.
National pledged to introduce it in 2005, with then education spokesman Bill English telling Radio New Zealand in June that year: "No ifs, no buts, and no fighting in school communities over whether to have it.
"Everyone is going bulk funding."
Key said education spokeswoman Katherine Rich was not in favour of bulk funding and the party was considering her position. No formal decision had been made and the matter had yet to go before caucus.
Rich said yesterday that bulk funding was "not currently in our thinking" and was "unlikely to form part of the party's 2008 manifesto".
"We're looking at other options to give schools more flexibility in their management locally."
Maharey said he was pleased National was finally releasing some policy.
"There seems to be a very strong commitment to privatisation and allowing markets to operate in places it hadn't worked well in the past. I think it will cause alarm right across the education sector," he said.
"National has been trying to convince New Zealanders that nothing major will change if they become the government but, as this week has shown, their agenda hasn't changed. National is still the privatisation party they were in the 1990s," Maharey said.
The Government had no plans to raise the $40m cap on private school funding, Maharey said.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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