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Class-size backdown 'to haunt National'

MARIKA HILL AND MICHELLE ROBINSON
Last updated 05:00 10/06/2012

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It was the most significant and embarrassing backdown of Prime Minister John Key's second-term Government.

And it will have left senior ministers "shaken" and cautious about how National so badly mishandled selling a major policy, and misread the public mood, says political pundit Chris Trotter.

A week before the Budget, Education Minister Hekia Parata began selling the first big policy of her tenure, a "small change" to the teacher-pupil ratio.

"We are opting for quality not quantity, better teaching not more teachers," she said. Within a day of the Budget, the true scale of that "small change" began to emerge.

Of New Zealand's 2436 schools, 1010 would face cuts, with some set to lose as many as eight teachers.

Schools across the country were hit, including in the well-heeled electorates of ministers. Teachers, their unions, and principals began to unify, and more worryingly for the Government, parents joined in.

On Thursday, just 14 days after the Budget and in a U-turn of staggering dimensions, the Government backed down.

Left-wing commentator Trotter says education politics always featured battles, but before going to war, the Government should have counted its foes and its allies.

"They will be shaken by this and will think hard before putting something like it out there again, especially without doing the work they obviously did on National Standards."

Trotter said the Government took on and beat teachers over National Standards, and instead of capitulating on the class size policy should have been celebrating that, with just 68 schools that submitted charters failing to include targets, well down on the 500 talking last year of challenging the system.

He said "perhaps buoyed by such success", the Government gambled and lost on who was on its side, because unlike National Standards, which appeared in election promises, increased class sizes "came from nowhere".

It was "absolutely stupid" for the Government to be testing policies by shock-announcement, he said.

Even right-wing commentator Matthew Hooton said the backdown would haunt the Government, and that bowing to public pressure was a sign of weakness.

The next issue on the horizon was cuts to police pay, but the police union would look at the education experience and know if it "acted with firmness and resolve" it could also achieve a backdown, he said.

Trotter said a backdown in the face of the polls was also seen during the first term, in the U-turn on mining in national parks.

Hooton said the right was becoming concerned at the Government's sensitivity to popularity. It had also failed to make any bold cost-cutting moves, such as raising the retirement age to 67, adjusting superannuation, Working for Families or KiwiSaver, he said.

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