Official goes but disputes remain

ADAM ROBERTS
Last updated 13:00 20/12/2012

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Nelson principals question whether Education Secretary Lesley Longstone's resignation will be enough to change the Government's problem-plagued education policies.

Since the announcement of Mrs Longstone's resignation yesterday, calls have been made for Education Minister Hekia Parata to go as well.

State Services Commissioner Iain Rennie confirmed that strained relations between Ms Parata and Mrs Longstone were largely behind the move, which came just a year into her five-year contract.

The resignation comes after a year containing a series of blunders for the ministry, including a backdown over increased class sizes; the Christchurch schools merger and closure consultation process; the court-ordered reversal of the closure of Richmond's Salisbury School; and the Novopay payroll debacle.

Nelson Central School principal Paul Potaka said the resignation was "classic politics".

"The public servant takes the fall for the political head. I note the politicians are staying as far from the blood-spattered apron as they can."

He said he was not reassured by Ms Longstone's resignation, because problems like the Christchurch reorganisation, Novopay, national standards and charter schools were set up before she arrived.

The real questions were whether her resignation was enough for the Government to rethink its reform movement, and how the communications strategy with the education sector would change, Mr Potaka said.

Nelson College headmaster Gary O'Shea said the resignation was a very Roman sacrifice, and would on its own make no fundamental improvement.

"I would say that this should only be the beginning, but those ‘gnomes' in the Ministry of Education with entrenched power are the ones at fault."

A steady parade of naive and poorly informed ministers had relied totally on their ministry "lackeys" for direction, instead of applying basic common sense and having some genuine understanding of the education portfolio, he said.

"Consult the true repository of knowledge and expertise - those in the front line.

"Principals are not lightweight, moronic, intellectually bereft line managers of someone else's policy. They are community leaders, altruistic, articulate, and passionate believers in doing the very best for the children in front of them.

"It makes me physically sick to envision a sector of such importance, individually and nationally, with a future mired in continued institutional ineptitude."

Henley School principal John Armstrong said there needed to be significant change, and he did not think Mrs Longstone had articulated a clear vision for the ministry. "Her limited contextual understanding was exposed, and she did not connect with the key stakeholders."

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Hampden Street School principal Don McLean said the appointment of Mrs Longstone, a Briton, was unusual, as she came from an education system rated below New Zealand's internationally, and did not know the "Kiwi way".

"The [ministry] will need to find a change manager, but that change is going to need to happen within their ministry before they think about cracking into schools.

"To be honest, if a school performed as badly as the ministry has this year, they would have been slammed by [the Education Review Office], the board would be sacked and the school would go into statutory management."

Nelson MP Nick Smith said he felt for Mrs Longstone, in that a very public resignation came with a huge toll personally, but in the circumstances, it was the right decision.

"The Education Ministry has just had too many serious errors this year. The combination of the debacle of the technology classes at the intermediate age, the controversy around Christchurch reconfiguring [its] school network, recent critical decisions from the High Court on Salisbury, and from the Ombudsman on the Official Information Act.

"The most serious has been the Novopay debacle, because that has impacted on hundreds of teaching staff in Nelson."

Responsibility for that rested fairly and squarely with the ministry, he said.

"You can't expect a minister to sort out how we pay our staff. It's an operational issue, and yet it's been a huge debacle."

Dr Smith said the Government had a big job ahead of it rebuilding confidence in the ministry next year.

He had been in contact with a number of principals and boards of trustees in recent weeks, and their confidence in the ministry had been severely shaken.

They would be relieved by Mrs Longstone's resignation, he said.

"My ambition is to make sure that our schools in Nelson are getting good-quality backup by the Education Ministry.

"I think the problems over Novopay particularly have actually added to schools' problems, rather than actually being an agency that's supporting and helping our schools."

He said he could not comment on the relationship between Ms Parata and Mrs Longstone, because he did not know about it.

Asked whether he had confidence in Ms Parata, Dr Smith said he did "rate" her, but ultimately it was a matter for the prime minister.

- The Nelson Mail

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