Editorial: Education deserves better than this

Last updated 13:00 20/12/2012

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OPINION: School's out - and not just for pupils and teachers.

The term has ended with the resignation - encouraged, if not forced - of the Secretary of Education, Lesley Longstone, whose time at the Ministry of Education was both short and controversial. Since moving from the United Kingdom to take on the role just over a year ago, Mrs Longstone has been embroiled in a wide range of "issues". Her decision to stand down is appropriate.

The ministry has been under the blowtorch over Christchurch school closures and merger proposals, class sizes, the Novopay payroll debacle, charter schools, international rankings and New Zealand education's "long tail", the release of national standards data and closures of residential schools - including a failed attempt by the Government to close Richmond's Salisbury school for girls with special educational, emotional or social needs.

That Mrs Longstone has been first to feel the heat is no surprise. Clearly, regardless of where fault lies, Ms Longstone's key relationships have become strained - with her minister, with other ministry staff, and with other sector leaders. The big question remains: Was she forced out in order to protect Education Minister Hekia Parata, whose own performance clearly has been lacking, or did she choose to leave an environment that has become increasingly toxic in the past year? Whatever the truth, the golden parachute will allow a soft landing.

Ms Parata has simply acknowledged the resignation by statement. "It's been a difficult period and there have been a series of tough issues to deal with," she said. Perhaps she realises whatever she says will be seized on by her critics to justify growing calls for her to fall on her sword, so it is better to keep quiet.

State Services Commissioner Iain Rennie says he has been in "talks" with Mrs Longstone for about a month. He's not saying whether Mrs Parata had a hand in the resignation, which says enough in itself. He adds that Mrs Longstone is highly capable and committed, and he would consider employing her again if a suitable job was available.

Perhaps his words are genuine. However, Mrs Longstone already had plans to spend Christmas in England, and will now return for a few weeks to clear out her desk and tie loose ends. It seems more likely that she will have been thoroughly disillusioned by her experiences here and will already have started sending out work feelers around her contacts back home.

Prime Minister John Key has continued to support his minister but surely her days in the role are numbered. It would surprise no one if she were to be moved from a difficult portfolio that is clearly beyond her, during a Cabinet mini-reshuffle over the summer break. Ms Parata has failed to front up at times and is again missing in action. What happened to ministerial responsibility?

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The National Party's annual conference will be held in Nelson next year. Will local MP Nick Smith - himself a former Education Minister - be back in Cabinet and in his old role long before then? Dr Smith has made the odd mistake during his political career, but would be a far safer pair of hands in this challenging position than the incumbent.

- The Nelson Mail

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