Business model unsuited to schools

Education is turning out to be a sensitive topic for the Government these days. Or it could be a political disaster.

Just this week, we saw the weird events over the government-instigated report into possible dodgy dealings at the national organisation for kohanga reo. At a late night press conference the Minister of Education, Hekia Parata, announced an independent report into questionable financial transactions showed everyone was in the clear. Nothing to see here.

She said a subsidiary organisation wasn't investigated, even though that organisation is funded from the public money received by the national organisation. And it was the subsidiary that was spending money on wedding dresses and other expenses unrelated to teaching te reo.

The very next day the minister laid a complaint against the subsidiary with the Serious Fraud Office.

How does a total about-turn like that happen? Here's what I think.

National Party ministers are naturally shy of questioning private organisations. That's not surprising. To be selected as a National MP these days you have to show you've been in business, and it helps if you can show you got wealthy as a result. When it comes to business, this government has no questions to ask. Business is sacred. No matter how low the standard of conduct, business can do no wrong.

Even when a private organisation is heavily reliant on taxpayer funding, the mere fact it is private means it shouldn't be questioned. There are exceptions to this rule. If the private organisation is a trade union, then the government will happily interfere in its internal decision- making. If it's an environmental group doing public advocacy then it is under suspicion.

So, when a private-looking subsidiary drew public attention because of allegations of irregular spending, it didn't compute with the National Party. How could it possibly be irregular? It's private and it can do what it likes.

Fortunately, this tends to last only as long as the public outcry forces the Government to change tack, which Hekia Parata did when she sicked the Serious Fraud Office onto the hapless kohanga reo subsidiary.

But it raises other questions about what this Government is doing in education.

Steven Joyce is in Indonesia drumming up education business in the form of more fee-paying students. For him, tertiary education is a business opportunity. But this itself is causing problems. The rise in fee- paying overseas students has also resulted in new business opportunities in writing student essays and other forms of cheating. It has caused universities and polytechs to tread carefully with overseas students, sometimes providing special help and giving the appearance they will bend over backwards to make sure the fee- paying students pass, thus earning a reputation with future potential students and boosting future business. Look at what the Government is doing with the governing boards of universities. They want to remove staff and community reps. Steven Joyce wants university boards to look more like commercial boards - smaller with less accountability to the community. Because that's what private companies do.

They did the same with polytechs. And look what happened at WITT. The new commercial board at WITT thought they were less accountable to the community, and pushed out the top- performing chief executive, Richard Handley, for reasons we still have not had explained to us.

There are other measures this government has taken that looks like a slow transformation of the education sector to an industry run along private lines.

Last weekend, Hekia Parata flew the kite of performance funding. It wasn't clear whether her latest proposal is just for funding for schools or includes performance pay for teachers. Either way, it shows this Government's obsession with imposing commercial practices on to public activities that aren't commercial.

If you're a school in a poor area of town, with kids who may not get breakfast before school or who are cold or without shoes at school, are they seriously suggesting the school and its ability to get its kids to perform will be compared to a school in a more well-heeled suburb?

And if it's to be performance pay for teachers, what part of their performance are they to be paid for? The basic principle of performance pay is to reward for things that are in the worker's control. Which is why performance pay is seldom successful. We pay teachers to impart knowledge and motivate curiosity and learning. We pay principals and school leaders to support and mentor teachers. If teachers are under-performing, let the managers manage them. Performance pay won't make a blind bit of difference.

Running schools like a business won't work. Private enterprise principles aren't suited to education. The only reason a minister would want to follow this path is to avoid accountability if things go wrong. This isn't bad just for education. It's bad for politics.

Taranaki Daily News