Education secretary quits job

VERNON SMALL
Last updated 15:04 19/12/2012
Lesley Longstone
STACY SQUIRES/Fairfax NZ
LESLEY LONGSTONE: It has been a tough year.

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Prime Minister John Key is backing Education Minister Hekia Parata over her handling of a breakdown in relations with Education Secretary Lesley Longstone.

Key said through a spokesman that he had complete confidence in Parata as education minister after Longstone's resignation today sparked calls for Parata to leave the portfolio.

State Services Comissioner Iain Rennie said strained relations between Parata and Longstone were largely behind the resignation, which comes a year into Longstone's five-year contract.

He said  there would be a payout reflecting Longstone's $500,000-plus-a-year job had ended early.

Rennie would not confirm the size of the payout, but it could be hundreds of thousands of dollars.

The decision for Longstone to quit was made two to three weeks ago, Rennie said.

"The last six months have been especially challenging,'' he said.

''Despite the best efforts of Lesley to work through a number of issues, there now needs to be focus on rebuilding critical relationships that have been strained.

''Lesley and I have decided the best interests of the ministry will be served by her stepping down.'' 

He said the strained relationship with Parata was a factor in the decision.

Parata thanked Longstone for her efforts leading the ministry.

"It has been a difficult period and there have been a series of tough issues to deal with," she said.

"Our Government is working hard to ensure that all our children get a better education. I continue to be focused on raising achievement in our schools so that our kids have the opportunities they need to reach their potential."

Parata said she would make no further comment on Longstone's departure, but wished her well.

Longstone will complete her role on February 8.

"Lesley and I have agreed on a package. Further details of this package will be released in the new year once details are finalised," Rennie said.

Former public service chief executive Peter Hughes had been appointed acting secretary of education.

Hughes was former head of the Ministry of Social Development.

Labour and the Greens are calling for Parata to stand down, saying Longstone had taken the blame for her "stuff-ups".

Labour MP Chris Hipkins said Parata needed to follow Longstone's lead and resign.

"Hekia Parata has been a disaster as education minister,'' he said.

''Everything she has touched she has stuffed up, from class sizes and school closures to Novopay and charter schools. Her tenure as minister has been a series of blunders, botch-ups and bungles.

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"It is just not tenable for Hekia Parata to continue as education minister. She is not up to the job, her credibility is shot and New Zealand's children deserve better." 

He said he was not surprised the relationship between the minister and Longstone was strained.  

"Hekia Parata has tried to blame everyone but herself. She might want to point the finger Lesley Longstone, the ministry and her officials, but the buck stops with the minister,'' he said.

"She is responsible for the litany of failings in education this year. The prime minister should think long and hard whether she is up to the job."

Green party co-leader Metiria Turei said the Government needed someone to take the blame for Parata's "stuff ups".

Rennie said Longstone's severance package fell within the auditor-general's guidelines for such payments in the public sector.

Referring to the strains between Parata and Longstone, he said it was "fair to say the issues between the minister  and chief executive had been raised with me by the minster and chief executive".

Rennie left the door open to Longstone being appointed elsewhere in the public service and said she was a highly competent and dedicated individual.

He said it was not the first time relations between a minister and chief executive had become strained, but usually that was resolved and "most of that never becomes public".

He referred to former corrections minister Judith Collins refusing to express confidence in Corrections boss Barry Matthews, but that situation had been resolved satisfactorily.

There have been a series of difficulties at the ministry which has been under fire over the Novopay payroll debacle, the Christchurch schools merger and closure consultation process, the court-ordered u-turn of the closure of Nelson's Salisbury school and the blunder and backdown over increased class sizes.

In October, Longstone created controversy when she wrote in the Education Ministry's annual report that New Zealand could not claim to have a world-class education system because Maori and Pacifika children and children from poor communities were underperforming.

- Stuff

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