It's not all Hekia Parata's fault

It's not all Hekia Parata's fault. That might be a contrary position - particularly heading into this week, where formal decisions on the future of Canterbury schools are to be announced.

The Opposition views the education portfolio as National's Achilles heel. Labour leader David Shearer has put education in his top three push points for this year. Last week the Greens appointed feisty co-leader Metiria Turei as their education spokeswoman. With the backdrop of Novopay, charter schools, and the threat of performance pay for teachers and school closures, the pressure is very much on.

As former education minister Lockwood Smith gave his valedictory speech last week, colleagues and opponents were praising his "encompassing vision" when he held the portfolio. Dr Smith saw the big picture. National's education policy today seems one-dimensional, relentlessly focused on national standards and increasing the proportion of 18-year-olds with NCEA level 2.

Critics point out this is not the be-all and end-all. What about subjects like science and technology? This Government's narrow, piecemeal approach is apparent when reading education ministry papers offering advice on the future of residential schools for the disabled. The Government opted to push ahead and close facilities before developing the wrap-around services students and their parents would need. In the end it lost a court battle (and the trust of more parents).

But who is to blame for this lack of vision? To be fair to Parata, she did not develop National's election policies in the education area. The driving force behind many of the more controversial proposals - class sizes, performance pay, bulk funding - was Deputy Prime Minister Bill English and the Treasury. Her predecessor, Anne Tolley, aborted plans to change class size funding - Parata proved more malleable. Sources indicate earthquake recovery minister Gerry Brownlee has been very hands-on, behind the scenes, in the work on Christchurch schools. Steven Joyce, of course, has a finger in every policy pie.

National's other problem is that it is almost entirely consumed with fighting fires or political battles with the unions.

Which brings me to tomorrow's announcement.

A lot hinges on Parata's performance at tomorrow's press conference.

Her verbal circumlocution is already the subject of much mockery.

A partial backdown is in the wind. National has been polling and Cantabrians like it that the Government appears to be listening.

Associate minister Nikki Kaye has already hinted there will be some good news, the NZEI has called off a planned strike. But it seems schools will close or merge - and the sector would prefer the Government wait a few years, even until after the Census, until things settle. A crowing announcement last week about two new schools was a slap in the face to those schools waiting anxiously for news of their future. Even the most talented, experienced minister would need a dose of luck for such a controversial announcement to go well tomorrow.

Prime Minister John Key has made it clear Parata is staying in the job.

Tomorrow is the first step in her rehabilitation. Beyond that, she needs to prove she can step out from under the wing of English, Joyce et al - and that she possesses her own vision in the portfolio.

Sunday Star Times