Just how is Hekia still hanging on?

SIMON CUNLIFFE
Last updated 09:36 16/12/2012
Hekia Parata
KEVIN STENT/Fairfax NZ
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OPINION: The question arises: how much havoc and uncertainty do ministers have to create within the realms of their portfolios before they are deemed to be acting beyond their competence and are quietly moved into other, perhaps less acute, domains?

It is a question Prime Minister John Key might like to contemplate on the golf course in Hawaii this summer, particularly with respect to the critically urgent business of this country's education system; and with respect to the minister whose every move seems mired in missteps and controversy.

The latest for Education Minister Hekia Parata is the ignominy of having the High Court say her vigorously opposed plans to close down Salisbury School, a special needs residential establishment in Nelson, are illegal.

Justice Robert Dobson heard the case and his decision, released last week, turned largely on the fact that the minister had failed to listen.

"The minister's decision failed to have regard to available warning signals raised by and on behalf of the trustees [of Salisbury School] about greater levels of risk of abuse in a co-educational setting," he said.

Personally, having observed for some time the "born-to-rule" hauteur of the previous minister of education, Anne Tolley, I looked forward to what I imagined might be a breath of fresh air.

Parata, a relative newcomer to the spotlight of national politics, did not appear to carry baggage: she was Maori, attractive, articulate and a vigorous performer. There is no getting away from it, in education you have to be.

The teacher unions are tough nuts to crack - which, while we're on the subject, would do well to attune themselves rather more keenly to public opinion over certain issues.

But a soupcon of subtlety and finesse is also required on the part of the minister; an attitude of taking the sector with you, rather than shouting at them from the podium of do-as-I-say government. A hint of humility might be considered helpful. And, all importantly, that ability to listen - which, as a rule with governments and politicians, seems to be inversely proportionate to time spent in office.

Teachers, of all people, the great majority of whom dedicate themselves to the education - and increasingly the social and cultural welfare - of the nation's children and adolescents, do not take kindly to being harangued.

Nor are they easily persuaded that black is white and white is black.

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They do not appreciate being patronised. They can smell the rat of a "done deal" masquerading as "consultation" a mile off.

But they were not alone in refusing to swallow the notion that increasing class sizes, as Parata proposed earlier in the year, would improve educational outcomes. The whole country gagged on that pearler.

Equally, no-one was much impressed when she told an assembled conference of teachers that they would be performing their duties a whole lot better if they learnt to pronounce their charges' names correctly.

Then there was the Christchurch schools closure matter. Dressed as a "proposal", in the minister's hands the fig-leaf of "consultation" appeared more transparent than ever. Nobody doubts that education in Christchurch will need radical reconfiguration post-earthquakes, but there are ways, and there are ways . . .

While the fronting of the Novopay debacle has been palmed off to her associate Craig Foss, it remains within Parata's purview; as does the unfortunate experiment of charter schools - publicly funded educational establishments run according to a range of privately determined ideologies, neither strictly subject to such niceties as a national curriculum, nor to public inspection through the auspices of such devices as the Official Information Act that usually govern incursions into the public purse.

None of these things is all the minister's doing, of course. You could argue that by its determination to pursue certain policies, the Government has handed her a poisoned chalice. But to restate, education is always difficult, although probably less so than health - and in that arena the minister, Tony Ryall, a model of invisibility, has hardly put a foot wrong.

In Parata's case, that she is still standing after such an annus horribilis is in part a reflection of the weakness of the opposition. Education is dear to the hearts of all New Zealanders with school- age children, and to many of the rest of us who see a vibrant, modern education system as vital to progress, economic growth, eliminating poverty and addressing crime and violence.

What confidence can we have in its future with such leadership?

- Fairfax Media

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