Editorial: Funding for teachers

Last updated 08:48 31/05/2012

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OPINION: By being less than forthright about the effects of proposed changes to the funding formula for schoolteachers, the National-led Government has been forced into an embarrassing backdown.

The hitherto good record of the Education Minister, Hekia Parata, who has generally performed well in a portfolio that is often seen as a graveyard for political reputations, has been tarnished.

She has suffered the humiliation of the intervention of Prime Minister John Key to announce a modification to a policy that she had herself announced with some fanfare just days earlier.

The Government has been made to look either incompetent or duped by its own chicanery.

When it was announced last week, the Government said that the changes to the funding formula for teachers would mean that 90 per cent of schools would lose or gain one teacher.

Ten per cent were projected to lose more than one, but there was nothing to indicate that the losses would be all that great.

While teachers and principals, and their unions, traditionally fierce in defence of their patch, complained, the Government sweetened the pill by declaring that the millions saved would be invested in teacher training.

The improvement in the quality of teaching, it argued with some plausibility, would more than offset the slight increase in class sizes. As it was presented, the proposal was probably just about acceptable to most parents.

Hidden within the fine print, however, or overlooked, was the fact that some large intermediate schools were going to lose up to seven teachers and that technology classes - woodworking, cooking and metalwork - would be particularly badly hit.

Parata blamed flawed modelling within the Education Ministry. Given the ministry's record on dealing with complex matters, that explanation is believable, but as the minister in charge, she cannot escape a share of the blame for the foul- up.

It is, after all, the minister's job to make sure the department has thoroughly thought through all the implications of policy proposals and make sure there are no time bombs.

When this one was discovered, the prime minister announced a slight backtrack on the policy. No school will now lose any more than two teachers over the next three years.

That has headed off a damaging backlash from teachers and, more significantly, parents, but presumably at the cost of some of the $43 million that was expected to be saved and spent on producing better teachers.

The policy is not in tatters, as one union has claimed, but it has suffered a blow that should have been avoided.

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The backtrack, and its announcement at the prime minister's post-Cabinet press conference, was an implied rebuke to Parata. She has been promoted rapidly into a demanding portfolio and until now she has appeared to perform well.

Some observers have even touted her as a future leader of the National Party, although that may be premature. After this, the picture of her as a safe pair of hands is not quite so secure.

Whether Parata sought to hustle through an unpalatable policy without being noticed or she was let down by poor advice, the episode will be a lesson to her that the portfolio can be an unforgiving one.

Teachers, principals and their unions, as well as parents, all have an interest in making sure that any slips are dealt with severely.

- The Press

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