Ministry chief taking the fall

19:38, Dec 19 2012
school closure
BRICKS AND BOUQUETS: Earthquake Recovery Minister Gerry Brownlee is amongst the best-performing ministers while Education Minister Hekia Parata, centre, is amongst the worst. They appeared with Education Secretary Lesley Longstone to announce proposals for closing and merging Canterbury schools.

The resignation of the secretary of education, Lesley Longstone, just over a year after she was recruited for what was meant to be a five-year term, was not unexpected. Since she took over the job her ministry has been wracked by unprecedented tumult. A succession of crises, some at least of which Longstone must bear direct responsibility for, has left the impression of a ministry incapable of doing even mundane administrative functions properly, much less some of the more demanding reorganisation that circumstances, such as the earthquakes, or new policies demanded.

Longstone was recruited from the British Ministry of Education, presumably in the hope that an outsider would reinvigorate what has for long been regarded as one of the poorer performing ministries. Her task was never going to be easy. Among other things, the ministry has to cope with highly politicised and hidebound unions and professional groups that are rarely comfortable even with Labour governments and in no mind to accommodate proposals coming from a National-led one.

One of the first flare-ups under Longstone arose from the Budget proposal to increase class sizes and use the savings made to pay for better teacher training. While the idea was a political one, faulty advice from the ministry on the impact the proposal would have on particular schools led to a fortnight of furious argument that was ended only by a comprehensive and humiliating backdown by the Government.

Even more of a disaster has been the development and disclosure of the ministry's proposals for reorganising schools in Canterbury after the earthquakes. Damage to schools and changes to population meant reorganisation was inescapable. Consultation on the changes and the announcement of them were so hamfistedly handled, however, that whatever good ideas were contained in the proposals - and there were many - were lost in the entirely avoidable uproar that ensued.

The more recent bungling of the introduction of the Novopay salary payments system was the last straw. Whether the fault lay with the system, or in schools' unpreparedness for it, it should never have been allowed to go ahead in such an inadequate state.

Longstone might have been a breath of fresh air. An indication of this was her declining to sign up to the complacent education establishment consensus that despite so many pupils, particularly Maori and Pacific, failing, we still have one of the best-performing systems in the world.


The innovative thinking that that observation might have signalled was sabotaged by failure to see that the ministry itself performed adequately.

But for all the strife caused by inadequacies at administrative level, a good deal was also generated by political decisions, and at the political level the Minister of Education, Hekia Parata, has performed abysmally.

When the State Services Commissioner, Iain Rennie, announced Longstone's resignation yesterday he confirmed what had become an open secret in Wellington - that relations between Longstone and Parata had been strained for some time. For that both women must take a share of the blame.

At this point, however, only one is going. It looks for all the world that Longstone has been thrown off the sled in order to save Parata's skin. It is hard to see this desperate measure working for long.

The Press