John Armstrong is the Herald's chief political commentator

John Armstrong: Minister for looking silly carries day

Hekia Parata. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Hekia Parata. Photo / Mark Mitchell

The true measure of a politician is the ability to answer a tricky question without answering the question at all, but still leaving the impression he or she has answered it.

Such artifice is lacking from Hekia Parata's armoury. Faced with plenty of tricky questions during a press conference yesterday, the Minister of Education reverted to her preferred gambit of answering such questions with a bland statement about something which more often than not bore little relation to what was being asked.

This only had the effect of inducing frustration in her inquisitors and hardening their resolve to press even harder for something approaching an informative response.

They were largely out of luck. Parata was happier looking rather silly than conceding anything on the very tricky question of school league tables.

The press conference had been called to outline the Government's decision to publish information and data on the internet showing how individual schools are performing in relation to national standards.

The Prime Minister later described the decision as a good compromise. If so, it is a funny kind of compromise.

The Ministry of Education may have been forbidden from turning the information into league tables, which would enable easy comparisons to be made on the relative performance of local schools. But that does not stop someone else from doing so. Which, of course, is what National really wants to happen.

What may deter would-be compilers of league tables is the mish-mash of formats used by schools in submitting the required information to the ministry. That effectively makes the drawing of comparisons between schools meaninglessness and therefore pointless - at least for the current year.

The ministry is now working on ensuring next year's data will be presented in a standardised form. However, the delay will make it more difficult for opponents of league tables to persuade the public that - as the NZEI claimed yesterday - the era of "naming and shaming" schools, teachers, students and their families has arrived.

National firmly believes that parents hunger for information about their children's schools - and that when it comes to votes, parents far outnumber teachers.

But National is also conscious it cannot push too hard, given it needs teacher, principal and board of trustee acquiescence in implementing its wider education policies.

Parata tried to play down the significance of data relating to national standards by stressing that the information published on the internet would be "exactly"as detailed in schools' annual reports. The ministry would simply use the information to target support to schools that needed it.

Parata stressed the data was only one source of "public achievement information", the others being Education Review Office reports, schools' annual reports and NCEA data. Essentially, National has won the battle over national standards. It will do likewise with school league tables. Getting there requires a degree of pretence to the contrary to disarm opponents, however.

Parata may have struggled to maintain such a facade yesterday. But the public did not witness her performance. It thus never happened for all intents and purposes.

- NZ Herald

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John Armstrong is the Herald's chief political commentator

Herald political correspondent John Armstrong has been covering politics at a national level for nearly 30 years. Based in the Press Gallery at Parliament in Wellington, John has worked for the Herald since 1987. John was named Best Columnist at the 2013 Canon Media Awards and was a previous winner of Qantas media awards as best political columnist. Prior to joining the Herald, John worked at Parliament for the New Zealand Press Association. A graduate of Canterbury University's journalism school, John began his career in journalism in 1981 on the Christchurch Star. John has a Masters of Arts degree in political science from Canterbury.

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