Education commentators have been aghast this week that the Secretary for Education does not consider our education system "world class". Writing a foreword for the ministry's annual report, Lesley Longstone said: "The system is still underperforming for Maori learners and Pasifika learners, and learners from communities with significant social and economic challenges. While our education system continues to underperform for these learners, we are not entitled to call ourselves world class."
When she signed off those bloated sentences she might not have foreseen the fury they would arouse. After all, it is hardly news that Maori and Pacific Island children are not doing well enough. And the idea that this means the system is less than "world class" is not entirely hers. It reflects the ministry's stated goal: "A world-leading education system that equips all New Zealanders with the knowledge, skills, and values to be successful citizens in the 21st century."
But it is refreshing to have a recruit from England in charge. Ms Longstone will know our education establishment regards itself as second to none in the world. The practitioners pride themselves on the equity of the system, its flexible, non-prescriptive curriculum, its examinations that let pupils advance at their own pace and give them second chances.
They tell us our system is admired worldwide for these features and that our catch-up programmes such as reading recovery are particularly envied and copied. If these programmes have not improved the performance of some groups sufficiently, that must be a measure of the disadvantage these children have to overcome, not a failure of the education system.
Professionals agree the system is not perfect but not many of them welcome criticism or ideas from outside, whether those come from politicians without a teaching qualification or an external appointee to head the ministry. In the year since Ms Longstone was installed she, as much as the minister Hekia Perata, has argued for an increase in class sizes and a thorough re-organisation of schools in Christchurch.
She has also been obliged to put national standards into force and develop legislation for charter schools. She has not offered personal views of these policies but greeted them with a more open mind than the teachers' organisations possess. For that, they treat her with suspicion.
It is rare to have one of our largest state services headed by a newcomer to the country and we should make the most of it. If Ms Longstone finds our education system less than world class in any respect, we need to hear it. The criticism she has received is a measure of the complacency she is facing.
Reading the ministry's goal statement, we may have supposed we already have a "world-leading eduction system" that needs to do more for Maori and Pacific children. Until it does so, she says, it is not world-leading, it is not even world class.
We need to hear how the most successful multi-ethnic nations ensure all minorities are well educated. It may be that our schools have been too much the same. In the report the secretary also says we do well for top learners and our average child performs well. It is those below the average who must be doing better elsewhere.
The "tail", as our education policy makers call them, is not a new concern. We were unaware we lagged the world in this regard but we should not blame the messenger for this knowledge. In stating it, she is doing well.