John Armstrong is the Herald's chief political commentator

John Armstrong: Key forced down from lofty perch to take on the teachers

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PM's move casts more doubt over handling of education policy

Prime Minister John Key. Photo / Janna Dixon
Prime Minister John Key. Photo / Janna Dixon

It's going well. Swimmingly so, according to the Prime Minister. Well, things aren't going well.

And John Key's ingenuous smile when he was asked how things were going at yesterday's press conference on national standards was ample evidence of what he really thought of Anne Tolley's handling of one of National's flagship policies.

If everything was going tickety-boo when it came to implementing the new regime to measure primary school pupils' progress in learning basic literacy and numeracy skills, why did Key feel it necessary to intervene and call a special press conference to launch a propaganda offensive to counter the "misinformation" that teachers and the education unions are supposedly spreading?

Key's language fell not far short of a declaration of war on the policy's more strident opponents.

At the same time, however, he avoided specifically mentioning those opponents by name and only uttered the word "unions" once during his and Tolley's half-hour session with media.

Key may be talking tough. But he is avoiding being being overly confrontational.

The reluctance by him and the Education Minister to speculate on the fate of school boards of trustees who allow their teachers to block the introduction of national standards shows the Government is wary of slamming the door shut to reaching some accommodation.

At least for the time being.

Key, however, will not be the one backing down should teachers start taking more direct action.

Such prime ministerial intervention has upped the political ante considerably.

Key views national standards as a fundamental component in his being a successful prime ministership.

Even so, Key is putting his reputation on the line in a way rarely seen from this prime minister.

It is effectively the first of what is likely to be a series of initiatives this year to bury the overstated claims that he has been a "do little" prime minister. Any backdown will thus be hugely embarrassing.

Tolley has done a poor job of selling national standards - a policy which should be a winner for National.

National has not been able to get public opinion - or at least parental opinion - behind national standards.

While polling is said to show wide public backing for the idea once it is explained, there is vast confusion and ignorance of what the policy means.

In this void, opponents of national standards have dictated the public debate by highlighting flaws in such a measure of achievement.

Key knows he must shift the debate from theory to focusing on the end product of the education system - the children failing to attain satisfactory levels of literacy and numeracy.

That is the territory where National holds the advantage. It can exploit parental fears that their children are not getting the education that they thought they would and should be getting.

In that regard, the $200,000 taxpayer-funded mailout to 350,000 households of a letter from Key and a brochure explaining national standards is tame stuff.

Yet, taking on the teachers indicates Key has crossed a personal Rubicon and accepted that he will be tested increasingly by such vexed issues and can therefore no longer hope to satisfy everyone all of the time - something he has largely been able to do so far much to the benefit of National's poll rating.

- 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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