Claire Trevett

Claire Trevett is the New Zealand Herald’s deputy political editor.

Teachers cheer backdown on class sizes

Education Minister Hekia Parata said yesterday that 'the buck stops with me' but expects to keep her job despite Opposition demands that she should go. Photo / Brett Phibbs
Education Minister Hekia Parata said yesterday that 'the buck stops with me' but expects to keep her job despite Opposition demands that she should go. Photo / Brett Phibbs

Teacher unions and education groups have welcomed Education Minister Hekia Parata's backdown on class size increases, but it has come with a sting: a $174 million hole in the education budget which will now have to be filled from cuts elsewhere.

Ms Parata yesterday announced she was reversing plans in the Budget to increase class size ratios after two weeks of a strong public outcry from parents, teachers, principals and boards of trustees.

The changes would have affected intermediate schools the most, and Gary Sweeney, the president of the Association of Intermediate and Middle Schools, said the backdown put "a big smile on my face".

"I announced it across the school [Papatoetoe Intermediate] and I heard 650 kids erupting with cheering."

Ian Leckie, the president of primary teachers' union the NZEI, said he was "totally delighted" but not surprised given the level of concern.

"But we are delighted the Government has seen reason in this discussion and provided some security and surety for schools."

Ms Parata said the policy had caused "a disproportionate amount of anxiety" for parents and she was responding to that.

"Over the past two weeks it has become clear that is a trade-off parents are not prepared to accept."

However, it meant that a proposed $60 million investment in improving teacher quality now had to be put on hold because it was to be paid for out of the savings of $174 million over four years. A further $114 million had to be found to fill the hole it would leave in the budget - most of which Ms Parata said would come from education.

Labour's education spokeswoman, Nanaia Mahuta, said that while the reversal was a relief, parents would still be worried about where other savings might be made.

Ms Parata said she would discuss where those savings could be found with the sector and it would be done in "a balanced and considered way".

Ms Parata said the decision to reverse the changes was made at a meeting yesterday morning which included input from Prime Minister John Key in Europe, Finance Minister Bill English and senior ministers Gerry Brownlee and Steven Joyce. Ms Parata said she had recommended reversing the class size ratios and they had agreed unanimously. She expected to stay in the role which she was "passionate" about. While there were lessons to be learned she refused to blame the Ministry of Education.

"I am accountable, I am the Minister of Education and the buck stops with me."

Ms Parata's political opponents have questioned whether she has done too much damage to stay in the role. Her backdown was described as "humiliating" by Labour Party leader David Shearer, and Green Party co-leader Metiria Turei and Mana leader Hone Harawira both said Mr Key should stand her down.

PPTA president Robin Duff said the past fortnight had raised issues of confidence which needed resolution but he did not believe Ms Parata should be stood down.

"There has been some damage, yes, but I don't believe that is irreparable. There's a grain of admiration that she's actually been prepared to do something which is not easy to do politically."

He said it would be a shame if Ms Parata became the "fall guy" when the roles and advice of the Cabinet, the Ministry of Education and the Treasury also needed a closer look.

The seven sector groups which banded together to oppose the changes all said it should act as a lesson to Ms Parata to work with them in the future before making such changes.

All pledged to work with her to look for other ways to make the required savings, saying they were as committed to improving teacher quality as she was. Ms Parata will meet some - including Mr Sweeney - today and others, including the unions, over the coming weeks.

Paul Drummond, president of the Principals' Federation, said he would present some suggestions for savings to help pay for improving teacher quality, including deferring infrastructure or property developments, or delaying the Charter Schools programme.

"What has been learned from this is that there is more likelihood of success when you involve the sector in that ambition. That's what I'll be saying when I meet with her."

- NZ Herald

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