David Farrar

The week in politics with centre-right blogger David Farrar

David Farrar: The government's change management

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Prime Minister John Key with Education Minister Hekia Parata. Photo / File
Prime Minister John Key with Education Minister Hekia Parata. Photo / File

This column was going to be on why the Government must back down on the changes to teacher to student ratios, and should ignore my advice from the previous week not to back down.

However the Government's announcement yesterday of a total reversal pre-empted the filing of this column, so instead I will focus on what the Government did wrong in managing the changes they announced a couple of weeks ago.

I actually believe the policy principle at the heart of this issue remains a sound one - that education funding should be spent in the way that will most improve educational outcomes for New Zealand students. I would hope few people would disagree with this.

More open to debate, is whether quality of teaching is more important than class size. However the overwhelming bulk of peer reviewed research in this area has concluded that the quality of a teacher's ability to connect with students has the largest impact on educational achievement, while the size of a class has only a moderate influence.

At the heart of this debate was about a trade-off, portrayed as being between class sizes and improving the ability of teachers to connect with students. Almost all of Government is in fact about trade offs - there are very few decisions that are universally good or bad.

The debate about the Sky City convention centre is about the trade off between creating jobs, and the impact of gambling. The debate on mining was also about the trade off between creating jobs and conservation values. Raising the minimum wage is about the trade off between jobs and incomes.

Any trade off, will always have its supporters and its opponents. Hence, a Government proposing any change to the status quo has to be able to makes it case in a clear coherent and persuasive manner. It is in this task, that the Government has failed and been forced to reverse its policy. There are a number of reasons for this.

The major reason I believe is that it appears the Government had done no detailed work on how they would use the money freed up by increasing class sizes on improving the ability of teachers to teach (we all know some teachers are brilliant at it, while others struggle). The only details given were that the $43 million freed up by the ratio changes would go towards the development of an appraisal system focusing on driving up quality teaching and quality professional leadership.

This lack of any detail around what this might be, meant that the perceived benefits of the trade off were impossible to calculate, while the costs in increased class sizes were calculated to exact detail in every school staffroom around the country. Effectively the Government was saying "Let us increase the size of your kid's classes, and just trust us that we will do something good with that money to improve teacher quality".

This is why I was wrong last week, telling the Government not to back down. The absence of the detailed policy work, meant this was a battle they could not win. If (for example) they had determined that the best way to increase teacher quality is (for example) to pay the top 5% of teachers an extra $15,000 per year, then one could have had a debate about whether the benefits outweighed the costs. But you simply can gain public support on an issue, where you are unable to articulate and define the benefits.

As I wrote last week, the Government also seemingly failed to realise the actual impact on schools, with horror stories circulating that some schools would be facing the loss of seven or eight teachers. This seems to indicate that the entire policy change was seen as a "minor" initiative by the Government - just one of dozens typically announced in a Budget. However the change in focus from class size to quality of teaching was significant, and has taught the Government a significant lesson in political management.

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