English educationist Lesley Longstone was recruited with high hopes last year that she would bring new thinking to the administration of education in this country. Her views included an open mind on charter schools, which did not endear her to the teachers' unions and others in the state education establishment. Nor was she convinced that reducing class sizes was as important as they claimed. She was not wrong, she was naive. She was not attuned to the country's politics.
She needed her advice to be checked by the political judgment of her minister. Hekia Parata is extremely fortunate that it was not her head that rolled yesterday for the number of errors that have embarrassed the Government in education this year. First there was class sizes, then the Christchurch school closures, followed by the on-going Novopay debacle and, most recently, the decision to close a school for girls with special needs and expose them to mainstream education.
Only the pay problems cannot be blamed in part on a minister. A payroll servicing system is ultimately a responsibility of a chief executive. But the other decisions should have been tempered or better presented by a minister using political judgment.
Of all the mishaps in education this year, the Christchurch school plan was the most telling. To read the plan was to see a ministry utterly out of touch with the people its schools are supposed to serve. The earthquakes had left a number of schools damaged and some of their communities decimated. Some closures would be required.
But not nearly as many as the ministry decided. When its officials sat down to make a recovery plan for the city, someone decided it was a heaven-sent opportunity to refashion schooling as we know it. The old distinctions between primary, intermediate and secondary education would go and Christchurch would be the prototype for new composite structures better suited to modern teaching and learning practices.
It might have seemed a sensible and exciting idea to committees in the ministry and to the Education Secretary, but when announced to Christchurch it was another disruption in the lives and communities of people who had endured enough. Ms Parata should have intervened to inject some common sense into the planning as soon as she saw where it was going.
Unfortunately, it is not clear that Ms Parata possesses the necessary detachment from the public service. When she meets criticism she tends to respond with a sample of the gobbledegook she accepts from officials.
The class size controversy earlier in the year was a warning to the Prime Minister that education needed much better political oversight.
He had installed Ms Parata after the election in place of Anne Tolley, who had handled the introduction of contentious national standards fairly well. He retained Ms Parata after reversing the Budget decision on class sizes, but increasingly as the problems have mounted it has been Ms Longstone who has appeared in public to answer for them.
Possibly when she accepted the job she did not fully realise that education here is a political minefield. Its practitioners resist political accountability, their unions are fiercely partisan and suspicious of anything a National Government suggests.
Principals and class teachers enjoy the trust of parents and that can be a powerful tool, as they demonstrated in the class size campaign.
It was not Ms Longstone's job to look out for these pitfalls, it was Ms Parata's. She is lucky to keep it.