Labour has turned it guns on one of areas it believes National is most vulnerable in the lead up to the election with a package of education policies so far worth almost $1 billion, including promises to reduce class sizes and hire 2000 more teachers.
The class sizes policy was the centrepiece of leader David Cunliffe's address to about 1000 members and delegates at Labour's election year Congress yesterday.
It followed a suite of other announcements, including paying schools which did not ask parents for donations and subsidised netbooks or laptops for students.
In total, the education policies it has announced over the past week would cost about $850 million over four years which Labour says it will pay for by scrapping some of National's programmes, including its scheme to pay good teachers and principals more and require them to work with others.
Labour's key policy promises to increase funding to bring class sizes at primary schools to 26 from 28 by 2018, and at secondary schools to 23 from 25 by 2018.
As expected, Labour's policy mix was welcomed by the teacher unions and education groups who said it would allow schools to offer more subject choices as well as give more one on one time. NZEI Primary President Judith Nowotarski said it put the money where it would make the most difference. "Smaller class sizes allow teachers to give more individual attention to students and this means the quality of teaching improves."
However, Education Minister Hekia Parata said it was unnecessary to further reduce average class sizes and Labour's changes would make little difference. "We know that because that was their policy last time they were in government and student achievement flat-lined at best. If you really want to improve success at school the answer is to help all teachers be better teachers, and invest strongly in principals.
She said National's focus on fostering good teachers and principals through a $359 million programme was more important. However, that policy has met with a mixed reaction from the teacher unions - while the PPTA saw benefits in it, the NZEI was unimpressed.
In his speech Mr Cunliffe described National's scheme as "creating a competitive, part-time bonus-driven teaching environment" and taking teachers out of their classroom to work elsewhere effectively made them 'part time.' However, Labour has a similar proposal in mind: it will create a new body with the power to take good teachers out of their classrooms to work with other schools and teachers for up to three years, and re-deploy good principals for up to 2 years. Education spokesman Chris Hipkins said the finer details were being worked out, but it was possible those chosen would be paid more. He said it was partly to give good senior teachers who might otherwise look at leaving the profession altogether an alternative career path.
Class sizes is a vexed issue for National - in 2012 Ms Parata was forced to back down under public pressure on plans to increasing the teacher to pupil ratio to free up money, citing research that showed issues such as the quality of teaching and home environments were more critical to student's success. Yesterday she stuck by her stand that other issues were more critical and defended National's decision to instead plough extra money into good teachers, under National's $359 million package.
National's other policies such as Act's Charter Schools and National Standards have also been criticised by teacher unions and Mr Cunliffe promised Labour would get rid of them. He said Labour would repeal National Standards and replace it with another system which delivered information to parents on their children's progress. Education spokesman Chris Hipkins said the details of that proposed replacement would be revealed within the next few weeks.
Watch a video of Australian Labor leader Bill Shorten speak about Cunliffe.
Labour's education policies and cost over next four years
• Reduce class sizes. (includes employing 2000 more teachers, new classrooms/equipment, professional development/ staffing measures): $503 million - to be paid for by scrapping the expected $153 million a year spend on National's package to reward good teachers/ principals.
• Subsidised netbook/ laptop for all students: $120 million
• Ensure students in low decile areas can access internet at home: $30-$50 million
• Pay $100 per pupil to schools which forego parent donations: $200 million ($50 million a year)
Total: $873 million
Costs/ savings unstated. Labour says will be mostly be covered by existing spending.
• scrap National Standards and replace with new system
• establish school advisory service to oversee professional development, and deploy good teachers to work as trainers in other schools for up to 3 years
• establish College of Leadership for professional development of principals/ deploy up to 100 good principals elsewhere for up to 2 years.
• boost pre-screening for teacher training, more bonded scholarships, more support for schools with new teachers.