Nicholas Jones is a New Zealand Herald political reporter.

Hekia Parata: the minister overhauling the schooling system

Hekia Parata grew up in Ruatoria as one of 10 siblings, helped get the Hamilton game called off during the 1981 Springbok tour, and quit National over former leader Don Brash's Orewa speech.

Political reporter Nicholas Jones talks to the Education Minister who is overseeing the biggest overhaul of the schooling sector in nearly 30 years.

In the back of a minivan Hekia Parata smiled for a photo with colleague Jonathan Coleman while on the way to the All Blacks Rugby World Cup semi-final at Twickenham.

"I like your style," a friend of the Education Minister wrote underneath the picture on Facebook. "Beats crossing the Waiapu on horseback to go watch rugby [with] Uncle Tommy Kaua and co."

Lining up against South Africa that day was Nehe Milner-Skudder, who has family from Parata's home town of Ruatoria.

The All Black's mum, Heneriata Milner, went to school with Parata's sister, and is now principal of the same Ngata Memorial College.

Parata attended Ngata too, at the time her father, Ron Parata, was deputy principal.
The college is decile 1, meaning it draws its students from the poorest families, and its roll has dipped to about 125.

"It is in a pretty challenging situation. Achievement needs to lift. There are quite a lot of challenging social issues," Parata said of her old school.

"Also, parents have a choice now that they didn't have when I was at school. There is now a full kura kaupapa, and many students go there."

Providing that competition or choice for parents is a driving motivation behind National's overhaul of the schooling system. What that means for some existing schools - like Ngata - and the kids left in them is a huge accompanying challenge.



Education reforms that passed the first hurdle in Parliament this week will clear the way for schools, tertiary institutions, the current correspondence school and even private companies to become online learning providers or "COOLs" for short.

A few days before Parata announced the plan for COOLs, Last Week Tonight host John Oliver skewered the online charter school model that is widespread in the States.

Students in those schools lagged behind their public school peers in reading and maths, Oliver told his millions of viewers, and some online charters didn't count students as absent until they failed to log-on for five days.

"You're basically giving kids a box containing video games, pornography and long division," he said of the model.

• READ MORE: First day, and kids are speechless

Asked why private companies should be included as possible online providers, Parata points to parent choice as well as the trend towards open-source, online learning spearheaded by the Khan Academy and others.

On the day of the announcement she mentioned the innovation of New Zealand companies like Xero.

Could the reforms mean one day a teenager living in Gisborne is enrolled with Auckland Grammar or an online course run by a Wellington software company?

"I think there are huge opportunities available. We will be making sure that the threshold for entry is high and that the monitoring and intervention regime comprehensive. But this is an obvious next step.

"We are not compelling it to happen. We are enabling it. It seems to me that it is a no brainer. That if you are updating the Act for the first time in 30 years, then you should be future-proofing it."

Labour's education spokesman Chris Hipkins sees big risks in the Government's education reforms. Rotorua Daily Post Photograph by Ben Fraser.
Labour's education spokesman Chris Hipkins sees big risks in the Government's education reforms. Rotorua Daily Post Photograph by Ben Fraser.

Combined with an overhaul of how schools are funded - which will do away with the decile system - and changes to special education and Parata is overseeing the biggest education changes since Tomorrow's Schools set-up school boards in 1989.

It feels a long way from 2012. Parata's annus horribilis saw an embarrassing U-turn on plans to increase class sizes, a backlash against her handling of proposals to merge or close Christchurch schools, and the implementation of the disastrous Novopay school payroll system.

There was speculation that Key would dump her from the portfolio. The Herald's John Armstrong wrote the botched handling of class size proposals was a major blow to National's approach of making education a political weapon by siding with consumers - parents - rather than producers - teachers.

Parata's fondness for jargon and buzz phrases looked a fatal style amidst the heat of 2012, but now has opponents needing to adapt their attack rather than vice versa.

The Education Minister has her eye in. Her biggest achievement to date and potentially her legacy has been getting through changes to enable and encourage groups of local schools to work together, with teachers and principals paid more to take a lead in those new "communities of learning".

Not as headline-grabbing as online schools or charter school expansions, the policy isn't particularly ideological either - it is similar to an earlier policy proposal from the Post Primary Teachers Association (PPTA).

Nonetheless, significant work and compromises were made to convince the secondary school union to cautiously back a key National policy in election year (the primary school union NZEI spoke out against the reform).

Realising she couldn't go it completely alone against unions and others in the sector was one of many lessons from 2012, Parata said.

Not that all her moves are signalled. The sector was caught off guard by the online school reform, and unions reacted strongly against a proposal under the school funding review to give schools a "global budget".

That was labelled a return to bulk-funding, and sparked classroom disruption this month as the PPTA and NZEI held joint meetings across the country.

Teachers have attended meetings across the country this month to oppose the Government's "global budget" funding proposal. Wanganui Chronicle Photograph by Stuart Munro.
Teachers have attended meetings across the country this month to oppose the Government's "global budget" funding proposal. Wanganui Chronicle Photograph by Stuart Munro.

It now looks dead in the water after being rejected by an advisory group of sector leaders set-up by the ministry, who gave a green light to further work on six other proposals including targeting funding to children identified as "at risk" - a social investment approach that looks set to replace the decile system from around 2019.

Parata has hit out at the unions for holding the meetings when nothing had been decided, saying they inconvenienced parents.

It may surprise some on the receiving end that she was once a union leader herself - heading the Waikato Students' Union in the year before the 1981 Springbok tour.

Parata was pushed forward amongst other protesters at Hamilton's Rugby Park and wedged against a concrete post, "praying all the time I wouldn't get swept onto the field itself".

Bottles and abuse rained down on those that did, including Parata's flatmate.

"I at that time was playing quite competitive netball and I had wrecked my knee and I'd just had surgery. So I was in a leg cast from ankle to thigh. And I couldn't run...so I did not want to get on the field. Because I knew that would be required."

The atmosphere was extraordinary, she said - an "absolute commitment" to demonstrating that the tour was wrong, partnered with "absolute fear".

"I was not front-line violence active, that wasn't me at all. I was more giving speeches on street corners and being threatened and stuff like that.

"I recall being at home and saying to my older brothers, 'I'm going to go down to the local pub and community halls and make my point'. And they said, 'Don't do it, we don't think we can protect you'".

Before entering Parliament in 2008, Parata held a number of public servant positions including in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade and advising former Labour Prime Minister David Lange during the period when Tomorrow's Schools was developed and approved.

She has two daughters of university age and is married to Sir Wira Gardiner, founding director of the Waitangi Tribunal, with whom she formed a consultancy firm.

After Don Brash's Orewa speech on "special treatment" for Maori, Parata resigned her party membership and attacked the speech in a newspaper opinion piece.

She returned to the fold under John Key's leadership. Her maiden speech mentioned education five times. Three years later she took over the crucial portfolio from Anne Tolley.

Associate Education Minister Nikki Kaye's breast cancer diagnosis has seen Parata take on more work, and she will stand in for Kaye today to turn the sod on Western Spring College's $79m rebuild.

Time for the photograph for this profile is squeezed in between meetings.

In the background is a huge artwork by Jimmy James Kouratoras that was a surprise delivery to the office from her husband.

On a bookshelf is a framed photo of Parata with Peter Hughes, who recently stepped down as chief executive and secretary for education to become State Services Commissioner, and only mid-way through a badly-needed overhaul of the Ministry of Education.

The minister's standing desk looks down over Turnbull House and the Reserve Bank.

Lines from an Allen Curnow poem have been scrawled on a post-it stuck below her computer screen: "Simply by sailing in a new direction / You could enlarge the world".

There's also a card on the desk, with a picture of a fur-clad woman with chin slightly raised. "I wake up with a good attitude every day," it reads. "...then idiots happen."

The view from the opposition

The "huge change" underway in education comes with matching risk, Labour education spokesman Chris Hipkins said.

"There is huge change. I think that the risk with that is it is being done in a way that's not particularly coherent or coordinated."

Hipkins has been critical of the move to allow private companies to become online learning providers, but he said other changes such as school reporting requirements and funding changes could be equally disruptive for students and schools.

Green Party education spokeswoman Catherine Delahunty said the funding ideas equated to "another National Party experiment".

"Under global funding, low decile schools will face impossible dilemmas about the use of scarce funds."

New Zealand First education spokeswoman Tracey Martin said National viewed education as a business.

"They hold a misguided belief that the only way to improve educational outcomes...is to increase competition - they like to package it up as 'parental choice'...this ignores the many humans involved in the system."

Hekia Parata

• One of 10 siblings. Her brother and sister were brought up by relatives who were unable to have children themselves (whangai adoption).

• Involved in organising protests against the 1981 Springbok Tour.

• Quit National after former leader Don Brash's Orewa speech.

• Has been Education Minister since December 2011.

The big school shake up
Today: Who is Education Minister Hekia Parata and what is motivating a raft of changes to New Zealand's schooling system.
Yesterday: What the overhaul of the education system means for you.

- NZ Herald

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