The government deserves credit for sticking to its guns over the introduction of national standards for schools. In response to criticism from educationists and an opposition roadshow by the primary teachers' union, National MPs will host public meetings around the country and information on the standards will be mailed out to households. Unfortunately, this material, financed by the taxpayer, features the National Party logo on every page.
This is not only a misuse of public money, it discredits the campaign to sell the standards. The information leaflet, which will be financed out of the Prime Minister's leader's budget, bears a striking resemblance to the sort of election advertising that National criticised the Labour Party for producing under the Electoral Finance Act.
In fact, Labour used this public money to promote policies that were rather less contentious than this. It would seem National has forgotten the distinction it once made between legitimate public information and political promotions in the last term of the Labour Administration, and ignored the rulings made then by the Auditor-General. The lesson of that episode was that money allocated to ministers and parties for the communication of policies and other information of public interest was not intended to be used to sell politically charged flagship policies such as national standards.
The acceptable course would have been for information to have been drawn up and dispatched by the Ministry of Education under its masthead, following the criteria established by the Auditor-General. Devoid of the distraction and questions raised by the National logo, this could have explained the merits of the policy in a language that cleared up much of the current confusion and ignorance.
The undoubted merits of testing and reporting primary school pupils' progress in learning basic literacy and numeracy skills would not have been sullied by politicisation. As it is, it is reasonable to ask why the ministry did not release such information. Does this, indeed, raise questions about the education bureaucracy's attitude towards the policy?
Many people are undoubtedly keen to be better informed about national standards. But they want the information to be fair, full and undiminished by political subjectivity. The National logo means the leaflet will not be read in a significant percentage of the 350,000 homes to which it will be sent. One glance at the crest and the leaflet will be dismissed as propaganda.
That would be a pity. The brochure contains examples of the sort of concrete skills the policy proposes to test and the way teachers will be expected to report the results regularly to parents. But too little of the material is of this nature. Too much of it is the superficial, question-begging language of a party manifesto. People rightly distrust this.
The Prime Minister says a lot of "misinformation" about national standards had been spread by teachers and the education unions. He has responded by relieving the Education Minister, Anne Tolley, of part her portfolio so she can concentrate on this initiative. He is right to refuse to compromise with opponents of the policy by agreeing to a test-run of national standards. This would merely delay the desirable.
But the criticisms deserve a more serious response. National standards for all ages in reading, writing and maths, reliable testing and clear reporting to parents, need to be practical and reasonable requirements of the education service. We need the critics to be answered with calm facts and authoritative explanations, not party puff.