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John Armstrong is the Herald's chief political commentator

John Armstrong: Isaac best candidate for education task force

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Act MP John Banks is determined to make headway as Associate Education Minister. Photo / Janna Dixon
Act MP John Banks is determined to make headway as Associate Education Minister. Photo / Janna Dixon

At first glance, the appointment of a former president of one of the Government's junior support parties to head an education-related task force might be viewed as just another unwelcome, but typical example of political patronage at work.

Such an assumption of cronyism would be mistaken, however, in the case of Catherine Isaac's pending appointment as chair of the "implementation group" responsible for getting a trial of Act's controversial charter school proposal up and running.

If this was simply just another case of a job for the boys (or girls) then the education unions and Opposition parties like Labour and the Greens would not be so antagonistic.

Isaac's appointment is an indication of just how determined Act MP John Banks is to make headway as Associate Education Minister on one of his party's fundamental policy planks, namely allowing more flexibility on how the education budget is spent to offer more choice in schooling, particularly for disadvantaged children.

Act has long argued for a shift away from the approach of the change-resistant Wellington-based bureaucracy that gives little autonomy to schools and little choice to parents.

Isaac, whose appointment is clearly designed to short-circuit the notoriously slow-moving Ministry of Education, is well-qualified to run the implementation group. A former school trustee and long-time watcher of the successes and failures of charter schools overseas, she wrote the two-page annex to Act's support agreement with National which outlines the process by which two state-funded trial charter schools will be established, one in south Auckland and the other in Christchurch.

The wife of the late Business Round Table head Roger Kerr, Isaac is a tough-minded operator who is results-focussed. She will have to be. Banks is understood to see the trial schools as a major future selling-point for what Act can achieve in Parliament. He wants them open by the middle of next year at the latest.

Isaac will have a significant ally in Lesley Longstone, the new chief executive of the Ministry of Education, who was an unashamed advocate of the British equivalent of charter schools in her previous role as a senior official in that country's Department of Education.

As the senior Government partner, National is quite happy to give Act a free hand on charter schools. If the trial is a success, then Banks can claim his party brings added value to a centre-right governing arrangement. If not, Banks (and Isaac) - but not National - will be in the firing line.

However, there are also signs the leeway given to Act is part of a new second-term National agenda in education to take on vested interests in the sector, for example by possibly introducing school performance league tables.

What is notable about the Isaac appointment is it being further confirmation of how the National-led Government is tackling major reform in state sector operations.

Rather than risk reform initiatives becoming bogged down bu Government officials, the job of making recommendations for change is increasingly being farmed out to various task forces and working groups which contain a strong input from the private sector.

No surprise then that opponents attacked Isaac's appointment as ideologically-driven. She argues she will not be so motivated. Her denials will not be believed. But neither are they really necessary. She has been given the role because she is simply the best candidate to deliver the ideologically-driven results which Banks wants. She does not have to make apologies for that.

- NZ Herald

John Armstrong

John Armstrong is the Herald's chief political commentator

Herald political correspondent John Armstrong has been covering politics at a national level for nearly 30 years. Based in the Press Gallery at Parliament in Wellington, John has worked for the Herald since 1987. John was named Best Columnist at the 2013 Canon Media Awards and was a previous winner of Qantas media awards as best political columnist. Prior to joining the Herald, John worked at Parliament for the New Zealand Press Association. A graduate of Canterbury University's journalism school, John began his career in journalism in 1981 on the Christchurch Star. John has a Masters of Arts degree in political science from Canterbury.

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