Robin Duff: Govt's class size debacle leaves a handful of options

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MP Hekia Parata, Minister of Education, should resign, writes Robin Duff. Photo / Greg Bowker
MP Hekia Parata, Minister of Education, should resign, writes Robin Duff. Photo / Greg Bowker

How did class size become such a debacle for the Government?

I put it down to a combination of four things: ideology, inexperience, arrogance and incompetence.

First the ideology. The plan for cuts to frontline teaching staff began as early as 2009 according to OIA-released information which showed Treasury bemoaning the cost of paying more teachers when school rolls increased.

The Finance Minister, Bill English, wrote to then Education Minister Anne Tolley at the end of 2009 saying that "the costs of school roll-driven changes should continue to be managed centrally [and] will require further consideration in the New Year and will affect Budget 2011 decisions."

Nothing happened in the 2011 Budget, but the plan continued to be advanced. The appointments of Gabriel Makhlouf as head of the Treasury and Lesley Longstone as secretary for Education were next.

Makhlouf was quick to demonstrate his credentials by developing a public campaign to challenge the research and common sense position that bigger class sizes are not good for learning.

Instead, he argued, all that mattered was "quality teachers". This was a trick designed to generate anti-teacher sentiment and obscure the reality that staff cuts were in the offing.

There was some concern that he was going beyond his role as a public servant and getting into political advocacy and spin best left to his political masters.

Longstone was similarly appointed from England, a country whose education system is infected by social class. A number of capable New Zealanders applied, but presumably the State Services Commissioner couldn't be sure they would be willing to oversee the dismantling of the public education system via charter schools, class-size increases, attacks on teachers and more user pays.

The inexperience of the top appointees has now been revealed for all to see. They would not have known about the formula for technology delivery. Moreover, the constant cuts in the public service ensured no one was left who remembered that in 1995 a previous National government had snagged their pants on the same barbed wire fence. Believing the staffing for Years 7 and 8 technology looked "untidy", they tried to abolish it. They failed, as the current strength of the programmes testifies.

Then there's arrogance. If they had been prepared to actually consult with the unions - instead of waxing lyrical about the joys of collaboration but never actually trying it - they would have found out pretty quickly how high the political risks were and, maybe, just maybe, the possibility of a rethink might have surfaced.

Education Minister Hekia Parata made the announcement to a group of business people, and the speed at which it was endorsed in the media by Business New Zealand suggests that they, at least, were consulted. Even given the extreme rudeness of not bothering to inform the people chiefly affected by the decision first, whatever made her think business people would understand the impact of staff cuts?

Such arrogance looks like incompetence and, indeed, the two are usually fellow travellers. The Government's response, even allowing for the fact they were blindsided, has been totally incompetent.

There are three possibilities now: one, rapidly receding into the middle distance, is that the Government show some leadership and hose things down by announcing a moratorium on staff cuts and establishing a genuinely consultative group to advise on the issues; two, that it continue the current failed PR strategy of believing it knows best and that everyone will soon see that. (That's worked well so far!)

Three, the minister could resign. She has been handed a poisoned chalice, which is something the National Party tends to do to its female ministers. By resigning she could expose the person who is the architect of this train wreck - Bill ("National will romp home in 2014") English, Minister of Finance.

* Robin Duff is president of the secondary teachers' union, the PPTA

- NZ Herald

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