Deborah Coddington: Private sector a useful ally in schools

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What a predictably hysterical response to National's proposal that private companies be contracted to construct and maintain school buildings, lease them to the state, then after a certain period, turn them over to the state. All those on the left of the debate formed a disorderly queue and rubbished the idea. Leading the charge, of course, was Education Minister Steve Maharey who, presumably with a straight face, said New Zealand aligns itself more closely with education systems in countries such as Finland, Denmark and Sweden.

Like hell it does, Minister. Scandinavian countries give parents far more choice when it comes to selecting which school their children shall attend, while here in New Zealand we're still stuck in the fruitless, nonsensical, ideological debate over private versus public. On one side, the state-worshipping collectivists, with thought processes which go something like: state-owned equals good - privately owned equals bad. They apply this same argument to education, health, security, transport, television, radio, and even water for heaven's sake.

On the other side, those vehemently opposed to anything run by the state except for the protection of life, liberty, property and the pursuit of happiness, call themselves the Libertarianz Party and look for cupboards in which to hold their annual conferences.

Those of us who've looked at both sides see merit and fault in each direction, quietly despair and, if they're as old as me, thank the stars their children have left school.

Today, with a few notable exceptions, education in this country is in a parlous state. I know, we produce brilliant graduates, but some kids are so intelligent you could tie them in a sack, hurl them in the Waikato River and they'd emerge top of their class in all academic subjects.

But look at NCEA (please, just for one minute, I know it hurts). After 17 years, seven education ministers, and $600 million of taxpayers' money, it's still a dog. There may well have been problems with the old School Certificate and University Entrance which my children and I sat, but they sure as hell didn't dominate news the way NCEA does.

But back to the public/private school partnerships idea that National has copied from the British and Australian Labour Governments. Quality Public Education Coalition (QPEC) spokesman John Minto rubbishes the plan because, he reckons, the "private sector in public schooling overseas has never resulted in improved educational outcomes". So why, when you look at the league tables, do private schools, in general, have better results than public schools?

If I said "publicly funded schooling has never resulted in improved educational outcomes", I'd be wrong, and I'd also be howled down. So why has Minto's line gone unchallenged?

In Australia it's been proved that the private sector builds better, so why not try it here? It won't "result in improved educational outcomes", but it might relieve schools from the massive fundraising - or "fee" charging - they're forced to undertake because operations grants can't keep abreast of health and safety regulations. One in three primary age kids can't swim now because schools can't afford to maintain accident-proof swimming pools.

Auckland University lecturer Dr Joce Jesson questioned the motives of the private sector.

"Why would anyone do this unless they were going to make a decent profit?" she asked.

So why is profit bad? Does that mean that the current loss, made by the government with taxpayers' money on schools, is a good thing? What does Dr Jesson think about the numbers of state-owned schools closed down by this government, to be (at best) sold and preserved or, more often, neglected and vandalised.

If these naysayers were principled, they would oppose the government's use of the private sector in all other areas. Who owns most of the flash buildings all around Wellington, their multi-storeys filled to bursting with the public sector? Private property investors, that's who, laughing all the way to the bank with rents paid to them by the government. So why don't Minto, Jesson and Maharey take out the government cheque book and purchase all these buildings, because private commercialism, profiting from the state, is bad?

Not that I'm applauding National. It will take a lot more than new schools to fix the way education is run in this country. For starters, all education bureaucrats - from the Ministry, Education Review Office, NZ Qualifications Authority, colleges of education, the nitwits at the Council for Educational Research - should be shot. With paint guns. Then they can spend the rest of their lives doing something productive, like cleaning the acrylic splatter off the walls.

Private-public partnerships might be a wee twitch in the right direction, but while we have Ministers for Bureaucrats and Teachers, as opposed to Ministers for Education and Pupils, nothing positive will ever happen.

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