Controversial former National Party Education Minister Sir Lockwood Smith has been appointed as a "guardian" of wide-ranging reviews of the education system.

Smith, who was bitterly opposed by the teacher unions in the 1990s for "bulk-funding" schools, allowing them to employ more or fewer teachers than set by the standard formula, was hailed by Labour's current Education Minister Chris Hipkins as "a great visionary" who tried to build "a seamless lifelong education system".

He has been appointed to an eight-member advisory group to "provide coherence" between ideas submitted by thousands of people through a national "education conversation" and the Government's reviews of most parts of the education system.

Smith said he did not consult current National MPs before agreeing to join the advisory group.

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"I didn't want to make it a political thing. I was invited as a private citizen," he said.

"I think it's important that this is a bipartisan thing, that it crosses over the political divide, and if I can help in some way I'm happy to do that."

He said he tried to facilitate a "seamless lifelong education" through the national qualifications framework, which he felt had still been only partially implemented.

"My observation is that we have not really broken down the barriers between different sectors, and there is still opportunity to make that more seamless and to enable young people to obtain the education they want in a great variety of ways, where students at school would do part of their learning in a workplace, and some students would do some of their learning in a polytechnic."

Principals Federation president Whetu Cormick welcomed Smith's appointment because "education should not be a political football".

Post Primary Teachers Association president Jack Boyle said the "education conversation" process needed a "high-level group" to feed the varied views of the public into all the policy review teams that the Government has set up.

"It makes a lot of sense that you have someone who was there," he said.

Children's Commissioner Judge Andrew Becroft will chair the group.

The other members are:

* Marian Hobbs, a former school principal who became a Labour MP and Environment Minister under Helen Clark.

* Professor Welby Ings of AUT University, who wrote a book, Disobedient Teaching, about finding innovative ways to motivate students that were often frowned upon by school principals.

* Etta Bollinger, a Wellington poet, playwright and disability advocate.

* Professor Rawinia Higgins, deputy vice-chancellor Māori at Victoria University.

* Dr Debbie Ryan, a Wellington consultant on Pasifika health issues.

* Deborah Walker, chief executive of the NZ Centre for Gifted Education.

All except Smith and Ings are Wellington-based.

Hipkins announced the group in his opening speech at the first of two "education summits" in Christchurch today.

A second "summit" will be held next weekend in Auckland.

"The Advisory Group will serve to maintain the integrity and visibility of the Education Summit vision and kaupapa as time," Hipkins said.

"They will work with the Ministry of Education so that the vision and kaupapa is 'front of mind' in the development and delivery of the strategic work programme."

About 750 people are attending the Christchurch summit, including students, parents, employers and community leaders as well as educators.

Hipkins said he wanted the participants, and the wider "national conversation", to "define what education should look like over the next 30 years".

"Our government's vision for education is very clear," he said.

"We want a high quality public education system that provides all New Zealanders with lifelong learning opportunities so that they can discover and develop their full potential, engage fully in society, and lead rewarding and fulfilling lives.

"We believe in an education system that brings out the very best in everyone and that means our educational offerings need to be as diverse as the learners we cater for."

He said education would have to become "a much more personalised learning experience".

He said a taskforce reviewing the National Certificate of Educational Achievement (NCEA) had come up with "six big ideas" in a discussion document which was due out last month and is now expected some time after the May 17 Budget.

Other taskforces are reviewing early childhood education, vocational education and the "Tomorrow's Schools" system of self-governing schools.

But to achieve change, we need to do it together," Hipkins said.

"I'm absolutely committed to working in a way that respects, engages and draws in the views and ideas of our young people, parents and whānau, iwi, employers and the wider community."