By DEBORAH CODDINGTON*
It's back to school time again and back to the straitjacket-fits-all services of New Zealand's compulsory education system.
Parents who can afford it do have some choice in where they send their children to school - public or private. But for middle to lower-income earners, the $10,000-plus a year fees for each pupil are just not an option.
It's Nanny Knows Best when it comes to which school most children attend. Politicians decide that the best school for your child is the one nearest to you. If you don't like the National Certificate of Educational Achievement but your local college has embraced it - tough.
The state education system says your child must go to this college and graduate with an anti-competitive, politically correct, standards-based assessment qualification.
I spent 18 months until September last year on the board of trustees of a large, popular Auckland secondary school which the Ministry of Education decreed a home-zoned school.
I sat on the enrolment committee and as a journalist experienced in knocking on doors and questioning people, I was nominated as the one most suitable for the task of visiting suspicious in-zone addresses at 7.30 in the morning and checking that this newly enrolled student did in fact live in the school zone.
Often they didn't. In one case, the in-zone address was a hairdressing premises. In another, seven people were purportedly living in a one-bedroom flat.
All number of excuses were offered by pleading or angry parents who just wanted the best for their children. But they lived out of the school zone, and by Government regulation our school could not accept them. Some had their enrolments cancelled.
These parents hated me, and justifiably so. To them I was standing in the way of their choice of school and their children's education. I still sympathise with them, but my loyalty and duty as an elected board member lay with the stressed teachers, the management and the students who had followed the strict rules of enrolment and were there legally.
Meanwhile, thanks to the Labour Government, real estate prices and rents in the zone rose and still rise dramatically.
But why shouldn't those parents have choice? We allow parents of international students to choose colleges. Some secondary schools each year travel overseas to market their education and to recruit business. So why are we so patronising when it comes to New Zealand parents?
For a moment cast the status quo out of your mind and let your imagination loose. Let's give every New Zealand student a cheque from the Government for $10,000 (or the equivalent of a year's education). That cheque can be taken by parents to any school they, not Education Minister Trevor Mallard, want their child to attend.
Suddenly these students look as attractive to schools as the international fee-paying students. But some schools - Auckland Grammar springs to mind - will be swamped with applications. And I'll wager the parents of those children will be swarming in from South Auckland and abandoning the low-decile schools there. What happens then?
Let Auckland Grammar use its overflow of cheque-waving students to set up a campus in a school being deserted and put up a sign outside: Under New Management - Auckland Grammar Mangere Campus.
Who has the right to deny the parents in South Auckland the opportunity to have their children educated to the same standard as the children of Remuera and Epsom parents? If I buy a McDonald's hamburger in Epsom, it is exactly the same quality as a hamburger in Otara. Education is a million times more important than takeaways so why shouldn't we set the same standards?
Of course the hunt would be on by Auckland Grammar for more good teachers. It would need to offer attractive salaries better than those paid to mediocre, lazy or dumb teachers - the ones parents are fed up with but are powerless to do anything about. The Post Primary Teachers Association would object vehemently to the reappearance of that dirty word "competition".
But we should pay good teachers more. All of us remember at least one gifted and dedicated teacher who had a huge influence on our lives. Most teachers are committed and professional so shouldn't we pay them more than lawyers and accountants? After all, who taught the lawyers and accountants the skills they needed to get A Bursaries and entry to university?
In rural areas with one area high school, innovation and creative thinking give rise to endless exciting possibilities. Teachers could form co-operatives, or companies, and open their own schools in rented premises, just as Dawn Jones and John Graham did with Senior College in 1994. Hiring the best teachers and paying them well has seen that establishment become an outstanding success in just nine years.
If this Government really believed in the knowledge economy it would give choice in education to all, not just those with money.
* Deborah Coddington is Act's education spokeswoman.
By DEBORAH CODDINGTON*