Education Minister Anne Tolley will be given a prime speaking slot at the National Party conference in Auckland in a week's time - as well she should be.

Given that the fires are burning on every front in the education sector, to confine it to one of the graveyard slots would look as though the party had something to hide.

The funding cuts to early childhood centres next year, the squeeze going on the tertiary sector as the demand for courses rises, and the implementation of national standards are giving education portfolios a profile for trouble.

The national standards policy in particular in the primary sector has given Tolley a profile that will probably last a generation.

There have been 13 education ministers in the past 35 years - Les Gandar, Merv Wellington, Russell Marshall, David Lange, Geoffrey Palmer, Phil Goff, Lockwood Smith, Wyatt Creech, Nick Smith, Trevor Mallard, Steve Maharey, Chris Carter and Tolley.

The five most memorable are the most controversial: Merv Wellington for his 3 per cent education cuts, David Lange for Tomorrow's Schools, Lockwood Smith for his broken promise to abolish student fees, Trevor Mallard for his school closures, and Anne Tolley for national standards.

Tolley is in the Merv Wellington club - the minister the unions like to disrespect - though she does not draw quite the same venom as he did; his across-the-board cuts poisoned the entire sector against him.

In some parts of the teacher union, the Educational Institute, there is a private expectation that the problems around national standards will force John Key to sack Tolley.

They don't know Key well.

The policy would have to be an unmitigated disaster before Key would admit defeat.

He has identified strongly with national standards and what he may do is take a bigger role himself to promote the policy, though how he does that without looking like he is coming to Tolley's rescue may be a finely judged thing. But stay it will.

As Tolley indicated in her speech last week to the Principals' Federation in Queenstown, the Government believes the policy has the overwhelming support of parents - a silent majority, she called them, who are quietly pleased with the first reports they have received in the past month.

From National's perspective, if parents like it there is no downside to persisting with it, even in the face of resistance from principals.

The fact that Tolley did not insist on having time in her schedule for a Q and A session is a worry.

It looked as though she couldn't hack it.

She has had five months without the Tertiary Education portfolio, time to concentrate on national standards. She has held public meetings and had a daily work-out in the House with Labour's Trevor Mallard trying to trip her up. She should be match fit.

Colleagues such as Nick Smith, Simon Power, Tony Ryall and Chris Finlayson wouldn't hesitate to use a conference to engage with a prickly bunch on a difficult issue, and possibly turn it to their advantage.

You can be certain that Steven Joyce will be taking questions today at the University Students Association conference in Dunedin.

Whether intentional or accidental, Tolley doesn't hesitate to use such occasions to add gas to the fire.

Get on with it and stop whingeing to the media, was her message, and you can thank me for protecting your right to whinge to the media. To be fair, she did begin on a more conciliatory "we're listening" note.

The principals and teachers failed to get the policy tested before its first phase of implementation this year. The Government didn't trust the teachers not to sabotage it.

But what Tolley effectively admitted to the principals is that the policy is being given a trial right now. She doesn't use the term trial: it's a "bedding-in" year.

It is not being given a pilot run because it won't be abandoned, but it is being tried on a universal basis and will be developed through trial and error.

What she offered was an Allan Martin type of guarantee (it's the putting right that counts): "I can guarantee we will make changes if that is what is required ... we will get it right."

Anecdotal evidence suggests that real teething problems are emerging in the training and the consistency of judgments having to be made by teachers in assessing if a child is below, at or above the national standard for their age.

The independent advisory group she and Key formed is due to meet her again within a couple of weeks.

The Principals' Federation is also putting together a detailed plan for some changes.

The inevitable modifications will be painted by National as its plan all along, not a concession.

The unknown factor in this universal trial is whether the NZEI collective agreement negotiations under way will be used as a de facto weapon against the Government.

Today Tolley will speak to a more sympathetic group, the School Trustees Association, in Christchurch.

Its leader, Lorraine Kerr, promotes what could be called the legal position - that it's the Government's right to set policy and the boards as Crown entities are obliged to carry it out. The association doesn't want to be seen as political especially as it celebrates its 21st birthday at the conference.

But that is impossible when the association's position is the Government's position.

Tolley will offer Kerr and the 600 delegates her support.

She will encourage them to stand firm, reminding them that boards are in charge of schools, not the teachers.

And you can be sure that despite the glitches the schools are having with the national standards, Tolley's own home crowd next week will give her nothing but positive reinforcement.