The crises in the New Zealand education system are well documented; a teacher shortage (quantity and quality), significant actual and comparative decline against international measures, a qualification system of messy and mixed credibility, the failed numeracy project, millions spent on national standards (and thrown away) ...

A population unconvinced by 1970s style open-plan schools, huge underfunding of special needs education and teacher aiding, the ongoing and massive achievement gaps between different ethnicities ... I could go on, and on.

Governments change – Labour for nine years, National for nine years, back to Labour - as do Ministers of Education. The constant factor is the bureaucracy, the Ministry of Education.

Who are these people? It is something of a saying in New Zealand schools that the ministry is where careers go to die.


According to the recently published briefing for the incoming minister, there are currently 3000 careers in process there. This includes a whopping 975 in the central office in Wellington as well as 244 in the Wellington regional office.

I am not going to imply the ministry is useless. There is always an argument that broader changes in New Zealand society have impacted on our education and things could be a lot worse without a competent bureaucracy. They also clearly don't set out to do a bad job.

However, along with the system results, the footer on their emails is somewhat telling:
"We get the job done. We are respectful, we listen, we learn. We back ourselves and others to win. We work together for maximum impact. Great results are our bottom line."

I could comment on the evidential truth of each statement but will restrain myself to suggesting they simplify and strategise to: "Serving the public to provide great education to New Zealand." I won't even charge as a consultant on that.

There are some fantastic ministry people at the level of service to schools and our staff appreciates them. I have also met two superb people at the Deputy Secretary level who both left soon after, one to Australia. But the ministry is responsible for two of the strangest interactions with adults I have ever had.

One was a phone call to follow up after a journalist quoted me, accurately, saying I was disappointed with a factually incorrect and non-consulted report on our organisation. The person on the other end of the line, a ministry contractor, informed me, "There are people at the upper end in Wellington who are significantly unhappy with you."

"Who cares" was not apparently an appreciated, or expected, response. The other was when, at a large formal meeting, an upper level ministry employee sidled up to me and in tones Maxwell Smart would have been proud of stated, "I have a message for you. You are doing well but don't fight battles you cannot win." Bizarre.

It is basic to both teaching and parenting that, although life is not always fair, the best approach is an action-consequences model. For the past two decades in New Zealand our system has been in measurable decline. The ministry recently told the incoming minister their key roles are, "a focus on the long-term health and performance of the education system as a whole, and the provision of support to enable sector leaders to raise achievement where needed".


Its key responsibilities and functions were, "to administer Vote Education and Vote Tertiary Education" and "provide advice on education, from early childhood education through schooling to tertiary education".

So, given all of the advice they must have provided around the disasters listed in my first paragraph what are the consequences for the ministry? Where is the massive revamp of the organisation? Where are the inspirational, innovative and creative people being brought in to effectively drive our education well into the 21st century – facing up to challenges and being truly world leading?

We treat the ministry like Pike River and a collapsed building in Christchurch. No one is actually accountable for the messes and the pain caused.

The new minister, Chris Hipkins, will no doubt be well meaning, as I am sure previous ministers were, but until he addresses the hole in the doughnut our slide will continue.

• Alwyn Poole of the Villa Education Trust is academic manager of Mt Hobson Middle School and is involved with two Auckland charter schools.