From digital technology to teaching languages, Nikki Kaye will be remembered for driving educational initiatives that reached across the partisan political divide.

Kaye, who is leaving politics still aged only 40, has spent her entire 12 years in Parliament deeply involved in education.

As a backbench MP she chaired a select committee inquiry into "21st century learning environments and digital literacy" in 2012 which sketched the first outlines of what would become the new digital technologies curriculum for all school students from Years 1 to 13.

She drove that change through as associate minister of education from 2013 and in her brief tenure as minister for five months before National lost power in 2017.

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She introduced a policy of teaching every primary school child a second language as a centrepiece of National's 2017 election platform, and achieved the rare feat in Opposition of winning cross-party support for a bill to implement that policy that passed its first reading in Parliament this month.

Albany Senior High School principal Claire Amos, who worked closely with her on a "21st century learning" reference group, says Kaye "struck me as someone who was concerned about the issues rather than the politics".

"I'm a Labour/Green person, but I have always respected her knowledge and understanding of the education sector and the particular role that technologies have to play in that," she says.

"I think she leaves a deep hole in the education space."

Employers and Manufacturers Association chief executive Brett O'Riley, who chaired the 21st century learning group, says Kaye was "a real innovator".

"It's a rare quality in politics for people to put themselves out there and test the boundaries, and Nikki did that," he says.

"I certainly hope that those qualities are not lost to New Zealand, because I think she has transferable leadership skills that could be used elsewhere."

Nikki Kaye, left, with then Prime Minister Bill English, who made a second language for primary school children a centrepiece of his 2017 election policy. Dr Shane Reti is at right. Photo / File
Nikki Kaye, left, with then Prime Minister Bill English, who made a second language for primary school children a centrepiece of his 2017 election policy. Dr Shane Reti is at right. Photo / File

Susan Warren of Comet Auckland, which has also championed a "multilingual" society, says Kaye's second language learning bill "will make a real difference to how kids learn".

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"I think she has done that absolutely herself, and I really respect the amount of work she has put into that," Warren says.

Kaye has subtly changed the direction of National's education policies. In her brief time as minister she drove the creation of Kāhui Ako, or communities of learning, encouraging schools to work together after 30 years of competing against each other for students under the deregulated regime of "Tomorrow's Schools".

Nikki Kaye with Northland MP Matt King at a meeting on the Tomorrow's Schools reform in Kaitāia. Photo / Peter de Graaf
Nikki Kaye with Northland MP Matt King at a meeting on the Tomorrow's Schools reform in Kaitāia. Photo / Peter de Graaf

When the Labour Government began a review of that deregulated system, Kaye invited members of the review team to her own public meetings and helped to steer the review towards strengthening support for schools without, in the end, taking any key powers away from elected boards of trustees.

Waikato University education professor Martin Thrupp says Kaye's approach was "productive".

"She certainly hasn't been someone who has been oppositional for opposition's sake," he says.

"She was considered in the role of Opposition spokesperson on education, and that was incredibly helpful around the Tomorrow's Schools reform."

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Nikki Kaye arriving at Wellington Airport ahead of the National Party caucus leadership vote at Parliament this week. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Nikki Kaye arriving at Wellington Airport ahead of the National Party caucus leadership vote at Parliament this week. Photo / Mark Mitchell

She led National into supporting Labour's changes to the National Certificate of Educational Achievement (NCEA), including scrapping exam fees and creating more structured subject blocks of learning.

Perhaps her boldest shift in National's approach was a promise to reduce class sizes in primary schools, reversing a cost-cutting move by her predecessor Hekia Parata in 2012 to increase class sizes.

She launched an education policy document last November that floated the idea of "Education Saver" accounts, similar to KiwiSaver, to help families save to cover the costs of their children's tertiary education.

The document quietly dropped Parata's controversial policy requiring schools to report on every child's literacy and numeracy against national standards, instead promoting the softer-sounding approach of online reporting of each child's progress.

Nikki Kaye in her brief reign as National's deputy to short-lived leader Todd Muller. Photo / File
Nikki Kaye in her brief reign as National's deputy to short-lived leader Todd Muller. Photo / File

On the other hand, the document ramped up the Key Government's policy of fostering charter schools, promising to establish 25 to 30 new "partnership schools" under the next National Government.

Dr Nina Hood, of The Education Hub, says the document also marked a new emphasis on improving the quality of teaching, especially in early childhood education.

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"I think she has always had a very strong focus on the idea of teacher quality and quality teaching as being absolutely paramount," she says.

"She has always had a really strong commitment to looking at what the research and evidence suggest is best practice."