Gordon Campbell on Hekia Parata’s big backdown   8 Jun 2012

Gordon Campbell

The government backdown on class sizes is looking like one of those non-apologies where people say they’re sorry because of how you’ve reacted, rather than being repentant for what they’ve done. Far from it. On RNZ this morning Education Minister Hekia Parata made it clear she still thought her plans to reward teacher performance were more important than class sizes when it came to education outcomes. According to both her and Prime Minister John Key, the backdown was being driven not by any rethink on the wisdom of the proposed changes, but by the level of public/professional opposition to the plans, which were being met with a level of public and professional anxiety that threatened to derail the government’s wider agenda in education. In other words, the public are wrong about the priority they place on class sizes, but were getting so darn emotional about it the government had to pay heed to their concerns.

The basic conflict, in other words, still remains. While the backdown is a welcome victory – for once, common sense has prevailed against a government trying to rush through part of its ideological agenda – there has been no real change in the perception of the issues by the Minister, or by her advisers. The trade-off for the increase in class sizes was supposed to be measures to improve teacher performance – but the only measures that had been announced to date affected teacher entry qualification issues (which wouldn’t kick in for several years) and measures to introduce performance pay for teachers, which is a highly expensive and ideologically-driven idea that originated in Treasury, not within the education system. At the chalk face, teachers in schools right now would be getting no tangible help to improve their performance – quite the contrary. Some would be losing their jobs, while others would be facing larger class sizes.

To cap it off, the urgency behind the issue was because one in five children were allegedly failing in the New Zealand education system. “You can’t walk away from the fact” Key told RNZ this morning. Well you can, actually. That figure, which dates from an OECD report in the mid 2000s is (a) out of date and (b) highly misleading, in that it refers to the number of children who do not stay in schooling right through to NCEA Level Two, and not all of those children can be counted as “failures.” The figure has also declined subsequently.

Moreover, the false sense of failure and crisis being talked up by Parata and Key is also contradicted by the spectacularly high rating ( number 6 in the entire OECD) that the New Zealand educational system currently enjoys. The more accurate current figure for those who aren’t engaging and succeeding in education, as NZEI president Ian Leckie told RNZ this morning, is probably closer to 5-7%. In other words, the real figure is closer to one in 20, rather than one in five.

Count on it. The performance pay bogey will be back, in one guise or other. Basically, the education system is being squeezed to find cost savings to fund Treasury’s ideas about how to improve teacher performance – which, in Treasury’s view, would be enhanced by promoting competition and individual payment rewards, within what has always been a highly collegial profession. (Moreover, since the best teachers can cope with anything thrown at them, who needed to care about class sizes? Only losers wouldn’t be able to cope, and they didn’t belong in the teaching profession. QED.) As Leckie told RNZ this morning, performance pay systems are (a) very expensive (b) have failed overseas where they have already been tried and (c) will fail here as well. Not that Treasury, as Mike Moore long ago pointed out, has ever lost enthusiasm for a theory that works in theory, and fails only in practice.

What caused Parata to back down? The conference phone call yesterday between Parata, Key, Bill English, Steven Joyce and Gerry Brownlee was where the decision was made. The rationale can only be speculative – but my hunch is that the growing untenability of the government’s position was becoming clear days beforehand. A turning point would have been the 2005 interview that surfaced online in which Prime Minister John Key indicated that he’d chosen to put his own children into private schooling, because he believed the class sizes there would be smaller.

The hypocrisy of that stance - while publicly claiming that class size was a minor matter - was breath-taking. Luckily, Key was then quickly out of the country, but he would have been returning to face a mounting crisis in which his personal integrity (the jewel in the government’s crown) would have been under scrutiny. At crunch, Parata had to have this sorted before Key came back from overseas. Thus, she had only this week to damp down the protests or give up the policy. She failed to stem the tide. The rest is now history.

Still, as least we now know what Social Development Minister Paula Bennett was really on about earlier in the week - with her weird headline-grabbing musings about how she and her colleagues had been thinking about ways to curtail (short of sterilisation) the rights to have children of those previously convicted of crimes against children. It was a diversion, pure and simple. (There is already legislation, and agencies devoted to the care of children at risk and - note - Bennett wasn’t talking about giving them any more resources.) In reality, Bennett was trying to distract the media from focussing on her colleague Parata’s folly, and she succeeded brilliantly in doing so. The media took the bait. Never underestimate the readiness of the middle class commentariat to debate and pronounce on the breeding habits of the underclass.

Finally, the backdown by Parata stands in interesting contrast to the outcome on national standards – which were also widely opposed by education professionals and by many, many school boards up and down the country. Parata is alleged to be widely competent (though as she told RNZ she didn’t consult on this issue) and is being touted by some as a potential future leader of the National Party. Yet when it comes down to getting runs on the board…Anne Tolley, Parata’s widely derided predecessor as Minister got her national standards policy through. Parata failed to do likewise.


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