These three articles are an interesting read on the recent widespread debate over the proposed changes in the education budget.
Audrey Young – NZ Herald
It wasn’t until two days after the Budget that National Cabinet ministers in Auckland started to realise the backlash against their education changes was serious.
They were attending the party’s northern regional conference at Waipuna Lodge in Mt Wellington.
On the way in, they had passed John Minto et al, protesting as usual. As John Key noted at the time, the protesters couldn’t stay for lunch because they had another protest to go to outside Mt Eden Prison.
What Key and his cohort didn’t expect was the rumbling of protest on the floor of their own conference – an unmistakable anxiety about what the changes to class ratios meant for schools.
One delegate was especially disturbed at a notice that Murray’s Bay Intermediate School on the North Shore had sent home to parents on Friday afternoon.
It was written by principal Colin Dale, a self-declared centre-right thinker, and it was headed “Budget Deceitful and Bad for Our Students”.
“It was suggested that a small increase in class sizes could be tolerated in return for an improvement in educational quality,” it said.
“Rather than receiving a small adjustment in staff, the staffing of all intermediates and schools with Year 7 and 8 students across the country has been slashed. Some schools will lose seven or eight teachers. We will lose [more than] six teachers. This was not signalled prior to the Budget and was not part of the announcement.”
The only people more surprised at the Budget outcome than the intermediate schools were the Cabinet ministers who had signed off on the policy without realising its effects.
It seems they ticked it off at a Cabinet meeting chock-a-block with Budget items and were satisfied by assurances that 90 per cent of schools would barely feel the difference.
Delegates to the conference initially directed their questions to Steven Joyce.
They should have gone to English who had been laying the groundwork for changes to the ratios since 2009.
He has made no secret of his frustration that so much of the growth in Vote Education was swallowed up by automatic increases under the funding formula rather than discretionary decision.
In letters to the previous Education Minister Anne Tolley, English began raising questions about pressures on roll growth and staffing entitlement.
Nothing was done in the first term but the message that teacher quality mattered more to student achievement than class size was successfully seeded.
Hekia Parata is a political protege of Bill English. She first stood for National in 2002 under his leadership, quit the party after Don Brash’s Orewa speech, then stood again successfully in 2008.
The National Party delegates who raised questions were told to raise them with Education Minister Parata at her break-out session.
She was in a typically bouncy mood at the conference. After the difficulties her predecessor, Tolley, faced with the education sector bedding-in national standards to primary schools, Parata had worked hard to be respected. She was touted as a potential future leader.
On that Sunday morning she could easily have felt that any disgruntlement over the class ratios had been confined to rude press statements by union leaders and concerns by polite professional groups.
By Tuesday the smile had vanished from her face.
Parata’s attempts over several days to reassure parents, teachers, colleagues and conference delegates that things would not be as bad as they seemed on paper had failed to quell concerns. Her explanation that a greater drive for teacher quality was a worthwhile tradeoff for minor increases in class size was drowned out.
The fact that there would be a working party and extra funding to help the 244 worst-affected schools transition over four years didn’t wash.
Nor did the claim that “provider” intermediates that lost automatic funding for technology staff would be able to get it back if contributing schools bought their services.
She repeated her assurances that 90 per cent of schools would lose less than one full-time teacher or even gain a teacher, but her credibility was undermined when neither she nor the ministry would tell schools how they would be affected until September.
By Monday Key and and the Cabinet realised they were in serious trouble.
One of the worst affected schools was Albany Junior High, in Key’s electorate, and two, Murray’s Bay Intermediate and Northcross Intermediate, were in Murray McCully’s electorate.
English’s Budget plan was going off the rails. It was no longer the penny-pinching Budget that ended tax refunds for paperboys or slowed the rising threshold for aged residential care.
It was the Budget that could see cuts to frontline staff expressly contrary to National Party promises.
At caucus the next day Key was able to assure MPs who had been lobbied by teachers, parents, and sector groups that help was on the way. That afternoon he announced that schools would lose no more than two teacher entitlements over three years rather than the seven, eight or nine staff they feared.
At Murray’s Bay Intermediate Dale had received 163 messages of support for his first newsletter and two against. He sent out a second newsletter headed “Progress with Budget Cuts Protest”.
“We are making progress but we are still applying all the pressure we can to help the Minister of Education understand the profound innate problems in her recent decision to change the formula to schools,” he wrote. “In my view we must continue to protest and we have a very powerful list of actions should we be ignored.”
Exactly when during the process Parata realised what the huge impact would be on intermediate and middle schools she is not willing to say.
But incredibly the Cabinet learned about it only after she had made her pre-Budget announcement in a speech to a business audience in Wellington on May 16.
There were nine days between her announcement and the actual Budget.
Gary Sweeney, the principal of Pukekohe Intermediate, and president of the Association of Intermediate and Middle Schooling, read the pre-Budget release on the May 16.
It set out the new ratios for Years 1 to 13 but it made no mention of the one teacher to 120 students ratio that intermediates got for technology teachers in Years 7 and 8, so he emailed Parata’s office that night to ask what had happened to it.
He received a call the next morning from one of the ministerial advisers to say he would have to wait until Budget Day, when he was invited to a briefing in Parata’s office.
In the meantime he, like most other principals, assumed his school would be part of the lucky 90 per cent. Commentators were praising the Government for their strategy in getting the bad news out of the way earlier.
It became clear to schools only on Budget Day that the 1-to-120 ratio for technology teachers had been assigned to individual children in contributing schools rather than to the intermediate or technology centres providing classes – and what a devastating affect that would have.
It took a few days for that to become widespread knowledge.
No one is willing to say it was an error. But principal Colin Dale says McCully had admitted as much.
Parata is not willing to say when she knew that intermediates would be so badly affected, possibly because any answer would be embarrassing.
If she knew about it earlier and did not inform her Cabinet colleagues, that would show unforgivably poor judgment.
If she didn’t know about the consequences of her own policy, that would show dismal oversight by her, plus incompetence or stealth by Education and Treasury officials, and more likely all of the above.
Despite her refusal to answer, it has become clear from her public comments which it was.
She did not know the effects before she announced the ratios on May 16. However, she found out before Budget Day because she was forced to defend at her post-Budget briefing.
She was effectively forced by former Education Minister and Speaker Lockwood Smith to admit that she had not asked for a list of all 2436 schools and how they would be affected to present to Cabinet.
She has also said the Government never intended such extreme results. And she has refused to say she was happy with the Ministry of Education’s modelling – rather saying they had all learned lessons.
By the end of last week it was evident that the mitigation measure announced on Tuesday had had no effect.
The issue was gaining momentum as time went on, not losing it.
Support partners United Future’s Peter Dunne and the Maori Party’s Tariana Turia were voicing concerns. The media was having a field day.
The public seemed unaffected by the backdown to limit the damage to schools – the issue had been elevated to a matter of principle and pragmatism wasn’t cutting it.
The Prime Minister left for Europe on Thursday, the day Parata faced a noisy demonstration at Paremata, her home patch.
On Thursday and Friday senior ministers Joyce, Brownlee and English, were discussing whether to abandon the policy or to make a further backdown – to alleviate the cause of the policy distortion, the technology teachers’ allowance.
English was not convinced it should be abandoned as this would put the issue off-limits for years to come. Budget backdowns can weaken a Finance Minister as George Osborne is finding out in Britain, with his third this year.
Ministers went into Queen’s Birthday Weekend with the issue unresolved.
With Key away, English chaired Cabinet on Tuesday this week. He agreed to meet Sweeney beforehand to hear first-hand the concerns of the intermediate principals.
That day more debate was had. There were three options: hang tough and let it die down, make more changes to the policy, or abandon it.
Tuesday was the G7 meeting, a coalition of education sector groups uniting in their demands for a reversal of the policy. It was no day for a backdown by Government.
They did what most governments do when in doubt – do some polling – and decided to revisit the issue later in the week.
Parata headed north to Tolaga Bay on Wednesday to watch the passage of Venus across the face of the sun.
Key received the polling results in London on his Wednesday. They showed that the messaging around teacher quality resonated strongly, leading to the conclusion that the policy could have been accepted if it had been done properly.
But the polling also showed a huge depth of feeling against the changes.
Brownlee headed down to Parata’s office for a 10am conference call with Joyce, who was on his way back from Tolaga Bay, English, en route to Whakatane, and Key, who had recently arrived at his hotel in Hamburg.
Unless they backed down, the meeting concluded, they would be fighting it forever, and destroying the prospects of a promising and important minister.
The decision was obvious and it was announced by Parata at 2pm.
Murray’s Bay principal Colin Dale sent out his third newsletter on the subject soon afterwards headed “Government hears our Concerns”.
This time he wrote: “I am delighted to inform you that all the staff and Board of Trustees at Murray’s Bay Intermediate applaud the Government’s decision to keep the student teacher ratios as they are at present … They have listened and acted appropriately.”
John Hartevelt – Stuff
It was, we were told, a “small change” to the teacher-pupil ratios that fund schools. Even as it was announced, however, it was obvious there was nothing “small” about it.
A week before the Budget, Education Minister Hekia Parata rose from a pastry-and-fruit-juice-laden table at Wellington’s Duxton Hotel to tell a breakfast audience of business men and women that she was putting words into action.
“We are opting for quality not quantity, better teaching not more teachers,” she said.
Instead of the existing range of seven different funding ratios, there would, from next year, be only three.
New entrants would remain at 1:15, but every other year level would be changed – some for the better, some for the worse.
She did not say it, but it was immediately obvious this implied hundreds of thousands of pupils would be taught in bigger classes.
There was no way to be sure exactly how many, because New Zealand schools are autonomous about how they spread the resources they get from the government.
But there was no doubt those resources would be squeezed, narrowing the options for many schools. Ms Parata eventually disclosed estimates that showed 1010 schools would face cuts of varying degrees – in a few cases, funding for seven or eight teachers would vanish.
Yet even after abandoning the policy, both Prime Minister John Key and Ms Parata continued to insist their plan amounted to little more than a “modest” adjustment.
They still say tradeoffs are necessary if more resource is to be pumped into lifting teacher quality.
But experts – and even one of the Government’s own top education bureaucrats – question the logic and wisdom of a “tradeoff”.
In the first place, the amount proposed to be cut, $174million, was nearly three times as great as the amount proposed to be spent, $60m. And whereas the colour of the cuts was vivid in larger class sizes and possible technology centre closures, details of the spend were thin.
There was little more than vague promises to retain, grow and attract the “best talent” into the teaching profession.
All teachers will soon have to achieve a post-graduate qualification before joining the profession. A new teacher appraisal system will also be developed to better identify and reward “quality” – performance pay is likely. Ms Parata has also mentioned “stronger mentoring and coaching” for newly qualified teachers.
But even with the now-scrapped $60m extra spending, none of the measures on the upside of the “tradeoff” would have any impact until some years down the track, well after the downside from the cuts has been absorbed.
A FRUSTRATED Teachers Council director, Peter Lind, dished up a sweeping critique of the Government’s plan a day before the reversal was announced.
Dr Lind suggested a whole range of consequences had not been explored.
Though teacher numbers have grown by nearly 13 per cent against roll growth of only 2.5 per cent over the past decade, the proposed effective cap on the teacher workforce was not straightforward, particularly when the new post-graduate requirement was introduced.
“If I was a student now and looking at my particular options, if there wasn’t going to be an option for me to be employed in the next three, four or five years, I’d seriously think whether that’s a good option for me to take,” Dr Lind said.
A lot of money ploughed in to boosting teacher-training quality might be wasted if there was a dearth of jobs for graduates.
Dr Lind suggested that the Government had become fixated on certain aspects of “teacher quality” and wrongly assumed class sizes could be considered separate from quality teaching.
“One of the things about quality teaching is the ability to provide detailed feedback from assessment to students and learners. To be able to do that, you need to be able to provide teachers the opportunity to interact with their students in an effective way.”
A chorus of experts, on top of the teacher unions, on top of parents, seemed to recognise the significance of class size in quality, where the Government did not. Small class sizes support quality teaching and quality teaching becomes more difficult in larger classes.
But could large-enough gains in teacher quality out-do any detrimental effects from larger class sizes?
Victoria University’s dean of education, Professor Dugald Scott, thinks there are “huge gains” to be made from improving teacher quality.
Years of driving down class sizes appears to have done little to improve achievement, so perhaps it is worth considering a shift in priorities, he suggests.
“Probably adding two or three kids probably won’t make much difference, but adding 10 would,” Prof Scott says.
The gap between the top and bottom pupils within Kiwi schools is the widest in the developed world. Little more than half of all Maori and Pasifika pupils are achieving NCEA level 2.
“We have to look and say there are some teaching practices that seem to work better than others. We need to identify those and the circumstances in which they exist.”
Unions have challenged the view, however, that the education system is not responding to the challenge of improving its performance.
The overall pass rate for NCEA level 2 has climbed from 56.5 per cent in 2004 up to 65.7 per cent in 2010. And though only about 53 per cent of Maori and Pasifika pupils passed NCEA level 2 in 2010, that was a vastly better result than in 2004, when only one-third passed.
Dr Lind worried that the reforms announced by Ms Parata put the gains at risk.
“I don’t think we can say that we’re anywhere near where we want to be, but by the same token to get those extra gains does need a commitment in resourcing.”
– © Fairfax NZ News
John Armstrong – NZ Herald
If Hekia Parata is to remain in the education portfolio for any length of time, she needs to stop spouting meaningless blather.
Repeatedly mouthing platitudes about being “passionate about raising student achievement” or “getting five out of five kids succeeding” – her latest piece of vapidity – is just not good enough coming from a front-bench minister.
Spin is one thing. Endlessly parroting a line is something else.
Someone of her seniority needs to display flexibility, even wit, and above all, the capacity to think on her feet, especially in Parliament where reputations can be built and destroyed in a matter of seconds.
It’s a question of knowing when to stonewall and when to be more forthcoming. The resort to platitudes suggests a lack of confidence when the political blow-torch is directed at her portfolio.
The truth is that the Education Minister’s botched handling of the cost-cutting blunder, which initially would have seen some schools losing up to five teacher positions, has brutally exposed her political shortcomings.
The Cabinet may have signed off the policy, but the buck stops with her as the responsible minister – something which, to her credit, she acknowledged while fronting Thursday’s backdown.
The previous talk of Parata being a future leader of the National Party may not be totally askew. John Key obviously rates her. Her career path, which includes time in the high-powered, intellectually challenging Prime Minister’s advisory unit, is positively stellar compared to some of her colleagues.
But politics demands the skills of an all-rounder. The past fortnight has revealed starkly how far she has to travel in that regard.
It now looks like her elevation to the front bench may have come too early. She was in the Cabinet for barely a year in very junior portfolios before her promotion to this role.
Little wonder she is struggling in a portfolio which has severely tested politicians of the calibre of Nick Smith, Trevor Mallard and Phil Goff in his younger days. Her poor showing has left her a passenger in the portfolio – as was the case with her predecessor, Anne Tolley.
The puzzle is why Key did not hand the portfolio to a more experienced MP from the start.
Education has been something of a Cinderella in National. As Opposition spokesman, Bill English made a substantial difference but his successors, Katherine Rich and then Tolley, didn’t have the same impact.
Unlike other leaders of his party, Key saw the potential to make education a political weapon that could work for National if it sided with consumers – parents – rather than the producers – teachers.
What National forgot in recent weeks was that the consumers had been told for years smaller classes were the end-game – not bigger ones.
The subsequent backlash has probably put paid to National’s intention of making education a major plank of its 2014 election campaign. It will now be counter-productive to try to do so. Opposition parties have enough ammunition to blow National out of the water.
The kudos National won from parents through national standards, offering a more accurate and honest assessment of their child’s progress at school, has been negated.
National is now very much on the defensive. It may be promising to fund the training of better teachers but parents know such a programme will not bear fruit overnight.
It will have to make much more effort selling the charter school trials for which there is little public enthusiasm.
National had played a clever game of divide-and-rule in the education sector. No longer. The latest schemozzle has had the opposite effect, uniting the lobby groups. It will now be more difficult for National to introduce performance pay for teachers.
Even worse, perhaps, for National is that this episode will inevitably resurrect voters’ doubts about whether the party can really be trusted at election time.
The complaint now is that National did not say anything about increasing teacher-pupil ratios in its election manifesto. But it was not looking at that time for possible budget savings.
A bigger beef can be made over Parata’s over-selling of spending initiatives in the Budget. She trumpeted an extra $511.9 million over four years.
Ministers use the four-year figure because that reflects the Treasury’s spending horizon. But ministers also refer to the four-year figure because it sounds like they have extracted substantial extra cash from a tight-wad Minister of Finance.
Year-by-year figures are not so flash. Asked by the Herald to provide an annual breakdown of the spending initiatives announced before last month’s Budget, Parata’s office was the only one of several in the Beehive which failed to supply it.
Fortunately, the Ministry of Education was not so reticent. The year-by-year amounts show, for example, that the four-year increase of $83 million in school operating grants totals only $12 million in the coming financial year.
The gutting of the revised teacher-pupil ratios means Parata will now also have to find savings of $174 million over four years to pay for those spending initiatives.
The more immediate question for National is just how big a hit it will take in the polls from the backlash.
Last week’s TVNZ poll recorded near 80 per cent opposition to bigger class sizes. But the question was too loaded to have any meaning. TV3’s poll this weekend may have been conducted too soon to have picked up any positives from the minister’s backdown.
It is always tempting to single out events which occurred in the polling period as responsible for shifts in party allegiance.
The reality is that simple cause-and-effect propositions do not apply unless events are truly extraordinary or are of truly cataclysmic proportions. If it were just cause and effect, party support levels would oscillate wildly like demented yo-yos.
There’s only one example of a sudden turnaround in support in the last decade – Don Brash’s Orewa speech on the Treaty. Its success was down to it tapping directly into a strong groundswell of anti-Treaty sentiment felt by people who were frustrated they could not voice their frustration. Brash did it for them.
In Parata’s case, the furore over teacher-student ratios may be the thing that tips the balance against National following a trail of mishaps and calamities in the first half of this year. Then again it may not.
Take the TVNZ poll which, despite the education meltdown, had National retaining the 47 per cent support it recorded at last year’s election. Parata will be grateful for that. She can only hope TV3’s poll is similarly obliging.