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Pathways-ED: Yes, Minister. It's not quite as simple as that!

Stuart Middleton
15 December 2011


There is always interest when the captain of the team tells who will be playing in what position and the announcement of the cabinet posts earlier this week was no exception.

In fact this single theme could well serve this government right across the array of education sectors. Accountability in education in New Zealand is not one of our strong points – no-one is clearly held responsible for failure and disengagement. If we are to have National Standards for the schooling sector, the close scrutiny of NCEA results and accountability measures and levers for the tertiary sector then let’s develop a scorecard for the performance of a government in education and the performance of the Education Ministers as a team.

The Auckland Council has set the pace in this by building into its Auckland Plan clear goals , targets and priorities in education that are centred on three clear statements well familiar to readers of EdTalkNZ – 100% access to quality early childhood education, Level 2 NCEA for each and every young person and postsecondary qualification for all school leavers. The team of government education Ministers would do well to focus on these as a measure for the difference they make while in office.

And as they should be measured as a team, it will be no good if each of them simply gets on with their patch while ignoring the fact that young people have to navigate a system characterised by transitions and tracks that seemingly lack continuity. They will have to work together. So what about each Ministers role?

The continuity in the Tertiary Education portfolio is welcomed and Hon Steven Joyce will bring the sort of focus that is critical to continuing the progress to towards a system that is accountable for results and measured by them. Without the distraction of ships sitting on rocks and trains running under the rocks in Auckland, the Minister can with profit focus on working with his Minister of Education colleague to make Youth Guarantee (something of a flagship policy for this government) reach full expression.

The Minister of Education, Hon Hekia Parata, brings wide experience in the state sector to the role and provided that there can be a clear focus in her tenure in the role, she will do well. The being-all-things-to-all-people-approach has never worked and will never work. I would not think that Minister Parata will fall into that trap. Schooling is a simple process – students arrive at school ready to go – well more of them would if we got the ECE business right – and over 9 years lay the foundations for future learning.

A focus in the nine years of a general education simply has to be on essential skills and knowledge. We get it brilliantly right with the top end of the cohort and the challenge is to get it right for all young ones. To achieve this, schools will have to do more by doing less. Focus will be everything.

The new Minister can be expected to bring to her role an understanding of the importance of first languages and their impact on literacy development. Her colleague Hon Pita Sharples knows about all this with regard to Maori young ones and should be given scope to get on with doing what is necessary. As Minister of Education, Minister Parata might direct a lot of attention to the language needs and development of Pacific Island young ones (useful here that she is also Minister of Pacific Island Affairs), the migrant communities and Pakeha whose start in life simply hasn’t prepared them for school.

New Zealand is blessed in having an educator of the calibre of Hon Pita Sharples in the role of Associate Minister of Education. He talks about this being his last term. He must be given the opportunity to make a lasting impression as an Associate Minister of Education (and appropriately as Minister of Māori Affairs – he has much to offer to us all.

And completing the team of Education Ministers is Associate Minister of Education, Hon John Banks. I do not think for one minute that his call for charter schools was anything more than the exuberance of the agreement between ACT and the Government and his appointment to the role. It certainly wasn’t based on the ACT Manifesto, the needs of young people or the evidence that is available to us from other countries. If he wants to make a contribution he should realise that all New Zealand schools have the attributes of a charter school and set about helping the team assist all New Zealand schools to be high performing and results driven.

This concept of a team of ministers will be critical. I have written many times of the disastrous lack of connection between the parts of school in New Zealand (simply because we want so much to be like the US, the UK. Australia, and parts of Canada). If our Education Ministers can act like a team in which developments and decisions are assessed against a template of a connected and seamless education system and are measured not only for their effect in one Minister’s patch but also for their effect across the other patches, we might start to make progress.

Systemic discontinuity is clearly the greatest obstacle faced by learners in New Zealand. Any serious effort to address it at the delivery end has to be matched by an even greater effort in the approach the Government takes to education in its team of ministers. Actually it has also to be matched by a set of seamless relationships between the MOE and NZQA and TEC and ERO.

All this sounds like a Royal Commission or must they be reserved only for physical disasters?  

We wish the team of Education Ministers well.


Published inEducation

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