Written by Terry Bates – CEO, Cognition Education Ltd
Over the past weekend we watched the Labour Party elect a new leader. Foremost in the minds of Labour Party members, we are told, was Mr Cunliffe’s sharp intellect and his perceived ability to “take the fight” to the government. On the face of it, this augurs well for the health of our democracy and will give the “political junkies” in this readership the prospect of a much enlivened year leading into the General Election.
The popular wisdom in New Zealand is that elections are won or lost in the mid-range of voter preferences. For that reason it has often been difficult to distinguish the policy platforms of our two major political parties and for around 25 years there has been a significant public policy consensus between National and Labour in a number of areas. Both parties have been resolutely committed to the management of a low-inflation economy. In the Education area, the administrative blueprint originally called “Tomorrow’s Schools” has remained largely unchallenged since its inception.
In 2006, Labour’s Education Minister, Steve Maharey seemed to flirt briefly with the idea of a wider system review with a particular focus on the performance and role of boards of trustees. The idea was quickly trounced by the then Opposition spokesman Bill English who pungently characterized the proposal as threatening, “all-intrusive centralized control of the education system”.
Anti-bureaucrat rhetoric has long played well in the New Zealand electorate. With the memory of Trevor Mallard’s unpopular programme of school closures still haunting them, Mr Maharey’s Cabinet colleagues seemed to persuade him to quickly drop the idea. This was a shame. If there was ever an area of political consensus that seems worthy of close examination, it is the proposition that value in our public education spend is most likely to be extracted by distributing the control of that spend and in particular responsibility for the performance of the teaching work-force across more than 2,500 community boards.
Currently neither of the major political parties would appear to have much appetite for reviewing the locus of school control or critically examining the impact on system performance. Mr Cunliffe’s success has been backed by promises to take the Labour Party to the left – an appeal to reinvigorating traditional Labour voters has also been central to the stump rhetoric for the top job. Within the party that bias will tend to reinforce locally elected school boards as an important expression of participatory democracy – they are after all the smallest unit of representation in our polity.
On the government benches we can hardly expect a Prime Minister committed to lowering the numbers employed in government administration to have much enthusiasm for any move that appears to offer the prospect of diminishing school autonomy in favour of strengthened central bureaucratic control. For different reasons the ideological biases drive to the same place. There is little motivation for either Mr Key or Mr Cunliffe to disturb the administrative status quo.
Yet that status quo is a fundamental impediment to creating the sense of national mission and unified purpose that is required to systematically address the embedded patterns of Maori and Pasifika underachievement that have exercised Education Ministers both in the current National-led government and the previous Labour-led administration. System fragmentation inevitably mitigates against system responsiveness.
As examples, Ministers Parata and Mallard (despite political differences) are and have been articulate and worthy champions of the educationally marginalized. However, they have both been up against a lack of system coherence exacerbated by conflictual mind-sets that so often characterize sector-government relationships. As illustration, look no further than the tensions over the implementation of National Assessment Standards and the puzzlingly negative reaction in some quarters of the profession to the recent prospect of a nationally applicable moderation tool (PACT) to improve the consistency of teacher judgements in assessing those standards. Professional trust of government intentions (and vice-versa) often seems in unnecessarily short supply for a nation of our size.
Both Mr Key and Mr Cunliffe are possessed of formidable intellects and motivations. They are very well educated. They have both enjoyed conspicuous personal success. Both men come from relatively modest family backgrounds and they both appear (albeit by different means) genuinely determined to create and foster the economic and social conditions that will maximize the life chances of New Zealanders. Given their backgrounds and as our two leading politicians they are well-placed to elevate the public policy debate in education.
In the contest for the Treasury benches, it would be optimistic to expect Messrs Key and Cunliffe not to be embroiled in election-year pamphleteering and associated polemic. After all that’s their job. But polemic has its limits. It would be good to hear both leaders commit to the need to forge a new educational policy consensus focused on building high trust relationships with the profession and creating a genuine sense of shared educational mission for the nation expressed in a durable accord between government agencies, school boards, teacher professional groups and the unions.
A good place to start would be cross-party endorsement of the proposed reforms to teacher professional credentialling being sponsored by the current Minister. The ideas are worthy. They deserve considered debate. For teachers the reforms appear to offer a genuine opportunity to control and enforce professional standards and develop a stronger professional voice. They seem likely to contribute to improved system intelligence and responsiveness. In the search for a new consensus, that seems a handy departure point.