CATHERINE DELAHUNTY (Green):
I am delighted to take a call on this issue because the estimates debate is very is important on education and the last year of spending on education reflects some of the most contradictory policy and priority setting that I have seen since I have been a parliamentarian.
It starts right at the top, for example, when the Prime Minister came out and said that he would not be too worried if his children were taught by unqualified teachers. That is right from the very top — a message that is completely at odds with what the Minister of Education has been saying about the importance of professionalism and qualifications, and, in fact, reviewing the Teachers Council registration policy. So what is it that the Government is saying?
Sure, at King’s College where the Prime Minister’s son has been, there is a snowball in hell scenario that they are going to hire unregistered or untrained teachers. It is simply not going to happen. They are going to have small classes and highly qualified staff. Meanwhile we have the Minister constantly arguing for teachers to improve their qualifications and professionalism. So which one is it: untrained and unaccountable, and publicly funded for-profit charter schools, or professionalism; national standards for students aged 6 years old, but none-standards for teachers and selected experimental not-for-profit situations.
Let us talk about charter schools just for a minute, because they are addressed in the estimates. The Government put aside $230,000 for the charter school working party headed by Catherine Isaac — clearly not exactly a neutral figure in the eyes of anyone who has anything to do with education or politics. And what that working party has said is that they will develop options for schools where there will be public money put in, but people like those in Destiny can apply. All kinds of people can apply, they can be as fundamentalist, as ideologically driven as they like, and they will not necessarily have to meet the same standards that are expected in public schools, which, when you think it is public money, is pretty appalling.
The Green Party is not arguing that there should not be choice in education. If people want their children to be taught by fundamentalists of any stripe, or encouraged to believe that homosexuality is a sin, or that climate change is a myth, or that evolution is anti-Christian, for example, then do that, but pay for the privilege. Do not ask us to pay as a country for that privilege. That is what the private education system offers. We are talking about public money going into a weird experiment that has failed all over the world.
So we are very concerned that this Budget reinforces that idea. We are also appalled by the contradictions between statements the Prime Minister has made and the statements the Minister has made on this issue. Let us then move to the other disaster area in education: the class size one, as my colleague Nanaia Mahuta has touched on, was a back-down that reflected a long planned, but badly planned, vision that nobody except Treasury could give any credence to. It just shows you what happens when people do not have a vision in education: it is not about anything except money. Treasury wrote the book and said: “Let’s have a plan to actually make this affordable. Let’s cut back on education. Let’s pretend it’s an investment.” But Treasury could not convince the rest of the country.
It had the Government on its side but nobody else — nobody else. So we saw fantastic unity across a sector that is not always unified and does not always speak with one voice, and the Government was forced to do a back-down. Well, that is an indication not that it had learnt, and not that it believed that the parents were right, but that it had realised it could not sell the policy. This was a cynical and depressing scenario, because we asked the Minister of Education whether she had changed her view after hearing from parents, and she said she had not. She still thought it was a great idea, and it is very, very sad for the parents and children of New Zealand that that was the agenda.
Some information on national standards was put on the website last week, and, again, it is a real mess. It is a real cut-and-paste job. You cannot understand what you are reading, you do not know what it is that you are going to get — sorry, not you, Mr Chair — what the parents will get, and it does not make any sense. The moderation tool that is being developed at great expense — about $5 million has been spent so far on developing the work around national standards, but it is not finished — will not be ready until 2014.
So what are people going to make of that? The Government put up a policy that had no tool for creating any kind of moderation, and although it will not be on offer until 2014, somehow the parents are going to get the benefit of reading the data that are completely different from school to school. That is somehow supposed to be softening the parents up for the standards. Even if you believed that was a good idea, it is a bad way to have gone about it. The Green Party does not think that league tables are a good idea. We think that league tables are for sports teams. League tables are great in the Olympics, but they are not for children. Labels are useful on jam jars, but not on children.
Our fundamental problem with national standards is not the way that they are being delivered but the idea that a narrow mechanism that reduces the New Zealand curriculum — which is upheld around the world as a valuable and broad curriculum — to a narrow set of literacy and numeracy standards is narrowing teachers’ requirements to teach-to-test. No matter what the Government says, there is huge anxiety out there. It would be interesting if people listened to the evidence of people like Professor Martin Thrupp, who went to England and looked at the model over there. Some countries have gone around the track, and they have followed the track of increasingly narrowing and teaching-to-test—Britain is one of them—and others, for example, Finland and some of the Asian countries, have gone the opposite way and have invested in a broad curriculum. The results are very clear.
Britain and the United States are failing the children who are already struggling because of poverty and social context. Initiatives like national standards only create anxiety, and they are driving teachers out of the profession — because people become teachers from the sense of moral mission to give an input into children’s lives. Children need the best people in this country, but the best people will be driven out if we narrow what has been established as being an excellent curriculum and turn it into a bunch of mechanisms. It is lovely to read numbers; they make life really simple, but guess what? Numbers do not reflect the reality of what the complex matter of each child’s individual learning is actually about. I wonder whether the Government actually looks at what learning means instead of what numbers mean when it set up these standards, because the standards are absolutely incapable of delivering rich and contextual — which is what the Minister calls it — information for parents.
It is a sad sight when you see this being justified on a daily basis in this House. It is not what people voted for at all. They voted for the idea of our kids all doing well. What they got was this mechanistic, failed system, which is incoherent and has not even been properly moderated. Quite frankly, that, along with class sizes and charter schools, is an unmitigated disaster. What is also a disaster is the lack of coherence in the Government’s way of relating to the sector. You cannot improve children’s learning unless you have good relationships not only with child and teacher but also with teachers and politicians. I am not saying the teachers always get it right, but what I am saying is that declaring war on the education sector, the academics, and the professionals is not the way in which you make change happen. We all agree that there are kids who need more support in school. And some of us know that is because the goal of the school system should be equity.
The Finns are at the top of the Programme for International Student Assessment table, because the goal of their education system is not achievement; it is equity. Equity comes first, then participation, and then achievement. But why listen to the experts? After all, the Finns have many good models, which we would do better to look at than looking at Britain and the United States, where we have these bizarre failures. Look at New Orleans. Hurricane Katrina has turned into an educational disaster. What happened is that public schooling has collapsed. Because of the disaster they have brought in these experimental charter schools — these for-profits — and as a result you have children falling through the cracks in greater numbers than ever before. That is a tragedy.
We must make sure that we do not let what has been a good education system become a game for Treasury, an experiment for the Government, and a sacrifice of the good things, under the fake mythology that what we need is running schools like a business. What we need is to run education for liberation, for life, and for life-long learning. It is not a mechanistic business. It is a mission. We should take on the Finns’ ideal, which is that not everybody can be a teacher. They invest a huge amount in teacher training. They say that if you want to lift the quality of the education system, you must lift the quality of the people who are allowed to be teachers. So instead of saying the most fabulous job you can have is to be a corporate financial speculator, or some kind of merchant banker, or that being a lawyer or even an MP is the best job in the world — the best job in the world needs to be a teacher.