Gordon Campbell on the turmoil in education

Article – Gordon Campbell

Cartoon by Martin Doyle

The Budget changes in education are following a pattern, which seems to have been learned at the Murray McCully School of Management. On the basis of what seems to be a personal animus against the professional staff involved, a relatively small amount of savings is being pursued regardless of the impact on morale and efficiency across the entire education sector. In this case, the current turmoil in education is the result of a crackpot Treasury idea that changing the ratio of teachers to students and creating bigger classes would have no fallout for the quality of education, and the money saved could then be diverted to reward teachers competing with each other on performance.

In its original form, the equation involved would have seen 90% of schools losing (or gaining) one-full time equivalent teacher, while 10% of schools would lose or gain more than one. Some intermediate schools however, would have lost as many as seven positions. Uh oh. Once the government realised the problem they had created, a “review” and a “contingency fund” was set up to provide assurances that at most only two FTE positions would be lost from the schools affected, at least over the next three years. (And after that? There would be a further “policy review” at that time. We’ll figure it out somehow.)

And this is supposed to be a rational policy based on the best educational outcomes for the children involved? What we have instead is a Treasury theory aimed at squeezing the last drops of cost savings from the sector in order to fund its own ideological ideas about teacher performance – which, in its opinion, should be about promoting competition and individual payment rewards, within what has always been a highly collegial profession. (And since the best teachers can cope with anything you throw at them, who needs to care about class sizes? Only the losers won’t be able to cope, and they’re best driven out of the profession.) On top of all this, the Education Ministry seems to have been incapable of doing the relevant modelling in a competent fashion:

The new funding formula ratios were announced in the week before last Thursday’s Budget but the crucial piece of information affecting Years 7 and 8 (form one and two) was not admitted until after the Budget was delivered.

Under flawed Ministry of Education modelling, an extra one-teacher-to-120-student ratio normally given to schools providing subjects such as art, cooking and woodwork, was attributed to contributing schools rather than to provider schools. Ms Parata told the Herald this week: “What has become really clear in that is that the Year 7 and 8 have had a 10-year provision for technology, the provision of which was not fully modelled.”

You bet. This turmoil was meant to save $43 million – which is peanuts, as Vernon Small pointed out in the Dom-Post the other day, in the context of a $70 billion Budget. As Small also suggested, couldn’t we have both – more money for teacher performance and smaller class sizes – given that all it would take to afford both would be the deferment of a few kilometres of the roading funds set aside in the Budget ? From that initial $43 million, we can now subtract the cost of the $10-20 million transitional “contingency fund” needed to assist the schools worst affected – but at this point, the government has no idea what net savings (and how many fresh costs associated with the two FTE positions cap) will finally eventuate:

Today Ms Parata said the contingency fund had been set aside prior to the Budget and the exact cost of the teacher cuts would not be known until school roll counts were received in September.

The $43 million a year the Government had anticipated would be saved and diverted to improve teaching quality as a result of the increase in class sizes will be cut because of the new cap on teaching losses but yesterday Ms Parata did not know by how much. Neither she nor Prime Minister John Key have admitted that mistakes were made in calculating the effects of the new policy and yesterday she announced the cap as “good news”.

Good news? Somewhere, Murray McCully must be smiling. Over the years, McCully has become the old master of promoting self-generated turmoil and related incompetence as a salutary exercise. Although McCully doesn’t seem to have been involved this time, it bears the hallmarks of his style, as demonstrated in the ongoing debacle at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade. Namely, you begin with a deep-seated disdain for the professionals in the sector, develop an ideological fixation on a course of change, foster a climate of fear, and demonstrate a readiness to put the entire sector at risk for illusory gains – mainly because you feel like shaking things up. While the current government likes to think it is best represented by John Key, he is so often only the fix-it guy who comes around afterwards. On a day to day basis, McCullyism is the real modus operandi of this administration.