[The government reversed its teacher-student ratio policy shortly after this column was written. Read Matthew Hooton's take on that development here - Editor.]
“Fiasco” is charitable.
Hekia Parata’s mishandling of school staffing has given the 2014 advantage to the Labour/Green alliance, over the Key/Peters alternative.
Ms Parata of course has a point. Seeing ever-smaller class sizes as a holy grail is comparatively new.
Reviewing my own primary classes at King’s Prep in the late 1970s and early 1980s, there were 19 in J1 but 33 to 34 thereafter. At Auckland Grammar, classes averaged 35. These are exactly the schools that unions say promote themselves as having smaller classes than elsewhere.
Meanwhile, Treasury boss Gabriel Makhlouf highlights research suggesting that moving from a class with an average teacher to one with a high-performing teacher is equivalent to reducing a student’s class size by 10 – far more plausible than arguing a class of 24 is always better than one of 27.
But all this is irrelevant. Even Mr Makhlouf agrees class sizes matter, a belief that has been drummed into parents.
It is a mystery that a government so petrified of touching big spending items like superannuation, Working for Families or interest-free student loans was so cavalier about such a sensitive issue, all to save $43 million, just 0.5% of this year’s $8.4 billion deficit.
Transparency is best
As it happens, I was press secretary to then education minister Lockwood Smith when National last changed teacher:student ratios, in 1995.
To develop the policy, the minister chaired a Ministerial Reference Group of the School Trustees Association, principals groups and even the teacher unions, with all working collaboratively with officials to model different formulae.
The minister personally did much of the maths.
For the announcement, regional reporters were flown to Wellington for a seminar on all the detail, followed by a ministerial press conference in the cabinet committee room as the prime minister announced the initiative in parliament.
Dr Smith was so over the detail that he forgot his sound bites.
This meant, however, that he could tell Prliament that Turakina Maori Girls College would be worst affected, losing 2.6 teachers, while Cockle Bay School was the biggest winner, gaining 3.9 teachers. Their new teacher:student ratios would be 1:13 and 1: 23.1 respectively.
Unlike Ms Parata, Dr Smith had some money to play with but, in both cases, most schools won while only a minority lost out. All hell still broke loose of course, but the government was proud of what it was doing, transparent and had the sector groups onside.
Bolger vs Key
What can explain Dr Smith’s superior handling of a difficult announcement?
Having cut student allowances, dissembled over tertiary fees, promoted bulk-funding and trialled vouchers, he was number 3 only to Ruth Richardson and Jenny Shipley on the public enemies list.
Ms Parata, in contrast, is seen as a political star and potential party leader.
The first factor is the experience of being unpopular. Dr Smith assumed a negative response to his announcements and prepared accordingly.
The second is the relative political skills of the prime minister. Jim Bolger focused on things like bold economic and social reforms, eliminating the deficit in his first term, achieving 6.2% economic growth in 1994 and 5.3% in 1995, and winning three elections – meaning he never developed the stage talent of John Key.
That meant Dr Smith knew he didn’t have the backup of a popular prime minister to ride to his rescue if things went wrong.
Third is the intellectual climate around Mr Key’s Beehive. Previous prime ministers held all-day cabinet meetings and encouraged vicious cross-examination of ministers at caucus.
According to those with experience with both, Mr Key’s cabinet meetings are far more laid back. Backbenchers are now discouraged from asking questions at caucus, which tends to focus on the latest polls.
The fourth factor is Murray McCully, the chairman of Mr Bolger’s communications apparatus. As an electorate MP, Mr McCully knew to ask how any education announcement would affect Long Bay College. Failing to answer meant postponing the planned announcement.
Mr McCully’s role is now held by Steven Joyce who has never stood for an electorate, let alone been upbraided by principals after local prize-givings. Ms Parata has no electorate either.
These factors meant the Beehive thought it could hide the announcement in the bottom half of a pre-budget press release.
Now, on advice, Ms Parata refuses to meet the groups that even the arch anti-unionist Dr Smith worked with. And all this is to raise $43 million for teacher quality programmes.
If Mr Joyce, as tertiary education minister, would just inflation-adjust his student loan portfolio, Ms Parata could have teacher quality programmes ten times bigger than envisaged, without changing teacher:student ratios at all.