John Key has once again shown himself to be the master pragmatist with an eye for winning votes, even if it requires moving to the left sometimes.
The education reforms announced yesterday are a strategic masterstroke and position his National Government incredibly smartly for this year’s election campaign, making National appear bold, fresh, and centrist.
The new policy cleverly undercuts Labour’s growing emphasis on increasing economic inequality, while also making up ground for some very poorly received reforms and mismanagement in the education portfolio.
For the best explanation of how smart this policy is for National’s re-branding, see Vernon Small’s PM Key launches raid behind enemy lines
. He labels the new policy ‘a cheeky foray into Labour's heartland’ because it deals with traditional Labour concerns and directly seeks to appease problems many Labour voters have with the current government. Here’s the key part: ‘It was the latest example of National's election year plan to trash suggestions it is inflexible, doctrinaire or plum out of new ideas. Key to that are policies to address concerns, growing here and elsewhere in the developed world, that society is becoming more and more unequal in the wake of the Global Financial Crisis. At the same time shoring up support in the low and middle-income mortgage belt, especially among women, is crucial to National holding its roughly 45 per cent poll rating’.
Tracy Watkins also says that Key’s ‘plan will resonate not just with National's core constituency but also with Labour's’ – see: Key steal's Labour's thunder
. She astutely points out, ‘That goes to the heart of the election-year theme that has been building a head of steam under Labour and the Greens that five years of National government has led to a more unequal society, a country of haves and have-nots. Education has been National's Achilles' heel in recent times while Labour has long viewed it as a strength’.
For a dissenting view on the tactical smarts displayed in yesterday’s announcement, see Danyl Mclauchlan’s Enemy action
. He thinks that the policy won’t win National any votes. But perhaps more interesting is Mclauchlan’s observation about why all political parties are currently making education-related announcements: ‘My pop-psychology explanation for this is that parents are in the process of returning to work, sending the kids back to school, resuming life-as-usual and working long hours, not seeing that much of their kids, feeling guilty about this and transmuting that into anxiety about school and teachers and ‘doing the best for their children’, and that political parties are picking up on that anxiety and preying on them like predators raiding herds of grazing animals at a water-hole’.
Praise for National’s policy
The varied response from the left
One of the reasons National’s policy is so clever is that it is very difficult to criticise. As the Herald rightly points out, ‘How can you be highly critical of steps to lift schools' performance that have been recommended by the OECD's leading educationalist and are backed by a large body of international research? To do so risks implying that you are unconcerned if New Zealand slides further down’ – see: Govt achieves merit in new schools policy
And so, as many commentators have pointed out, Labour’s response to the policy has been noticably muted - although David Cunliffe’s line about Key’s speech being a ‘six page apology for Hekia Parata’ was a strong soundbite, and possibly the best that could be said in the circumstances. The Greens, too, are having difficulty critiquing the policy, seemingly unsure whether to totally reject the ideas or just elements of them. Metiria Turei is leading the charge to say that National’s new policy doesn’t directly impact on inequality, which contributes to educational underachievement.
The education sector groups have responded mostly positively. The strongest criticisms have been from the NZEI, which has said that ‘the Government might have also spent its money in areas such as special education and language development’ – see Radio NZ’s School groups welcome new leadership roles
In terms of strategby, another leftwing blogger, Brennan McDonald, writes ‘Well played by John Key though. Now David Cunliffe has to spend “more” on education. This means in the debate John Key can smash him with “we’re spending more but keeping the budget in line, you’re trying to bribe voters by promising something the government can’t afford”.’ – see: Spending More Money On Education
The big debate about inequality
Another reason that National’s new education policy is so strategically smart is that it indirectly responds to growing concerns about economic inequality, which is set to be one of the big debates of this election year. Yesterday, John Key couched his reforms in an egalitarian context, and sold the outcomes as being focused on reducing inequality. As the Dominion Post has reported, ‘Key is anxious to promote the scheme as an egalitarian attempt to help the poor. He has clearly seen that his government is vulnerable on this issue. In fact, there is mounting evidence of the social and economic costs of inequality, and the part it plays in our educational problems. So the prime minister is aiming at two birds with one stone, and he is rebranding himself at the same time’ – see: Education proposals refreshing
One of the main criticisms from some left politicians and activists has been that National’s education reforms ignore the impact of economic inequality on educational achievement. National blogger David Farrar has some strong points to make in response to this in his blogpost, Educational Reaction
. He says, ‘this is an announcement on education, not welfare. Turei seems to say we should do nothing to improve the education system while some families are poorer than others. How depressing. I want to see more families doing better, but there is no magic wand. Getting people out of poverty is often a generational thing as you have to confront parenting skills, welfare dependency, employment, drug and alcohol issues, and oh yeah education. But let’s deal with the big lie. I call it a lie, because the amount of research on what influences educational outcomes is massive. There have been over 50,000 studies. Over 800 meta-analysis done involving 200 million students. Professor John Hattie has done a meta meta analysis of all these studies and identified 138 factors that influence educational outcomes. Not one factor, but 138. Greens think there is just one. Now socio-economic status is important. It definitely is an influence. There have been 499 studies that looked at its effect. But is it the biggest influence. No. Is it second? No. Third? No. Top 10? Still no. Top 20? Still a no. It is No 32 and home environment by the way is No 31. So the next time the Greens say the key reason for educational decline is poverty or income inequality, don’t beat around the bush. Call them a liar’.
Another leftwing blogger – and teacher – praises the new policy, and makes a plea against the inequality issues being used to criticise it, saying ‘It is true that this policy announcement ignores what goes on outside the classroom, but this is an education policy not an outside the classroom policy. For that kind of policy there would need to be a different kind of government and I think that even with a new kind of government this policy could stand because it is an intelligent policy that has the potential for positive impacts in education’ – see: John Key vs Education
Is the policy leftwing or rightwing, or neither?
There is some ambiguity about the ideological nature of National’s education policy. On the one hand it has a very cooperative and statist approach, on the other, it has elite elements and seeks to incentivise in a more traditional neoliberal way. Rightwing commentator Matthew Hooton has tweeted to call it ‘communism by stealth’. He’s also written a strong critique of the policy on the NBR website – see: Key’s bold step left
(paywalled). Here’s the key part of Hooton’s beef with the policy: ‘Key has revealed today that National no longer trusts parental choice and competition to deliver the best for all. Instead, his interfering “panels” and “executive principals” and “expert teachers” and “lead teachers” and “change principals” are the answer. It will all obviously fail. Still, it is brilliant politics’. Hooton generally laments the demise of the Tomorrow’s Schools framework.
And it needs to be remembered that there are plenty of other barriers and problems with New Zealand’s school system, such as the costs involved for parents. The latest survey suggest that ‘For a child starting primary school this year, a state education is expected to cost $34,687, if they stay at school until year 13. That rises to $91,878 for a state-integrated education and $262,310 for a private education’ – see Siobhan Downes’ 'Free' education costs thousands
. See also, TVNZ’s High cost of 'free' education revealed in survey
Of course yesterday’s speech by John Key wasn’t just about education, but the ‘state of the nation’. For two alternative stocktakes on New Zealand’s place in the world, see Andrew Chen’s The (Actual) State of the Nation
and Karl du Fresne’s Listener feature, Our place in the world
Key’s ‘State of the Nation’ speech
Nicholas Jones (Herald): What lucrative new teaching roles mean for your child
Tracy Watkins (Stuff): School fix-it experts to get top dollar
Vernon Small (Stuff): National makes foray into Labour heartland
Dominion Post: Editorial: Education proposals refreshing
Radio NZ: School groups welcome new leadership roles
Newswire: Education plan should invigorate teaching – think tank
Claire Trevett (Herald): Critics find praise for support plan
Herald: Editorial: Govt achieves merit in new schools policy
Corin Dann (TVNZ): Big bucks to be spent on major education changes
NBR: Govt to create $150m a year 'elite teacher strike force'
Rob Salmond (Polity): Predictions about Key's speech today
The Standard: Spot the difference! Stating the nation
Bryce Edwards (Liberation): Top tweets about John Key’s state of the nation speech
Emma Joliff (TV3): Mixed reactions to new education policy
Brennan McDonald: Spending More Money On Education
Pete George (Your NZ): Teacher views on National’s education proposals
Pete George (Your NZ): Standard views on education announcement
Man of Errors: John Key vs Education
Radio NZ: Labour also has teacher reward plans
Audrey Young (Herald): PM on to a winner with teacher rewards
Nicholas Jones and Claire Trevett (Herald): Key: Leadership of NZ schools overhauled
Adam Bennett (Herald): Paying off debt is Govt's focus - Key
Tracy Watkins (Stuff): Key steal's Labour's thunder
Tracy Watkins (Stuff): National's education plan
Tracy Watkins, Hamish Rutherford, and Stacey Kirk (Stuff): Education overhaul targets top teachers
TVNZ: John Key's State of the Nation speech - the main points
TVNZ: National fails to address 'inequality' in education - Greens
Matthew Hooton (NBR): Key’s bold step left (paywalled)
David Williams (NBR): Mixed business reaction to Key's state elite teacher plan (paywalled)
Simon Wong (TV3): Key sets sights on education sector
David Farrar (Kiwiblog):Absolutely brilliant!
Rob Salmond (Polity): Key speech misses real issue
Kieran Gainsford (Left estate): Nats Keep Flailing in Education
Martyn Bradbury (Daily Blog): Key’s State of the Nation address
Stuff: Microphone catches bathroom moment
Ben Irwin (Herald): Gower's live loo stream
Herald: PM John Key's full speech to the West Auckland Business Club
Lib Wilson (Stuff): State v private - 'good in both'
TVNZ: High cost of 'free' education revealed in survey
Siobhan Downes (Stuff): 'Free' education costs thousands
Steve Deane (Stuff):'Free' schooling costs parents $35k, survey finds
Andrea O’Neil (Stuff): Sacrifices required for education
Newswire: New National MP to be sworn in
Radio NZ: Joanne Hayes declared National MP
Stuff: New MP for National
Glenn Conway (Stuff): Wagner to reveal decision on future
Scott Hamilton (Reading the Maps): Chris Finlayson's battle with language
David Farrar (Kiwiblog): What will Labour do with the $1.5 billion?
Cameron Slater (Whaleoil): Cunliffe redux on GST and Tax Cuts
Cameron Slater (Whaleoil): What sector crisis will Labour choose next…so it can recover too
Bryce Edwards (Liberation): Recent tweets on Labour Party and David Cunliffe
Stuart Nash (Daily Blog): Politics and winning
Cameron Slater (Whaleoil): Why I won’t vote Labour in 2014 – an observation by the owl
NZ left-wing debate
Paul Buchanan (Kiwipolitico): Bowed but not Beaten: A Reply to Chris Trotter’s rejoinder to “Nothing Left.”
Steven Cowan (Against the Current): WTF?!
Will de Cleene (gonzo): Noises Off!
The Standard: The Pablo-Trotter interchange – whither the left?
Offshore oil exploration
Newswire: Oil companies welcome Labour backing
Vernon Small (Stuff): Key defends oil standards
Dan Satherley (TV3): Greens realistic on oil drilling
Herald: Protesters attach banner to Anadarko exploratory vessel
David Farrar (Kiwiblog): Shane Jones wins the battle over oil drilling in Labour
The Standard: A little exploration?
Will Matthews (Left Estate): What are the Alternatives to Drilling?
Greg Presland (The Standard): Deep sea oil drilling
Ele Ludemann (Homepaddock): Red-Green split over oil
Peter Cresswell (Not PC): It must be election year
Maria Slade (Stuff): Questions around Dotcom party
Daniel Miles (JJW): Internet policy in New Zealand, or, why Kim Dotcom needs a figurative slap in the face
Idealog: Kumar trades Mega for Internet Party
Cameron Slater (Whaleoil): First Mega, then Scoop, now Baboom, the close links with the Internet Party
Brian Fallow (Herald): Oz economy still setting the pace
Stuff: Confidence at seven-year high
Michael Fox (Stuff): Ratana beckons politicians
TVNZ: Maori-Mana election year merger dead in the water
Tova O’Brien (TV3): Maori Party scouting celeb candidates
Radio NZ: Politicians vie for Maori vote
Radio NZ: Ratana church focus is on youth
Pete George (Your NZ): Harawira and unity
No Right Turn: Not reassuring
No Right Turn: More police / GCSB bullying
Waikato Times: Independent body mooted
The Standard: Herald massaging a message
David Farrar (Kiwiblog): Why does Labour never rail against private crown prosecutors?
Radio NZ: PM won't be drawn on council elections
Eric Crampton (Offsetting Behaviour): Illegal literature
David Farrar (Kiwiblog): The 2013 Kiwiblog Award Winners
Anna Leask (Herlad): Roast Busters: Police tight-lipped on progress
Matthew Dallas (Manawatu Standard): Prisoners Aid plight troubling
Listener: Editorial: get on ya bikes
Felix Marwick (Newstalk ZB): Craig still his party's biggest donor
Eric Crampton (Offsetting Behaviour): "An endgame to Sugar-Sweetened Beverages in NZ by 2025?"
Fine Tooth Column: The Generation Game
David Farrar (Kiwiblog): Results matter, not location
Ciara Pratt (Stuff): Conservation lesson for MP
Hamish Rutherford (Stuff): General election in September?