The Minister of Education Anne Tolley, and the Government, is facing a fair amount of (growing) opposition to the implementation of her National Standards. Yesterday the Minister addressed a Principals Conference in Queenstown. Her message was essentially that schools need to get on with the job of putting the Standards in place and not to publicly criticize the policy. She would rather they went and talked to her and has said necessary changes will be made. She is critical of people turning it in to a political issue. Unfortunately, the Minister herself is responsible for a fair degree of that.
The Minister has stated on more than one occasion that the government received a mandate to implement the Standards. Certainly her Government was elected and it had a number of policies it wanted to implement. How many people voted for the Government as a result of the Standards is, at this point, unknown. In order to be certain the Minister will need to poll all National Party voters to determine the strength of that policy on voter’s behavior at the ballot box. Until that is done, the link between the Standards and her Government being elected to power is unclear.
The Standards are tied in with National Governments election in 2008 and their campaign to be re-elected in 2011. The policy itself has its genesis, I would pick, as a political maneuver. At the last election National was painted as being Labour Light. This represented a deliberate strategy of removing any vestiges of controversial policy from the Brash years in order to calm voter’s nerves. In many respects National portrayed itself as being very close to the Labour government, if not a mirror image. A few points of differentiation were needed. National Standards, set amidst a crusade on numeracy and literacy was a nice catchy slogan that was easily packaged and sold to parents.
It is important to the government to get them in place by the start of the 2011 election campaign so they can point out to parents how they are raising achievement standards in schools. Whether the Standards will be successful in delivering what they are sold as delivering is not so important in this facet of the project. It is the perception of delivery and the surface gloss of â€˜raising achievement’ that matters most. Supporting this view, I think, is a couple of important matters. First, the National Party did not present a detailed education policy prior to the election. The National Standards policy was never publicly fleshed out in any great detail. Second, the legislation to frame the implementation of the Standards was introduced under urgency in the first few months of the new Government. There was some haste in getting the package implemented, perhaps even verging on the point of making things up as they went along.
Had the government wanted to make an actual good fist of the Standards a slower and more deliberate approach may well have delivered National a better outcome. A start would have been fully involving the teaching profession in the design of their design. Better yet involve the profession in the implementation of the package. This process was successful in developing a new curriculum the primary sector is committed to. As early as last year educators and academics were telling Ms Tolley and John Key that the chances of the Standards delivering the outcomes they wanted were tenuous. A Lange style â€˜cup of tea’ may have been in order at that point. History shows this did not happen.
So it seems that the Minister is busy digging herself a hole. No one has yet appeared to take the shovel from her hands. Certainly the Prime Minister has; as yet, show no inclination to step back from his avowed full support for Ms Tolley. He lightened her Ministerial load so she could fully concentrate on the Standards. Whether he decides the matter is becoming all too messy is, again, a political matter. It would have been far more satisfactory had the Government sought to resolve the matter on an educational level. It seems, to this writer at least, that the way the government went about delivering the Standards package turned it into a political matter almost from the outset.
Perhaps the Minister does genuinely actually believe the Standards will deliver the outcomes she thinks they will. That is, perhaps she is not simply playing politics, but is acting out of some genuine belief. Whether the Standards will deliver what she wants is a hugely debatable matter. The weight of informed evidence seems to lie against her. It may actually come down to the simple fact that Ms Tolley does not properly understand education or children learning. If this is so, there seems to be at least three outcomes at least. One is that the Standards get pushed through and whatever outcomes may come, will come. Another is that the Minister takes some time to talk to educators, academics and parents in an open and genuine way to first understand what improves children’s learning. She might then determine if the Standards package does meet those criteria. A third option is that John Key seeks to replace the Minister of Education with someone untarnished by prior controversy. Someone who either understands education a little better or shows that they are prepared to learn and throttle back the standards roll out. How desperate the government is to go into the election in 2011 with the standards in place may determine which of those possible outcomes is most realistic.
It may be too late to turn a political issue back into the educational issue it should have been from the outset.