– We all know Mike Smith, former priest and ex-boxer, but did you also know he was General Secretary of the Labour Party for many years? Welcome aboard, Mike –
National’s education standards are one of John Key’s six policy initiatives that will supposedly see us equal Australia.
When recently they came under concerted criticism from teachers, principals, academics and (belatedly) the Maori Party, John Key reached back for that old National Party stand-by, the trade union bogey.
Prime Minister John Key criticised teacher unions today saying they were protecting under-performing teachers.
The attack comes a day after Maori Party co-leader Pita Sharples, an associate education minister, said he held “grave fears” about new nationals standards.
Speaking on TV3 programme Sunrise, Mr Key said unions were worried the standards would show some teachers were not making the grade.“We are a government that’s not going to sit back and accept the status quo which is decades of under-performance from some teachers and a failure of a whole bunch of kids,” he said.
Union-bashing was a favourite tactic of Rob Muldoon’s. One commentator on Key’s website suggested he should follow the example of Maggie Thatcher, another notable handbag-swinger.
Anne Tolley has made a mess of the sector, so Key has now effectively made himself the Education Minister.
Education Minister Anne Tolley had faced a lot of flak over implementation of the standards and last week Mr Key reduced her workload by giving her tertiary education portfolio to another minister.
Mr Key said she was a capable minister.
“I think you are always, if you are a National Party education minister, up against a little bit with the teacher unions. That’s just the way it is, there’s always been a fairly hostile environment there.”
The old stereotypes are certainly still strong in National, but they have led Key into a trap. What might have worked for Muldoon or Maggie in the past won’t work now for a number of reasons.
First, unions are no longer regarded as the bad guys. Nine years under the Employment Contracts Act showed many people the value of their union. John Howard’s great mistake in Australia was to mount an attack on union rights at a time when many people’s incomes were under pressure.
Secondly, the union in this case, the NZEI, is a professional organisation as well as an employee union. Their own standards are high; for themselves, their pupils and their programmes. They care about their processes and their kids. They are not driven by self-interest, nor are they inexperienced. They know what they are doing.
Thirdly, teachers are connected. They see each other in staffrooms every day, they spend time with children every day, and often with parents as well. National Party MPs making occasional visits, and Key’s taxpayer-funded letter and brochure containing comments like “Many parents tell us they’re not happy with the â€˜politically correct’ and â€˜sugar-coated’ school reports they receive” will not compete.
Fourthly, the NZEI are superb organisers. One of the most effective union campaigns I have seen was their campaign for pay parity. Towards the end of it, parents all around the country willingly looked after their kids for a day so the teachers could make a point. They had a good case and they gained widespread support.
And the reason is simple. Every parent knows that teachers are the most important people in their kid’s lives for most of the day. They are both hugely valuable and hugely under-valued.
When they say about National standards “Let’s take this carefully and get it right” they deserve to be heard.
Maggie Thatcher would have made a terrible Education Minister. So will John Key if he turns into just another teacher/union-basher.