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Deborah Coddington's Liberty Belle

Deborah Coddington's Liberty Belle

I'm often asked if being a member of a small political party in government is frustrating. Can I make a difference? What's the point?

The point is that ACT is a party of influence and this was borne out this week when National released its 'discussion document' on education. The 'document' talked about national testing, abolishing zoning, increasing the reward for A Bursary, 'reviewing' the NCEA, giving parents more choice in schools.

Now don't get too excited. This is not policy yet - just some ideas floated for discussion. What this means I'm not too sure, but it looks a bit like holding your finger to the wind to see which way it's blowing, then deciding where to stand.

But this does show just how much ACT has influenced National. Remember, National is the party that pushed through the NCEA. I wrote countless articles and columns when I was a contributor to Metro magazine, a broadcaster on Radio Liberty, and a feature writer for North & South magazine, harshly criticising Dr Nick Smith and Dr Lockwood Smith for the appallingly politically correct national curriculum they helped introduce.

Under the socialist-driven drivel of the National Curriculum (English, Social Studies, Science, etc) there are no errors (alternative conceptions!), teaching is entirely child-centred, self-esteem is far more important than learning how to read, write and do maths. Individualism is out; collectivism is in. Competition bad; equity of outcomes good. It's dreadful stuff; it's still being foisted onto our children; it has to go, go, go.

So National - and in particular Bill English and Nick Smith - have come a long way since those nine long years they were in power and couldn't see what was happening to a lost generation of New Zealand children.

And I take some credit for this. Some weeks ago, my research from Cambridge University was inadvertently emailed to National's education researcher. Some of Bill English's words in the newspapers this week could have come directly from that research. For instance, he talked about allowing the funding to be based on enrolments, "not whether the school is Government owned, church owned, community owned or privately owned." This is a voucher system and you've heard me say this before, in my Liberty Belles from Cambridge.

Actually Bill's a bit of a tiger for using phrases spoken by people he admires. Last week in an education speech he talked about 'the soft bigotry of low expectations'. That was first uttered by George W Bush when talking about how teachers fail children because they don't expect very high standards from them.

During the 2002 election campaign Bill likened some idiocy to 'giving your teenage son a bottle of whiskey and the keys to the family car' or a similar phrase. PJ O'Rourke first coined this beauty in one of his rollocking essays.

But you know how the old cliché goes - imitation is the sincerest form...and all that. So let's not be too picky here.

I'm just rapt that ACT is having such a major influence on National. Actually, I wouldn't care if Labour pinched our policies, drafted legislation, then rammed it through in urgency. Raising standards in education is bigger than politics.

That's why I push harder. On Tuesday 7 October we're launching, in Wellington, ACT's education campaign, based around my newest book, "Let Parents Choose". It's a 64-page report - written in my usual journalistic style - about the findings of my research in Cambridge. This campaign will carry on right through to the next election.

My book sets out the reasons why in the Netherlands and Sweden - hardly countries governed by the centre-right - literacy and numeracy standards consistently rank so high on international surveys. There's no mystery to this - education funding follows the child and all parents have the right to choose which school their children go to. There is no discrimination between Catholic, protestant, public, independent, Montessori, home-schooling, even Muslim schools; just so long as finances are sound and standards are met.

By giving parents the right to withdraw their children at any time and enrol them in another school; or to pool their 'funding' and start new schools; for popular schools to take over failing schools and for dismal schools to be closed, some competition has been introduced into the school system.

We have a situation in this country, the fault not just of the Labour Government, whereby almost 20 percent of children leave school unable to read a bus timetable. I know I've said this before, but it's a dreadful way for a human being to emerge from a compulsory education system.

Imagine if 20 percent of New Zealand children left school physically disabled so they were unable to physically cope with everyday life? So they had to live on sickness or invalids benefits, or ACC? And this as a result of sports teaching methods? There'd be an absolute outcry. Parents would sue education ministers - and so they damn well should.

Well, isn't it time we started holding these same education ministers accountable for the fact that more than one million New Zealanders are illiterate? Isn't it time we had a Minister for Education; not a Minister for Teachers?

Isn't it time to let parents choose?

Yours in liberty,

Deborah Coddington

PS: I have advance copies of my book for sale. Email me if you'd like one, they're $15 postage free.

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