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Deborah Coddington's Liberty Belle: ACT Conference

Deborah Coddington's Liberty Belle


It was a good week for me this week. My youngest child started university, in the Elam School of Fine Arts at Auckland.

She had to get an A Bursary to get in, so we all worked hard making sure she got there - seeing that she was eating properly, sleeping well, swatting all night...all the things parents do to push and shove their kids over the line.

She got her A Bursary and we all celebrated. Her sisters and brother were more excited than we were.

To help put herself through uni she's working as a waitress, and she's made friends with another university first-year student. Her friend's from a low socio-economic area, and went to a low decile school. She told my daughter she would have loved to go to a better school, with better teachers, but her parents couldn't afford it. She had to go to the school down the road.

My daughter was pretty impressed she'd got into med school, because some of her own friends, who'd got A Bursaries, missed out. A friend of hers who'd wanted to go to Elam, and got an A Bursary, missed out because his English wasn't good enough.

Then she found out her new waitressing friend got into med school with only a C Bursary. She's Maori.

Kids have a very keenly developed sense of justice. She knew this was most unfair. She also knows it's divisive and potentially racist. "I'd think twice about seeing a Maori doctor," she said, "In case they weren't as smart as a non-Maori."

I have no doubt that when this girl graduates she will be a fine doctor, equal to or better than her non-Maori peers. That's because we'll pour the resources in while she's studying medicine to get her up to the same standard as the students who had to get A Bursaries to get in.

It doesn't have to be like this. This girl probably would have gotten an A Bursary if her parents had been able to send her to the same schools I sent my daughter to. If, like me, they'd been able to change schools when their daughter wasn't doing well enough. Instead, because their income is lower than mine, they were forced to send her to the unsatisfactory school in the neighbourhood.

If we gave choice back to parents when their children started school, in the form of a voucher or tax credit, we could do away with these patronising quotas. What these quotas say, in essence, is 'if you're Maori, you're not as clever as non-Maori, so we'll make it easier for you to get into university'.

Families should be respected as decision makers, not politicians.

Last week I went to the launch of a book published by the Pacific Foundation, run by Lesley Max. The book is called "We Talk In Our Family Now", and tells of the extraordinary success of the Hippy programme (Home Interaction for Parents of Pre-school Youngsters).

This programme, run on the smell of an oily rag, works with parents and their four- and five-year-old children to prepare them for school. These are parents who have had no clue about parenting or educating. I met some of these Mums. Some of them have been drug addicts, gang members, prostitutes. They used to hit their children, sometimes abuse them. They were often in failing relationships, and never had anything to do with their children's education.

Their lives have been turned around. They are now on boards of trustees, one is even a chair. They are training to be teachers, or, because they are happier, have found confidence to get jobs. They all told me the programme is "awesome" and without it, they would never have pulled themselves together and started to be good parents.

This is a very powerful way to connect parents with their children's education and it should be replicated all over the country. Think of the money we'd save at the other end, when children leave school illiterate and end up on welfare or in crime.

And another thing I'd do to connect mums with their babies, and ensure parents are, indeed, first teachers, is bring back Plunket. I would have a Plunket nurse going into the home of every mother taking her baby home from hospital - several times a week if necessary - and spending as long as it takes to ensure that family is safe.

Instead we have a ridiculous box-ticking situation where the funding is based on quotas for nurses. Never mind the quality, just feel the width.

I couldn't have survived without Plunket. Sir Truby King, now much maligned, introduced Plunket because New Zealand had such a high mortality rate. After Plunket was established, it dropped dramatically.

Why spend valuable resources passing laws to ban smacking, when we should be spending money on education - and education starts with our newborns.

And at the other end of compulsory education, I would bring back traditional apprenticeships for school leavers. We should stop charging apprentices (modern apprenticeships) up to $3000 a year because of all the bureaucracy involved in ITOs, unit standards, and assessors, and get back to the old system where students learned on the job, the only cost was the price of text books, and they could be earning good money by the time they were 18 or 19 years old.

We are the party of fresh ideas and we could take everyone in this country forward, including those at the bottom of the heap.

ACT is the party of the future. I'm not a harker back to the old days but I do think that in the name of progress we've dumped too much common sense.

Leadership in ideas - it's a great title. If we can blend fresh ideas with commonsense practices, like Plunket, Hippy, apprenticeships, then I think we will see the ACT Party in there as part of the centre-right government.

In last year's speech I said we must hold our nerve and not lose sight of our target. Right now that's more important than ever.

We are the party of radicals and, as speaking as someone who's ridden horses all her life, I remember that a sure recipe for disaster and failure was to check your horse just as he was beginning to leap.

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