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Heather Roy's Dairy: Daniel In The Lion's Den

Friday, 6 June, 2008

Daniel In The Lion's Den

On Thursday, I spoke to the NZEI – the Early Childhood and Primary Teachers' Union – about ACT's Education policy and went through, what can only be described as, one of those 'Daniel in the Lion's Den' experiences.

Not surprisingly they weren't all that taken with ACT's plan to give every child a scholarship, thereby giving parents choice in education. The experience reinforced in my mind why choice is important – and not just in education.

The room was filled with passionate teachers – any of whom I'd be pleased to have teaching my children. Their dedication to excellence was palpable - after all, they'd given up drinks in the staffroom to come and hear me slug it out with Green Party Co-Leader Russel Norman.

We'd been asked to begin the session with a two-minute round-up of our Party's education ideas. While two minutes is brief for such a complicated area, there are those who believe you have nothing worthwhile to say if you can't sum up your ideas in two-three minutes. Not only that, but any longer and you tend to lose your audience's attention anyway, so I kept my comments brief by summing ACT policy up in one word: choice.

That one word dominated the entire hour-and-half session, and threw Mr Norman off his stride to such an extent that he fluffed his lines when asked about sustainability in education. He did, however, promise to get back to the questioner about the Green's Sustainability policy.

Mr Norman and I have things in common, it seems: we're both from families of six children – although he grew up in Australia – and are the products of working class backgrounds. We were both educated at State schools and, one might conclude, haven't done too badly as a result of our respective educations.

All his nieces and nephews in Australia, however, now go to private schools – which, apparently, is a bad and shameful thing. Not just bad, but the fault of John Howard and by implication - because he's my sort of Prime Minister, according to Mr Norman - ACT.

The general consensus from the meeting was that educators know best, while parents are not placed best to choose the type of education for their children. In their opinion, it is – or should be – the local school that is the best choice for the education of children. They did, however, find it hard to dispute that 'one size education' does not fit all.

Parents, I was told, can't be trusted to research options thoroughly and are not qualified to recognise what's best for their children. Personally, I balk at such arrogance about my parenting skills – my own experience is that nearly all parents know the value of education. Most want their children to do better than they did and have options they didn't. They believe the greatest gift we can give our children is a quality education. Parents know their children best and, so, are best qualified to decide.

There are many great State schools in New Zealand – just as there are some shonky private facilities. My husband and I chose a mixture for our children and I was somewhat taken aback when, having chosen a public school for one of my children, the principal thanked me for "choosing a State school" - as though I'd selected the booby prize or suddenly fallen on hard times.

I looked that principal in the eye and said I hadn't chosen a State school; I'd chosen the best school for my child. What I wanted to hear was "congratulations, Mrs Roy, for choosing a great school".

Wealthy people have real choice and sometimes choose State schools; ACT wants to extend that privilege to everyone.

Choice is fundamental to a democratic society. We have the ultimate choice on Election Day, getting to decide who will govern the country. But ACT differs from other Parties because we think the choice shouldn't end there – we should be able to choose which school our children attend and should have choices in healthcare. For too many Kiwis, those choices either don't exist or are limited. Only the wealthy have real choice - the State option or the choice to pay for private education or healthcare.

The fact is that we can be trusted to shop freely at the supermarket – to choose which breakfast cereal or washing powder to buy – so why can't we choose from a wide range of education styles or schools?

That's where ACT's education scholarship comes in. A scholarship that allows all parents to take their child to any school -State or private, religious, Montessori or Rudolph Steiner, correspondence or home schooling ... whatever's best for Johnny or Jane.

Although I'm aware that people sometimes make mistakes, my philosophy is 'Your choice, You choose'. I may not be an educationalist but, it seems to me, the important thing isn't the mistakes we make in life but the lessons we learn from them.


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