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Education and Trade Union Policies


Education and Trade Union Policies

I’d like to acknowledge and welcome to New Zealand, and more particularly to Wellington, the international delegates who have travelled here for this seminar.

I’d also like to thank NZEI Te Riu Roa as the hosts of this event, for inviting me here to speak, and to open your seminar.

I know this event follows a successful country seminar organised by Education International in 1999 and that its purpose is to continue the study of, and dialogue around, education and trade union policies.

I think it is important to say at the outset, that our government is ambitious for New Zealand.

We want to improve our economic performance so that all New Zealanders have security, opportunity and the best possible standard of living.

We want all New Zealanders to participate in a diverse and inclusive society and to share the benefits of economic growth.

When we came into government in 1999, we inherited the legacy of a decade and a half of change – characterised by market driven polices; an agenda of competition, individualism and privatisation; a fragmented and depleted public sector; and a reduced role for the state.

We set about to rebuild. Not alone, but in collaboration with unions, business, iwi and the wider community. It is a big ask and we’ve made a good start. But there is still much more to do.

One of the first jobs we tackled was to change the industrial framework that had been operating in this country for 10 years. Prior to coming into government, the Labour Party worked with the Council of Trade Unions on developing a fairer industrial framework in which the recognition of unions and collective, good faith bargaining were key principles.

Righting the balance was a fundamental shift to recognise the legitimate role of unions in bargaining as well as their wider role in matters affecting worker’s lives and the work they do.

Within 12 months of being in office, our Government threw out the old industrial legislation and introduced the Employment Relations Act.

At the time, opposition parties and some employers predicted job losses, higher unemployment, and greater industrial unrest would threaten and destabilise the economy.

It didn’t happen. In fact, our current unemployment rate for example, is at a 14 year low.

What the new industrial framework created is an environment where parties have equal status and joint responsibility to do the best for their constituent group.

It set the scene for successful employment relationships to develop.

Education unions in this country have a proud tradition of representing both the industrial and professional interests of their members.

Unions have a key role to play in the development of education policy. We share the same goal: to make sure every student reaches her or his educational potential – wherever they are in the education system.

We want to make sure every young person is secure in the knowledge of who they are and of their place in the world.

We want all our kids well prepared to contribute to and participate in a world where technology plays a dominant role in our lives.

An extraordinary amount has been achieved in education in New Zealand over the last few years. It has been both demanding and inspiring. At times it hasn’t been easy or without conflict.

But we have seen some great successes, and we need to continue to build on those. The profession has a critical role to play.

I think there are four key outcomes for education: strong learning foundations successful school leavers motivated and self-directed life-long learners knowledge creation and innovation.

The big question is how do we meet these outcomes?

We need to focus on what makes the real difference. And identifying and then making that difference is a shared responsibility.

Sharing responsibility presents both opportunities and challenges.

For unions, it presents tensions – for example: what is educationally beneficial may impact on employment conditions - how do you make the call? Being involved in decision-making requires people and resources – have unions got the capacity?

For the government, there are competing demands for example: on funding - are we making the best use of tax payer’s money? There are competing demands from stakeholders – how do we manage disparate views?

I know there are opposing philosophical views within unions about how they approach the relationship with government: is it better to be actively engaged in shaping and influencing policy from the ‘inside’ or is it better to remain on the sidelines reserving position?

What sits behind this question is the role of unions – and that’s your call.

My preference is to work with unions – setting priorities, identifying the issues, and finding solutions.

As Minister of Education, I have regular meetings with NZEI and PPTA in particular, and value that discussion.

I see a relationship in place through the committees and working groups we have established - for example the staffing review which resulted in agreement to a staged implementation of increased staffing in schools.

I also think it is important for unions to work more closely with each other in order to understand, and therefore help shape, the policies that will better meet the transitional needs of students as they progress from early childhood to school, from school to tertiary education or training.

While we may be able to define what is good for students, do we reflect on our own structures and processes to support it?

In my opinion, at some stage our education unions will have to face up to the problems resulting from having two teams doing the same job.

In working together, we have to have a common understanding of the issues and share responsibility for the outcome. This can be a risk or an opportunity. It may call for hard decisions. And there will inevitably be compromise.

At the end of the day – what are we trying to achieve? If it is indeed to ensure every young person reaches his or her potential, then we need to work collaboratively to make it happen.

We need to consider the needs of students, of staff, of parents and families, of employers, and of the community. This means a range of issues need to be addressed from resourcing to employment conditions. It means both the government and the profession – through their unions - have a role to play. I know you will be talking through some of these issues over the next few days.

I look forward to continuing this discussion informally over dinner tonight and wish you well in your deliberations at this seminar.

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