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Brash; Speech to Visionschools

Don Brash - National Party Leader

4 November 2004

Speech to Visionschools: Getting better performance in education I want to talk today about how the culture of big government fostered by this Government is building a bureaucracy that is wasting resources and destroying innovation in New Zealand education.

Instead of expanding parental choice in education, the Government is systematically working to eliminate it. This Government inherited an economy well into an economic upswing, with growth of about 5% in 1999. International conditions have kept growth strong.

The result was a flood of revenue from taxpayers. Increased tax rates have siphoned off even more. Public spending was boosted in many areas, and so it should have been. But where is the great leap forward in the quality of education, of healthcare, and of law enforcement that 34 billion dollars, the amount of extra tax revenue the Government has raked in above the level received in 1999, should buy? There simply isn't one. We have experienced no decisive lift in the quality of public services in this country, and in education we seem to be going backwards.

Big Government

This Government is saturated in what I can only describe as a culture of big government. Theirs is a culture of endless plans, initiatives, targets, grants, panels, boards, and regulation; all of this staffed by numerous layers of government, and an expanding network of bureaucrats and administrators implementing all these plans, targets and initiatives.

Then you have another layer overseeing and reviewing them. And then a final layer trying to figure out what went wrong. Think about what we have witnessed in recent years. Numerous revelations of funding outrages in community education; spectacular growth of bureaucracy in the health and education sectors; and ludicrous grants made, apparently without the oversight of anybody with an ounce of commonsense. The Prime Minister described this as rebuilding public sector capability. To me, it was a hijacking of the taxpayers of New Zealand.

Educational Bureaucracy

Consider the Tertiary Education Commission, the brainchild of Steve Maharey. TEC employs 341 staff and has an operating budget of $42 million. What does it do with all these staff and all this money? TEC is not responsible for approving or quality-auditing tertiary education providers - NZQA does that.

It is not responsible for tertiary education policy - the Ministry of Education has a team of 50 people to do that. It is not responsible for monitoring the financial performance of tertiary institutions - the Tertiary Advisory Monitoring Unit does that. And neither is it responsible for monitoring student financial support - Study Link and the IRD do that.

So what does it do? TEC's core work is the allocation of the Crown's financial contribution to tertiary education and training. Previously, this was done through the combined efforts of the Ministry of Education and Skill New Zealand. The transfer of responsibility to TEC did not go smoothly. In its first year of operation, TEC oversaw a blow-out in tertiary education spending in the single least strategic area of the tertiary system: community education.

This is the very area that has been the source of scandal after scandal through this year. Funding for community education in the year 2000 was $14 million. Under TEC's oversight, and with a minister asleep at the wheel, that funding exploded to $105 million by 2003. $105 million.

What did we get for this funding? We got more than 400,000 enrolments in non-assessed, non-quality-assured, non-qualifications-based community courses of the twilight golf and radio sing-along variety. To raise that $105 million requires the taxes of almost 11,000 single-income families earning the average wage. Imagine that: 11,000 people working for about a fifth of the year to pay for this appalling waste of money.

We also got a funding scam that saw Christchurch Polytechnic claim over $15 million for handing out CD-ROMs to students, with no proof of further learning. The whole point of TEC was to streamline the bureaucracy. But it didn't streamline anything. Within its first year of operation, concerns with the governance of TEC led to an independent review - a perfect illustration of that final layer of bureaucracy that is required to figure out what has gone wrong. These bureaucracies create red tape.

In 2003, TEC called for "Charters" from 35 polytechnics, universities and wananga; from 39 industry training organisations; from 24 rural education assistance providers; and from literally hundreds of private training establishments.

These agencies had to obtain a positive "charter assessment report" from TEC. Just about everyone who received a charter assessment report was told to work on their "Approach to fulfilling Treaty of Waitangi obligations", and were also told to work on their "Approach to meeting the needs of Pacific peoples". How many hours were spent writing these charters? What student in New Zealand gained any benefit from this?

And what is the point of writing charters when, as the Vice Chancellor of Victoria University wrote to the Minister earlier this year, "the system is haemorrhaging dollars right before your very eyes?" [1] The same outbreak of paper shuffling and form filling is happening in our schools, as you no doubt know full well. Even the PPTA has called for a "red-tape commission" to reduce schools' compliance costs. [2]

An internal ministry report about student enrolment data collection said this: "Currently at least 100 people or groups in the ministry collect over 6,000 data elements using approximately 150 forms. Of the data collected, 35% are redundant or duplicated."

The report notes a heavy burden of compliance in providing data. It says that, on average, form filling for primary schools takes 30 person days each year, and for secondary schools 35 person days. The Education Standards Act 2001 introduced new reporting requirements for schools. Principals noted that the new regime would add to compliance costs and reflected a "nanny-state" mentality. What we are creating here is a "Tick-the-box, play-the-game, make-it-sound-right" mentality.

This mentality is the enemy of those attitudes required for an effective education system: commitment, energy, enthusiasm, common-sense and sensitivity to individuals.

This illustrates another aspect of the control and planning instincts associated with the culture of big government. This Government doesn't trust teachers or principals to make sensible choices and decisions. And yet these are the people that surely have the expertise and local knowledge. Instead, they must explain themselves to the Wellington bureaucracy.

Nor does the Government trust parents. It doesn't trust parents to make sound decisions about the things that matter most to them and their families, such as choosing a school. Your children can be herded like cattle to a local school of the Government's choosing. And if you want to take your child elsewhere, you will just have to pay twice, or sell your house and buy close to the school which you prefer for your children.

Can we imagine people putting up with being told what GP to use; what lawyer, mechanic, accountant, builder or supermarket they must use? But that fundamental choice is denied our parents on an issue infinitely more important - the education of their children. Consider this recent example. The flagship early childhood education policy announced in this year's Budget will provide 20 hours of free education to every three-and-four-year old child - but only so long as they are receiving their education at a non-profit "community" education provider.

What an extraordinary condition to put on access to childcare! What a senselessly mean-spirited policy. Think for a moment about how the Ministers of this Government, sitting around the Cabinet table, made this decision. They very deliberately, very consciously, sought to exclude more than 45,000 children who attend the 1000-odd private for-profit early childhood centres from any benefit from this policy.

In some small towns there is no alternative to private centres. Thus parents in some smaller provincial towns were deliberately cut out of this deal. Parents choose to send their children to these centres because they have hours and levels of service that appeal to them.

These Ministers went out of their way to quash that choice by distorting the market in favour of services that parents wouldn't otherwise choose. And we discovered recently that the Treasury advised against this policy. The Treasury said that the policy had no clear educational rationale and did not offer value for money. In fact, the Treasury advice was that parents, some early childhood centres, and low-income and solo-parent families could all suffer because of the policy.

But the Cabinet went ahead regardless. What went on around that Cabinet table? Who stood up for the 45,000 children and their parents? Trevor Mallard, the Education Minister, would have read the Treasury reports. He would have known that low-income and solo-parent families, and those in provincial centres, or those not located near the favoured providers, would be hurt because of this policy.

So why didn't he show some backbone and withdraw the proposal? What about Steve Maharey? He was responsible for the fiasco with the Tertiary Education Commission, so he knows just how profoundly wrong policy can go. Did he just sit there mute? What about the Deputy PM, Michael Cullen? He must have understood the fundamental unfairness of this decision. Surely he understood the financial implications for the losers in this decision? But no, he clearly kept his head down around the Cabinet table.

So that left just the PM. Did she stand up for the 45,000 children and their parents? Did she say anything? Did she voice any dissent? Did she stand up to Mallard and say that the Education Minister's proposal was simply unfair and must be completely rethought? No, she clearly did not object in the slightest. And so the Cabinet went ahead. This was left-wing ideology at its most odious. Mean-spirited, petty and vindictive.

All because of an obsolete ideological conviction that these things must be done by the State. A conviction that deprives parents from exercising the most fundamental and precious right they have - to choose where their children will be cared for and educated. This Government is saying to parents: you may have an arrangement with your local provider that suits you and your children. But if you want any financial assistance, do it the Government's way.

This Government doesn't trust parents. But it does trust its bureaucracy in Wellington. Since 1999, the number of staff in the Ministry of Education [3] has increased by 20%. But an expanding bureaucracy in Wellington is not what our children need. An Education Review Office report last month showed that around 20,000 children are being taught by teachers judged "not effective". The ERO report stated that more than a third of second year primary teachers and almost half of second year secondary teachers were found not to be meeting the required level of competence.

As Bill English said, this is a much bigger scandal than Cambridge High School. And who will be accountable for that? As usual, the Minister has ducked for cover.

Getting Better Performance

As you will be aware, United Nations survey of educational standards in 2002 found that, while our best school achievers do very well by international standards, the difference in achievement between New Zealand's least able students and our best students is the second highest across all OECD countries. New Zealand studies show that the disparity between low and high achievers actually increases the longer a cohort stays at school.

In practice, this means that far too many people are coming out of 11 or 13 years of schooling without even the rudiments of literacy or numeracy. This must be turned around. We must get better performance from our schools. To do so, we must give free reign to the innovation, leadership and energy that abounds throughout the education sector.

Within the public system, about one in ten teachers are now paid outside of the government salary system. Clearly then, public schools are dependent on the generosity of parents and communities.

One way or another, schools are creating their own room to move outside the restrictive government-funding regime. National would harness this energy and increase schools' autonomy over spending. It is almost unbelievable that we could have an institution as large and as important as our state-funded education system, and simply put up with a level of failure that almost defies belief. No private school principal would get away with that.

No business in a market economy would survive if it were producing the sort of results we have come to accept from our education system. We must do something about this failure. There is far too much political correctness about failure in our schools. There are too many inspired teachers frustrated by the lack of tools to do as much as they can.

There are too many parents frustrated by the schooling choices available to their children. It's time for honesty about how improvements can be made. Schools should be able to realise the prospects of every child - that was the original vision of those who set up public education. Meeting that challenge will be a key priority for the next National Government.


Some of you will, I hope, know that I have nominated education as one of the five core issues on which I intend to fight the next election. For that reason, I will be making education the subject of a major speech, setting out our ambitions and our thinking, in due course. From a personal point of view, I want to tell you, making significant improvements to our education system is at the very heart of the cause which brought me into politics.

Just last week, my colleague John Key released some new figures showing a further decline in the average incomes of New Zealand employees, relative to their Australian counterparts. It is this growing gap between relative incomes of New Zealand and Australian workers which poses a huge threat to this country if we aspire to make this a place in which our children and grandchildren are happy to build their lives.

It is this growing gap which poses a huge threat to the future of the education sector in New Zealand. None of you will need to be convinced that New Zealand simply cannot improve its economic performance without the foundation of a truly world class education system, at all levels.

Amongst other things, that will require that we dramatically upgrade the desirability of teaching as a profession. If I have the privilege of leading the next government of this country, it is my ambition to see teaching become a profession of choice for our brightest and best young people. As someone who believes in the operation of markets, I don't find it too difficult to understand that such an ambition will require that we have the ability to pay good teachers more - possibly quite a lot more.

All of you will be familiar with stories of good teachers receiving offers of employment abroad which are simply too good to refuse. I have to tell you that it is with an acute sense of embarrassment, indeed of shame, that I hear young New Zealanders speaking of their decision to leave for such reasons. But you will all know that it is not simply about money. It is about our ability to create a career environment which nurtures the development of excellent teachers and which provides those who manage them with the flexibility to develop their professional potential.

It is very clear to me that this must mean changes to the institutional structures for managing teachers' remuneration and professional development. It would be fair to say that the current structures would be more appropriate to the management of a 1950's coal mine or an Eastern European ship yard in the middle of last century, than the development of those valued professionals who will be entrusted with the education of our children.

In a world in which technology, science and communications are changing so dramatically, it is an absolute nonsense that we should manage our education system as a soviet style monopoly, dominated by two powerful trade unions and an ever growing Ministry bureaucracy, who see principals and boards on the one hand, and parents and children on the other, as mere pawns as they share the operational control of the factory.

I hope to lead a government in which good teachers are truly valued; where they are paid more, and supported in their career development by principals and boards; and in return for being treated and valued as professionals, the cloth cap trade union antics of the PPTA and NZEI truly become a relic of the past.

Thank you.


[1] Letter obtained under the Official Information Act, 3 March 2004, Prof Stuart McCutcheon to Hon. Steve Maharey. [2] PPTA press release, 14 September 2004, 'PPTA backs call for more funding". [3] Allowing for the merger of the Specialist Education Services unit.


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