Hard News by Russell Brown


Briefing, blaming, backing down

Last week's government backdown on teacher cuts and class sizes was not the biggest under the present leadership -- that would have to be the abandonment of plans to mine conservation land. It wasn't the first of this term -- that would be the scrapping of sweeping cuts as part of a restructuring of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade. But I feel fairly confident in declaring it the one that has attracted the most copious commentary from the pundits.

In Saturday's Weekend Herald alone, four flagship commentators weighed in on the matter.

Audrey Young sheeted blame on Treasurer Bill English and Education minister Hekia Parata in a detailed backgrounder, implying that English was failing to front on an issue he had pushed, leaving it to his "political protege" Parata -- and confirming that the backdown followed an urgent round of public opinion polling. 

John Armstrong unhesitatingly put the boot in to Parata. This was his opening paragraph:

If Hekia Parata is to remain in the education portfolio for any length of time, she needs to stop spouting meaningless blather.

Both pieces hinted that Parata had been briefed against by the government's senior leaders and Young's seemed to indicate that the Prime Minister's office was further blaming English.

Fran O'Sullivan -- tellingly, not amenable to Wellington briefings -- had her own ideas. This was her first paragraph:

Hekia Parata has been hung out to dry for a $172 million Budget back-down on a pet Treasury policy that was basically foisted on her.

She does seem to have a point. In March, new Treasury chief Gabriel Makhlouf positively preened as he explained his ideas about the education system to The Listener's Ruth Laugesen. (You may also wish to read what may be the best Imperator Fish satire ever, in Treasury Report on Sunlight Levels.)

And John Roughan submitted a frankly embarrassing column in which he blamed the whole affair on teachers' unions. I'll deal with that later.

Meanwhile, on the NBR website, Matthew Hooton was scathing in declaring that "the government's humiliating but inevitable rout over its dopey plan to increase class sizes risks unravelling its already precarious fiscal strategy."

Bryce Edwards followed up with this:

History will now record this year’s government Budget as the "Backdown Budget".

That’s how significant it is. Virtually all commentators have pointed out that despite the small amount of money that the ill-fated increased class size policy aimed to save, the political implications have turned out to be anything but insignificant.

The problem is it took Hekia Parata and the government a lot longer to realise that. This shouldn’t have been the case with a major Budget policy. After all, wasn’t a "run it up the flag pole" proposal designed to test the waters.Instead, it was part of the main government planning document immortalised in print (and even in a smart phone application). And, although the $174 million savings are indeed relatively small, they’re only slightly less than the carefully crafted $197 million surplus forecast for 2014.

Jane Clifton said much the same -- in longer sentences and even longer paragraphs -- in The Listener.

What's striking is how much of the commentary -- especially that from Wellington -- focused on finger-pointing. The need for someone to blame was particularly pressing in this instance. Perhaps that's because, unlike almost every other political pothole this government has struck, this one appears to have had an impact on political polling.

We'll be looking at why -- and at the general issue of political damage control, backing down and the media -- in this week's Media7, with Matthew Hooton, Bryce Edwards and one other to be confirmed.

Paul Buchanan will also join me to discuss media handling of recent news from Afghanistan and the use of unmanned drones.

If you'd like to join us for Wednesday evening's recording, we'll need you to present yourself at the Victoria Street entrance of TVNZ between 5.15 and 5.40pm. As ever, try and click the envelope icon at the bottom of this post and email me to let me know you're coming.


Now ... the Roughan column. Where to start?

National Standards, perhaps:

Teachers had to grit their teeth and accept the implication that they were not already working to reasonable standards. They had to agree the language they use in reports to parents is unutterably ridiculous and they couldn't say publicly that most parents couldn't handle the plain truth.

Hardest of all, they knew that measuring schools against national standards would allow newspapers to publish "league tables", creating winners and losers, and we couldn't have that. But we'd need a certificate in education to know why.

Or perhaps we'd just need to read the New Zealand Herald, where Ian Schagen, the Ministry of Education's chief research analyst and a veteran of the standards experience in Britain explained why the league tables approach is so damaging:

The political theory was that it would make schools accountable for their students' achievement and would allow parental choice to drive school improvement.

There is wide agreement in New Zealand that such an approach is flawed. League tables based only on student achievement tell virtually nothing about how well schools are doing. The schools that come out top are those with the best intake, not those providing the best education.

Focusing on percentages passing a threshold means schools tend to concentrate on students near the threshold and ignore those well above or below.

And, importantly, the use of a single national test puts pressure on schools to "teach to the test", thus narrowing the curriculum for students, especially in the year of testing. New Zealand has not gone down this track.

Basically, in taking a league tables path, you not only frustrate the aim of educating all children in line with their needs -- and that is the aim, right?  -- you end up teaching to the test and not teaching the children in your care.

In a more forthright version of the same column circulated internally at the ministry, Schagen said:

I suppose it would be impossible to prevent the media publishing league tables in order to sell papers, but it is important that the government and Ministry has no truck with them. The Minister needs to have a severe word with anyone publishing league tables and tell them firmly that they are harming New Zealand education. As soon as the assessment judgements underpinning the use of National Standards become high-stakes for schools, we are going to compromise the real value of formative assessment for improving teaching and learning for individual students.

So when you go down this path, you mess up the data that are the ostensible purpose of the whole exercise. You actively encourage the manipulation of results.

Sadly, shortly before last year's election, Prime Minister John Key and then Education minister Anne Tolley announced that they would be going down this path. If they had based this decision on advice that contradicted that offered by their chief research analyst, they did not say so. Schagen, unsurprisingly, had departed somewhere where his experience and expertise might be taken more seriously.

There is another reason that National Standards league tables are a bad idea -- but perhaps you need to be the parent of a special needs child to properly understand it. We were fortunate with our boys, both on the autism spectrum, who were accepted into their primary school and had their needs taken seriously. Had they been entering an environment where the school's reputation -- and more than that, its funding -- was contingent on the blunt instrument of unmediated standards, they would have been educational poison.

This year, we encountered a situation at tertiary level where, I believe, new, results-conscious management treated our older boy that way -- not on the basis of his actual achievement but because he looked like a risk. That was bad enough. Had we been fighting for his rights at primary level it would have been much worse. But I suppose that's not John Roughan's problem, is it?

Roughan further contends that malignant teachers' unions had to "settle" because Tolley's proposition on standards was so "reasonable". For goodness sake. Standards were shoved through under urgency immediately after the 2008 election, precluding any chance of proper scrutiny -- and then Tolley refused to countenance a trial of the scheme, even after the boards of trustees of 225 schools signed a motion of no confidence in it. Instead, she threatened funding cuts for school boards -- that is, parents -- that failed to fall into line.

"Reasonable" presumably has a different meaning on Planet Roughan.

If John Roughan wants to gradually morph into Jim Hopkins, that's his business. But he does his paper no credit and his readers no service with shrieking displays of studied ignorance like the column he presented on Saturday.

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