Monday, December 14, 2009

Let's hope it's not just an idle threat

Today’s New Zealand Herald reports that Education Minister Anne Tolley is threatening to sack any school boards of trustees that allow teachers to boycott the proposed new national standards.

I hope it’s not an idle threat. A former National government caved in to sabotage and standover tactics by the PPTA in the 1990s over bulk funding, which helps explain why the teacher unions - in this case, the NZEI - feel so cocky about flexing their muscles again over national standards.

They’re probably betting on a weak minister backing down again, but they may be wrong about Tolley. She gives the impression of being a bit of a flake (witness her recent speech to a PPTA conference in which she read a children's story about a rat, which may in hindsight have contained a coded message), but unlike her predecessors she may have the guts to tackle the staffroom bullies. The crucial thing will be whether her Cabinet colleagues back her or allow themselves to be intimidated by a concerted display of left-wing teacher solidarity.

This dispute has moved far beyond being an argument over national standards. It’s about who controls our schools and who determines how our children and grandchildren are taught. The teacher unions, encouraged by weak National governments and teacher-friendly Labour ones, have usurped that right for themselves. It’s way past time the government re-asserted itself on behalf of the taxpayers who fund the system.

Putting pressure on boards of trustees, which are notoriously vulnerable to union coercion (and whose support the NZEI is seeking in the dispute over national standards), is one way of doing this. Many of us might prefer a more direct approach, such as suspending teachers who refuse to do as they are told, but targeting school boards will be less messy and therefore politically more do-able. I hope this doesn’t mean that Tolley and her fellow ministers aren’t prepared to tackle the NZEI head-on if and when it comes to the crunch.

She has already gone to some lengths to humour the union but the NZEI seems to regard compromise as a sign of weakness. Nothing but total capitulation will suffice. Judging by her reported comments, Tolley may have belatedly grasped this and decided against further concessions. The Herald reports her as saying she had already made many changes in response to union concerns, but each time they had returned with more and she believed their arguments were now purely philosophical.

I believe the underlying issue has been “philosophical” right from the outset. It’s all about power and control.

National’s Wairarapa MP John Hayes, in his regular column in the Wairarapa News last week, summed up the issue neatly. Hayes, a former diplomat with a decidedly undiplomatic forthrightness (which will probably ensure he never gets promoted), wrote as follows:

"I spent 30 years working for a range of Governments. Sometimes I agreed with the policies the Government wanted, sometimes I did not. My views were irrelevant. My job as a public servant was to implement the Governments policies irrespective of my personal views. That is how democracy works in New Zealand. If a state employee does not want to implement a particular policy, like National Standards, that’s fine, they should resign and find employment in an environment that suits them better. It is not however acceptable for them to remain on the Government’s payroll and work against the Government’s policies."