Education Minister faces formidable task

When will teachers know more about the fate of National Standards? What is the state of school infrastructure? How will tertiary education change under Labour? Shane Cowlishaw speaks to new Education Minister Chris Hipkins about his plans.

No one likes a sore throat.

But it’s particularly annoying when you are a new Minister, with a lot of talking to do.

Chris Hipkins has even more on his plate than most colleagues.

He is now a sort of super Education Minister, following the merging of the Education and Tertiary portfolios.

He is also in charge of State Services, Ministerial Services and, to top things off, is leader of the house.

It’s quite the workload, considering education alone is one of the biggest portfolios in government.

Sitting down with Newsroom despite his sickness, Hipkins jokes that he has the stamina to deal with the job.

“I think I’m up for it. Everybody gets a cold from time to time.”

More seriously, he says he will have the help of his three Associate Ministers – Kelvin Davis, Jenny Salesa, Tracey Martin – who together will form a formidable team.

But he will need all the help he can get, as he juggles fulfilling Labour’s huge promises in the education sector and expectations from the unions for pay rises.

He is also up against his predecessor Nikki Kaye, who has kept the education portfolio during her switch to opposition and is raring to build up credibility and keep the pressure on the Government.

A new National Standard

This week that pressure has come in the form of criticism about the scrapping of National Standards.

The assessment, which was introduced in 2010 and focuses on reading, writing, and arithmetic, will be replaced by Hipkins - who has long criticised it as being too narrow.

But Kaye has accused him of creating confusion by failing to set a timeline for its abolition, and for suggesting that schools may continue to use the standards as part of their new reporting responsibilities.

It does seem a slightly perplexing position from Hipkins, considering his, and Labour’s, long-standing opposition to the assessment.

But he says it simply means schools can continue to use tools they have created to assess those ‘three-R’ subjects alongside their new requirements to assess more broadly.

Those assessments will be less frequent than those under National Standards, however.

Claiming that New Zealand currently assesses its children more frequently than almost every other country, Hipkins says he believes it should not happen annually and should be based more on overall progress.

He gives the example of two children starting school at the same time, one at a low level and one at a high level. Under National Standards, the lower-level pupil could make huge progress and not achieve while the higher pupil could make negligible process but still meet the requirements.

Instead, teachers will use the eight progression levels as stipulated in the New Zealand curriculum and report to parents on their children’s progress in a wider net of areas including science and the arts.

“We were really clear during the election that there are massive flaws with National Standards: they’re not national, they’re not standard and they don’t measure progress.

“If we want system-wide data on how we’re doing then it’s better to use a moderated sampling study rather than National Standards because what National Standards research tells us is kids in Wellington have to work harder to achieve the same standard as kids in Auckland (because teachers assess them differently).”

In regards to timing, Hipkins says it has still to be signed off by Cabinet but pledges that teachers will know “by Christmas”.

Infrastructure announcement soon

The Government has hinted that there have been some bombshells after scrutinising the books.

One of those has been dealing with a creaky and leaky school property portfolio, as Finance Minister Grant Robertson told Bernard Hickey here.

The exact dollar figure may be new to Labour, but there should be no surprises at the state of school infrastructure.

It’s an issue that received widespread media coverage in National’s last term, led by the NZ Herald.

The series of stories shone a light on classrooms that were leaking, mouldy and riddled with asbestos.

In response, the Government revealed there were about 60 schools in need of extensive redevelopment and would likely cost more than the $300 million that was allocated in 2013 for rebuilds and renovations.

Hipkins is coy about what exactly had been discovered but says there are big challenges in the area.

“I’ll have more to say on that in due course but at the moment I’m not going to make too many public comments on it, I’m still getting to the bottom of it.”

But one of the problems in the area is managing population growth, he says.

Some of the most run-down schools are in lower socio-economic areas where the population is not growing, so building schools where they were needed most meant some areas may have missed out on “their share of the pie”.

That doesn’t sit well with Hipkins, who singles out ensuring children’s opportunities in life are not dictated by their parent’s ability to pay as his burning desire.

"I think in our education system, increasingly socio-economic status is playing more and more of a role in restricting or enabling the educational opportunities kids get - and that means that if you’re born into a wealthy family you’re going to get a better shot at education than if you are born into a family of modest means, and I don’t think that’s the New Zealand tradition.

"I was from a relatively middle-income family, in the Hutt. The Hutt is a melting pot ... I went to school with all those kids and I think there was a real difference in opportunities that kids from upper and middle-income families got compared to other kids, and I just never thought that was fair.”

Tertiary Education second-fiddle?

There have been some concerned rumblings from the tertiary sector about how they will fare under the new ministerial structure.

In the previous Government, tertiary was a separate portfolio, most recently handled by Paul Goldsmith.

But Hipkins will now take responsibility for it alongside the broader education area and believes that doing so will be beneficial, rather than detrimental.

He says New Zealand has been weak on the transitions between education levels, and compartmentalising different levels is not helpful.

One thing that will have universities breathing easier is the future of the Education (Tertiary Education and Other Matters) Amendment Bill.

It proposes a change in funding flexibility that would grant the Minister power to shift funds across the tertiary sector between private and public institutions as deemed necessary.

It also granted the power to Wananga to call themselves universities, with permission.

Fierce opposition was thrown up by education unions and the public education sector, who argued it was a move to privatise the tertiary industry.

Having reached the Select Committee phase before the election, Hipkins says the bill will not be scrapped but will be watered down.

The more contentious changes in equal funding and name changes will be abandoned, but more sensible amendments such as better backstop support for international students will be kept.

So what about the future direction of the sector?

Earlier this year the Productivity Commission released a report that recommended a major shake-up of the system.

It recommended a raft of changes, including a shift back to teaching quality over research performance, the reintroduction of interest on student loans and the abolishment of university entrance.

Critics said it swung wildly between a push for deregulation in some cases and more government oversight in others, with Hipkins also lukewarm on its recommendations.

While he agrees the tertiary sector needs to adapt to a changing society, as they were doing with the introduction of micro-credentials, there will not be radical changes, he says.

“I think [the Commission] were adopting a fairly free market model, deregulation, which I would think would pose huge risk to the Government but also citizens so I don’t plan to go down that route but to be fair to the Productivity Commission I think they were asking the right questions, they probably just came up with answers that neither side was particularly keen on.”

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