Education Minister calls for collaboration over criticism

Analysis: It’s been a tough year in education, and as the sector gears up for further overhaul, the Minister calls for collaboration. Laura Walters reports.

It’s been a long year for the education sector and the work is far from over.

Since this Government took power there has been the removal of National Standards, the closing of charter schools, the Tomorrow’s Schools review, and more recently the unveiling of a $1 billion capital investment plan, the first tranche of learning support coordinators, the addition of New Zealand history to the core curriculum, and the ditching of school deciles.

During this time there have also been numerous collective agreement negotiations, which led to the country’s biggest education strikes.

As the sector gears up for further collective negotiations – this time with early childhood educators – and continues its work on pay and conditions for support staff, Education Minister Chris Hipkins has asked teachers to work with him, rather than publicly criticise him.

Chris Hipkins addresses striking teachers to the sound of boos during a rally at Parliament in May. Photo: Lynn Grieveson

Hipkins began his speech to NZEI’s annual conference on Monday by talking about what he believed was the previous government’s failings.

“A decade of underfunding and neglect had taken their toll. Workforce morale was at an all-time low after nine years of being spoken down to, or worse, ignored,” he said.

When a Labour-led Government came to power, there were undoubtedly high expectations from the education sector.

But the path has not been smooth, especially during collective negotiations over the past year.

This scepticism and cynicism from the sector has not subsided following the settlement of the main pay negotiations.

There has been ongoing criticism of the rollout of the first tranche of learning support coordinators, and there are further challenges to come in the form of the Tomorrow’s Schools final decisions and rollout, further collective negotiations, and the bedding in of those learning support coordinators.

More broadly, there is also the rollout of changes to NCEA and the vocational education changes, which will further test the sector.

Hipkins knows he needs to get teachers back onside if he’s going to successfully implement his ambitious policy reform package, and that was clear in his speech to NZEI delegates in Rotorua.

“As Minister of Education, I’ve attempted to change the way we engage with the sector and all of the stakeholders in it," he said.

Hipkins went on to say change had often failed because it had been imposed from the top, and he remained committed to collaborating with all stakeholders, including teachers and children from a range of backgrounds and viewpoints.

But he also hit out at some of his Government’s critics.

“Criticism that is well-informed and constructive can play a really useful role in building trust and improving decision making.

“Criticism that is ill-informed and destructive reinforces an environment where true collaboration is next to impossible.”

He said he was disappointed in the campaign being mounted against the rollout of learning support coordinators, with some saying they would boycott the roles in response to what some see as a poor distribution of resources.

There were always opportunities for feedback, he said. “True collaboration means resisting the urge to pick up a microphone every time we hear something we might disagree with, and opt for picking up the phone instead."

And if the sector was going to rise to the significant challenges in front of it, the Government and educators would have to work together.

“Sometimes our views may differ, but partners work together to resolve things.”

Hipkins said he was always prepared to listen, and was confident the Government’s overall objectives for education were aligned with the values and ideas of educators.

That may be true, but the question of how to achieve those goals, and often more crucially how fast, will continue to be the sticking points.

The past year has shown teachers they have power, and how to exercise that power when needed. File photo: Lynn Grieveson

His speech to the conference comes as NZEI gears up to mount its ECE campaign.

The Minister acknowledged the upcoming collective negotiations, and said he was aware the recent kindergarten collective settlement – where they maintained pay parity with primary teachers – exacerbated inequities.

Essentially, ECE teachers have been left behind, and that was a "huge legacy to confront".

He said ECE teachers had not been forgotten, but he also tempered expectations by saying it would take a while to work through the pay issues facing that sector.

The speech seemed to be well-received, and it was an important appearance for the Minister following a year of tensions.

But Hipkins would be aware his words will not stop teachers criticising the Government and its plans, rollout, or pay offers if they do not think it is living up to expectations.

The past year has shown teachers they have power, and how to exercise that power when needed.

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