Interpreting Hekia Parata’s legacy

COMMENT: As Hekia Parata steps down as Minister of Education, trying to assess the legacy she leaves behind is difficult. That she was the most passionate, most controversial and most polarising Minister is probably not debatable. But what did she achieve?

It is tempting to suggest that 2012, her annus horribilis, was a turning point and after that things improved. But although the depths of the PR disasters of that year weren’t ever plumbed again, Parata never gained the full trust of teachers. She continued to pursue an agenda that was completely out of step with school leaders, education academics and the teacher unions.

So what is the Minister’s legacy?

She oversaw the ‘trial’ of charter schools in New Zealand without actually ‘trialling’ them. Bloated with over-funding, these schools have almost universally failed to deliver on their KPIs. They appear to be innocuously mediocre despite, ironically, boasting about funding that allows smaller class sizes and provides benefits to students that other tax-funded schools can only dream of.

The debacle of national standards has continued to drive a testing regime in schools that has seen the near death of a broad based curriculum. As a consequence, science, the arts and social studies have almost vanished in primary schools.

Despite all the evidence, Parata never accepted the fact that poverty impacted on learning. I’m not sure she, or the national Government, have ever accepted that some people in New Zealand live in poverty. The only explanation for this blindness to the obvious is this – it is much easier to deal with the tangled relationship between poverty and learning if you just pretend there isn’t any poverty.

Her greatest blunders though were in Christchurch. Teachers were an integral part of the invisible glue that held the city together following the earthquakes. Their service was repaid by laying them off and closing schools when communities needed them most. The decision to close schools was compounded by extraordinary levels of clumsiness, incompetence and a seeming lack of empathy.

Throughout, the overarching failure has been of vision. The Minister always conflated achievement with success, and achievement has always been dubiously and narrowly defined and measured. To drive an education system and measure its success on NCEA pass rates and national standards data is not about being evidence-based. It is about having a limited imagination of what education and schooling might be about.

A poster in the Ministry of Education proudly declares that under Parata's administration 17,000 more students gained NCEA Level 2 passes which sums up the confusion between achievement and success. This poster says nothing about whether schools, or the experiences of children, parents and teachers, improved in her term.

In the most excessive form of the Minister’s language, schools were tasked with preparing children for the 21st century economy: All of life was reduced to economy. There was no understanding that schools have important functions beyond preparing people for a low wage workforce.

Parata’s legacy isn’t the nebulous achievement of 17,000 students with an NCEA Level 2 pass.

Rather, it is a public education system buckling under chronic underfunding, sustaining a growing class divide between those with too much and those without enough; where classrooms struggle with too many chidren and help is diminishing for children with special needs; where an entire sector is tired of constant and seemingly irrelevant change. These might be the markers of a legacy that speaks to the difference between achievement and success.

More important than individual achievement is our success as a democracy. And for that we need a fully functioning public education system where excellence and equality sit at the heart of policy making.

To understand the scale of the disaster that awaits a democracy with an education system training children to answer questions rather than question answers, you don’t have to look further than the Trump presidency in the United States. The safeguarding of public education in New Zealand is about protecting the importance of knowledge and of communal co existence as decent human beings. Parata’s dubious legacy is a threat to our democracy.

Peter O’Connor is an internationally-recognised expert in applied theatre and drama education. His research focuses on marginalised and vulnerable communities and on issues of social justice.

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