Meeting the man heading up the MinistryAugust 2013
Education Review asks Secretary for Education PETER HUGHES about his vision for the Ministry and his views on leadership.
Congratulations on your new role. What are your impressions so far of the Ministry of Education in terms of its people, processes and organisational culture? What, if anything, needs to change?
Peter Hughes: First up, let me say that I think that this is the best job in the public service. Having spent a lot of my career working down the hard end of the social sector with vulnerable and marginalised individuals and families, education looks pretty positive.
It’s all about investing in our children and young people so they can be the best they can be and so that our country can prosper and make its way and be successful in the world. I can’t think of any other job where you get to focus on that every day of the working week.
Over the past few months, I’ve spent a lot of time getting out and about, meeting and listening to our staff in Wellington and around the country. Almost without exception, the people I have met have been committed, professional, and passionate about making a difference in our country. They are a very impressive bunch of people.
However, the organisation itself needs a bit of work. There’s a huge amount of really good work going on, and over the years, I think the Ministry can be proud of the contribution that it’s made to education. But now it’s time to focus on the organisation itself alongside all of that.
That means understanding the role of the organisation in the education sector. Rather than describing the Ministry as the sector leader, I prefer to think of us as stewards of the education system. That might just sound like words, but the underlying concept is really important and indicates quite a profound shift in the way we go about our work.
The real leaders in the education sector are the school principals, who lead teaching and learning in our schools, and the people heading up the other provider organisations in the tertiary and early childhood sectors.
Our job as stewards of the education system is to stand behind these individuals and their staff and to back them to win. We need to make sure they’ve got the policies, resources, systems, support, and tools to ensure every child has the choice and opportunity to be the best they can be.
The shift we need to make as an organisation is significant and it will take time.
It’s as much about the way we behave and interact with people in the education sector as anything else. We need to be respectful of people at the front-end of the sector and the work they do. We need to listen to them and learn from them.
There are also some other things we need to work on as an organisation.
My vision is a Ministry that is in touch, connected, and respected, and along with the sector leaders, is enabling real, sustainable positive change for our kids and young people.
A lot of what we need to do comes back to the relationships we need with people in the sector. We need strong respectful, open, trusting, and collaborative relationships and building those starts with me. So I will work hard to be accessible. I will front up, I will listen, and I will be accountable. I will also work hard to understand the people who work in the sector, their jobs and their world.
What have you learned from the problems surrounding Novopay?
Peter Hughes: Many Ministry staff worked incredibly hard on Novopay to deliver a modern online payroll system for schools. But we just weren’t set up for a project of that scale and complexity. We let the sector down and we let ourselves down. That was made pretty clear in the findings of the Ministerial Inquiry into Novopay. I am really sorry for the stress school staff have gone through over recent months, and I’m extremely grateful for the way they’ve worked through this with us and for their patience and professionalism.
Our immediate focus has been on fixing Novopay. We’re making steady progress under the dedicated payroll business unit set up earlier this year. We’ve stabilised the pay rounds and the backlog clearance unit is making headway. We’re putting a particular emphasis on making significant improvements to the End of Year/Start of Year process and working on improving the useability of Novopay Online for payroll administrators. In addition, regional support initiatives are being progressively rolled out, starting in the South Island.
I accepted in full the findings and recommendations of the ministerial inquiry and changes have already been made.
We’ve streamlined the Ministry’s governance arrangements and clarified roles, responsibilities, and accountabilities. We’ve implemented new project management arrangements to deliver on Better Public Service targets and Government priorities. A new risk management approach for the Ministry is also in place. And we’ve started a process of culture change with a focus on teamwork, service, flexibility, responsiveness and accountability.
The Ministry has had a difficult few years, with teacher budget cuts, restructuring of Christchurch schools, Novopay, etc. The net result of these issues, as conveyed mostly by teacher and principal representative organisations, appears to be frustration at not being listened to, mistrust, and a lack of confidence in the Ministry. What steps need to be taken to rebuild communication, trust, and confidence with the sector?
Peter Hughes: I’ve got enormous respect for the professionalism of school staff. They’re out there every day doing a great job for kids and we want to do everything we can to support them.
Without a doubt, there have been some tough issues over the past year or so.
We know we’ve got work to do to rebuild relationships. I think we’re doing better. But we also need people in the sector to be open to changing the relationship we’ve had. I need them to give us a fair go. Because we mess up from time to time, I need them to see mistakes where they are tempted to see conspiracy. We’re committed to changing how we go about working with the sector, but we will need the help and support of people in it.
What is your vision for New Zealand’s education system? How do you think this is to be achieved?
Peter Hughes: It’s still early days for me to have a vision for the whole of the education sector. Clearly what we’re all trying to do is lift aspiration and raise achievement for every New Zealander, whether that’s in early education, the primary or secondary years, or the tertiary system. That certainly is the Government’s objective as well. What I learned from my time in the health sector was that what people working there were looking for from the Ministry of Health was not so much a view of the destination, which like here was pretty much agreed, but how the sector would work together and be mobilised to achieve that.
Over the past few months I’ve been getting out and about talking to principals, providers and others and I am starting to see some real opportunities that I will want to discuss with people in the sector and the Government. These include things like the opportunity for more collaboration between schools and across the system, to wrap early interventions and support around kids when they need them, and to work more strongly with business and industry in terms of vocational options and opportunities for kids.
Again, it helps to think of the education sector as a system and how we might make that system work better to support the efforts of principals, teachers, and providers, but most importantly, the children and young people that we are all here to serve.
Given your various leadership positions, including your role as chief executive of the Ministry of Social Development, what does it take to lead an organisation like the Ministry of Education? What defines a good leader?
Peter Hughes: It’s about taking ownership and being accountable. You’ve got to be prepared to argue your corner and stand up for the people and organisation you’re working for and for what you’re doing. But it’s also knowing when something has gone wrong, fronting up and fixing it.
It’s about having the right culture in the organisation so you’re getting the very best out of people and they know where we’re heading and why, and what their part in that is. You also need to build a strong leadership team that is cohesive, effective and fully committed.
Communication’s also critical. I get out and talk to staff and the biggest part of that is listening. It’s the same thing in terms of the sector, whether it’s the key groups or visiting individual schools. That level of relationship is really important.
And you’ve got to be open to new ideas because nothing ever stands still. You need to be able to adapt quickly to make the changes that keep the organisation in front of the job that it’s doing.