State of the relationship

March 2010


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Relations between the Minister of Education and teachers do not appear to be good. JOHN GERRITSEN assesses the implications

History shows that, if nothing else, Minister of Education Anne Tolley can expect to feature in plenty of cartoons as a result of her falling out with the main players in the primary school sector. They are one of the by-products of high-profile disputes involving politicians, but the disagreement over national standards could go a lot further than caricatures and chuckles.

The experience of past education ministers also shows that a minister at odds with the teaching workforce faces an uphill battle to get their policies into action and could even lose the portfolio, particularly if the public joins forces with teachers.

The latter scenario has played out for at least two former education ministers. Lockwood Smith lost the education portfolio after falling out with secondary teachers, while Trevor Mallard survived a major dispute with the same group only to lose the portfolio when teachers and parents joined to fight planned school closures. On the other hand, Wyatt Creech had a tough dispute with teacher unions over bulk funding for teacher salaries and was promoted to deputy prime minister.

Right now the focus for the minister-teacher relationship is in the primary sector where the Educational Institute (NZEI) and minister are at odds over national standards. But another hurdle is looming mid-year, when both primary and secondary teacher pay talks begin.

NZEI president Frances Nelson says she has not spoken with the minister “as such” since January (this interview took place on March 2).

“It’s true the relationship is difficult, because we no longer get into a room and get told stuff anymore. It’s communication through the media, which is not good for the minister and not good for the profession,” she says.

“There are definitely ways of mending it but everybody has to be prepared to get into a room and talk about it.”

Tolley did not offer an opinion on the current state of the relationship with teachers, providing only the following statement: “I value constructive input from all groups in the education sector, including teacher unions and principals’ organisations. I recognise that the unions’ major focus is on working conditions for their members.”

Ray Newport is a long-time observer of the relationship between teachers and education ministers from his position as School Trustees Association general manager and says it is “mission impossible” for a minister to keep everybody happy.

He says all ministers seem to have a honeymoon period with the sector, which lasts about 12-18 months. That generally comes to an end at the point when a government decides it can’t afford a particular initiative, pay rise or staffing change. “I don’t think there is a minister I can think of that that hasn’t happened with.”

“Almost regardless of who the minister is, there is going to be a day of reckoning when for whatever reason the government cannot meet all of the demands placed upon it.”

Newport won’t comment on the current situation, but it is worth noting that Tolley’s stoush with the profession has come relatively early in her tenure as education minister and it is not about resourcing, but about a particular policy – national standards.

Newport notes also that in the education unions, the PPTA and NZEI, education ministers face two of the most powerful unions in the country. “They are well organised and very good I suppose at fighting the fight. I think history shows by and large they are actually quite successful.”

Little surprise then that education ministers have a relatively high turnover. “It’s an enormously difficult portfolio,” Newport adds.

He cites Trevor Mallard as an unusual education minister for his relatively long hold on the portfolio, but even he was forced from it over his handling of school closures.

That dispute is, not surprisingly, still clear in Mallard’s mind. He cites it as a classic example of how quickly the support of teacher unions can switch to opposition.

Mallard recalls that the NZEI had recognised the educational disadvantages of small schools and was in favour of closing some in order to create larger, merged schools. But it changed its tune when its members at the schools in question started to complain.

“The NZEI were quietly supportive of the school review process until it got too hot and it was almost impossible to do with their opposition. Even acquiescence was okay. We didn’t need their support.”

That alignment of teacher union stance with membership views is an important issue. Do the unions accurately reflect the mood and views of their constituents? Mallard thinks so, saying they reflect the thinking of teachers in most areas and in fact are sometimes more moderate than their members would like. For example, some would currently like the NZEI to take a much harder line against national standards, he says.

He says the relationship between minister and teachers is important. “There is no doubt that where there is a relationship of trust and sort of two-way confidence, then a lot of progress can be made and people can agree to do things that involve compromise from both sides.” Where that trust does not exist, life becomes more difficult.

But the real cautionary tale from the Mallard experience is not so much about the relationship with the teacher unions as the double whammy for education ministers that comes when teachers and parents unite as they did on the matter of school reviews and closures.

“Sometimes, when even localised teacher opinion and public opinion coincide, it is then very, very hard to progress an issue,” he says.

There is a very real danger for the minister that such an alignment of views could happen over national standards. Right now survey results indicate the public is in favour of the standards but would prefer a trial first. That could change for the worse if the standards prove to be damaging to education in some way – for example through narrowing of the curriculum in schools that fear poor results – or if their implementation appears hurried or botched.

With the government absolutely set on continuing its national standards policy and pay talks likely to be difficult, the minister cannot expect an improvement in her relationship with teachers, or at least their unions, anytime soon. Hopefully, she will enjoy the cartoons.