Photo by Mark Coote/ <a href="http://markcoote.com" rel="nofollow">markcoote.com</a>

New hope for kids with change in leadership

The new government has a lot to do in the first 100 days, and education was an area in which it strongly campaigned. Chris Hipkins is up for the challenge writes Melissa Schwalger.

Above: The new Minister of Education Chris Hipkins is a believer in social investment to ensure that every child has the opportunity to meet their potentialPhoto: Mark Coote/markcoote.com


Education Minister Chris Hipkins readily agrees that no gambler would have put money on him six months ago to be holding this position. The whirlwind of Jacindamania and post-election negotiations have changed everything.

We meet in his spacious sixth floor Beehive office just a few days before Parliament rises for the year. Hipkins is looking forward to escaping to his family bach on the Kāpiti Coast for Christmas and there’s no denying that he has earned the break.

Not only does he have the education portfolio – a significant load even with three associate ministers – but he is also Minister of State Services, Minister responsible for Ministerial Services and Leader of the House. But after an entire political career on the opposition benches since becoming MP for Rimutaka in 2008 - including five years as opposition Education spokesman - Hipkins is relishing the opportunity to take action on the issues he cares about.

Ending National Standards

The first weeks of the new government focussed Hipkins’ attention on putting a year of free tertiary education in place for the start of this year.

However, he soon turned his sights on the promised scrapping of National Standards. It took some time to get clarity around future reporting requirements (officially scrapped) and whether there would be some sort of “replacement” (no, there won’t) or a return to the NZ Curriculum and Te Marautanga o Aotearoa (yes, there will).

Hipkins says teachers never got the chance to explore the curriculum before National Standards was introduced over the top of it.

“The NZ Curriculum was introduced in 2007 and then National came in in 2008 and started imposing these standards. Now we’ve removed that, it is time to go back and say ‘we’ve got this fantastic curriculum, how can we bring out the best in it?’”

He hopes that by scrapping National Standards, schools are getting the message to embrace the full curriculum and make sure children are getting the opportunity to explore their passions and potential.

“I’m of the view that schools do a wide range of things that are important, but not all of it can be easily measured, though that doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t focus on it,” he says.

NZEI has lobbied the Minister to fund PLD and release time to allow teachers to explore the curriculum and get the most out of it, but he’s not making any promises.

“We’re not making any specifics around funding commitments. We want to look more broadly at how we do PLD for teachers. We’ve made a commitment to re-establishing an advisory service, and how we might adjust some of the settings around CoLs.  All of those bigger picture things interconnect to a wider debate around the future of professional learning and development,” says Hipkins.

Communities of Learning are “going to go back to the drawing board” early this year, with the aim of developing a longer-term, sustainable model.

“I’m not convinced, for example, that all the money needs to go into salaries. CoLs want to do different things and we need to make the model a little more flexible. I’m not convinced that they’re the right place for the ministry to be lumping all of its resourcing decisions.”

A high trust model

While National Standards have been shown the door, schools can still base progress reporting around NS if they want to. That may have been unwelcome news to National Standards’ strongest critics, but Hipkins is unapologetic.

“The mindset that we want to get people’s heads into is that we’re adopting a much higher trust model. We’re saying to teachers we want you to be measuring a child’s progress, we want you to be reporting that information to parents across the full breadth of the curriculum, but what tools and resources you use is entirely up to you.”

Hipkins thinks that level of freedom is really important because he gets a sense of “change fatigue” amongst educators, in which they just get their heads around something before the government of the day changes it again.

“So, if you’ve developed an approach around progress reporting that’s based on National Standards, I’m not telling you that you have to go back to the drawing board and completely reinvent that.

“That’s the message to schools – we trust you.”

Support Staff and operations grants

Centralised funding of support staff was a Labour Party commitment during the election campaign, and Hipkins says the party remains committed to that.

“But this is not a Labour Government. This is a coalition government and so whilst our Labour Party Manifesto is a guide, it’s not set in stone because we have to negotiate with other parties,” he says.

However, Hipkins thinks the Greens and NZ First are broadly supportive of Labour’s approach.

“We’ve got a policy design process to go through and I’ve got to ensure that the whole government is signed up and supporting that approach. My view is that the only way to deliver pay equity and better pay and conditions is to change the way the system operates,” he says.

But for now, the pay and job security of support staff are closely linked to school operations grants, and Hipkins fully acknowledges the financial pressure that schools are under.

He’s not making any big promises of financial relief for schools yet though. Like many of the issues discussed, it’s a case of “watch out for the Budget”.

Pay equity and collective agreement negotiations

We spoke soon after negotiations broke down between NZEI and the Ministry of Education over pay equity settlement negotiations for Education Support Workers.

The case for ESWs is the most advanced of any in the education sector but will now potentially go back to the Employment Court.

At mediation in April 2017, the ministry had agreed to try to settle the claim within three months.

Hipkins was reluctant to comment on an ongoing case, but said the government was committed to pay equity, and the challenge now was how to achieve it.

“Because there’s been a change of government, there’s not suddenly a big extra bucket of money. And when we are negotiating next year, for primary and secondary teacher agreements, there are still constraints on what we can agree to.

“We have to get the money from somewhere and ultimately that comes down to what the rest of the taxpaying public is willing to pay,” he says.

Hipkins says the government’s “big call” to cancel National’s tax cuts has given them “a bit of room”, but he has a warning for everyone in the public sector.

“If the demands from social sector workers – teachers, nurses and others - are too high, then we won’t have the funding to meet that. It’s going to be a difficult balancing act for us. We’re going to go into those negotiations in good faith, but I hope the expectations on the other side of the table will be reasonable.”

ECE

The early childhood sector is painfully familiar with difficult balancing acts after eight years of a per-child funding freeze and a cut to funding for centres with 100% qualified teachers.

Hipkins is well aware of the stress that ECE services are under, and says becoming a Dad just over a year ago has focussed some of his thinking on ECE.

“I often think about what kind of an education system we are creating when we make certain decisions, and how will it affect my kids when they go through it. So it [fatherhood] does clarify your thinking.”

In regards to increased funding for ECE, Hipkins says to watch out for the Budget in May.

“Across the board in education, we acknowledge that the days of asking the education system to do more with less have kind of stretched things as far as you can stretch them before they break.

“That was the previous government’s approach. They kept saying do more and do more and do more without any more money and they left us with a system that was stretched so tight that if we keep doing that, things will snap.

“Kindergartens got the double whammy in the sense that funding was cut up front by the National Government with the cut to 100% funding for qualified teachers, and then it was frozen. So over time, the effect that’s had on kindergartens was huge.

“Bill English said at the time that kindergartens had huge reserves. Those reserves were predominantly for property and resources. That wasn’t just cash sitting in the bank for the heck of it. They’ve depleted those reserves and now I think they’re in need of more money.

Hipkins says that in recent years the focus has been predominantly on participation and it’s now time to consider the “quality aspect”.

He believes one of the readily identifiable markers of quality is having fully qualified and trained teachers.

“So we’ll look at that, but there are others as well, and there are some areas of growth we have to look at as well.

“Home-based has grown very quickly, and yet the regulatory and policy settings around that are the loosest of any part of the entire education system. So we’ve got to look more closely at how home-based is delivering quality. I do believe that there is an important place for home-based ECE, particularly for very young kids – the babies – but I want to make sure there’s quality.”

Inclusive education

The dire state of support for children with additional learning needs has received a lot of publicity over the past year.

Hipkins says the first step in seeking solutions is to find someone who is really passionate about the issue, which is why he has turned to NZ First’s Tracey Martin.

“She is absolutely committed to getting a better deal for those kids who need additional learning suport and I delegated to her the responsibility for managing that part of the education portfolio.

“And I know she’ll be a passionate advocate for more funding and resourcing. Already we’ve had meetings about what that might look like, and we’re also looking at how we can do things better, because in some places it’s actually a culture change we need to look for. Some schools are much more inclusive than others and I know that Tracey will really champion that.”

Hipkins said the Education Review Office’s plans for a national review of additional learning needs would be another tool for gathering better information.

“One of the challenges that we identified through the learning support review in the Education and Science Select Committee when we looked at support for kids with dyslexia, dyspraxia and those on the autism spectrum is that we don’t have really good data about the scale of need.

“The data we have is anecdotal. You go to any school and ask what’s your biggest need and they’ll tell you it’s learning support.

“But we don’t measure that in any way. We want to build the case better and that means better data. So I think the ERO review can be a contributor to that process.”

Tackling the teacher shortage

The growing teacher shortage is something Hipkins wants to deal with as a system issue, “rather than in little increments”.

A modest $9.5 million package was announced just before Christmas, but further policies are now part of the Budget process.

“Obviously one of the big issues is getting the link between supply and demand. We’re training too many of some teachers and not enough of others, and we’re not helping them through their provisional registration to become fully certified teachers,” he says.

Hipkins says the shortage has been more than nine years in the making, and traces it back to the introduction of Tomorrow’s Schools in 1989. He was a primary school student at Waterloo School in the Hutt Valley at the time.

Hipkins was head boy at Petone College in 1996, just two years before it closed down because of a dramatically declining roll following the removal of strict zoning.

“I was one of the tailend students who was there at the bitter end. It would be fair to say that some of the experiences I had from that [influenced my thinking] around Tomorrow’s Schools and the competitive model and the pitfalls of that. I think one of the weaknesses of Tomorrow’s Schools was if a school was doing well, it was doing well, but if it wasn’t – particularly in those early days – you were left to fail and the result of that was that kids missed out on opportunities.”

Hipkins is a believer in social investment to ensure that every child has the opportunity to meet their potential, but says social investment as it was designed and envisaged under the previous government wasn’t about investment.

“It was a rationing exercise – how do we cut funding and only target it to the things that we want? If you’re talking about actual genuine social investment you’re talking about building a system that caters for everybody and you’re investing in everybody’s future.

“Social investment in education is often universal rather than targeted. Because, we had this debate around the year’s free tertiary education. The more highly educated the general population, the better the community as a whole is going to be, and the more tax the government going to collect, which enables us to do other things.

“If you’re talking about social capital and human capital, it’s a good thing.”