Educationalist Darrell Latham describes Hekia Parata's reign
as Education Minister as an ''omnishambles''.
According to the learned people at the Oxford English
Dictionary, their 2012 British word of the year is
omnishambles. Officially defined as a situation
''characterised by a string of blunders and
miscalculations'', they consider that it complements Murphy's
Law in describing politics and blunders.
If omnishambles is a word looking for a worthy recipient,
then look no further than Education Minister Hekia Parata.
She wins hand down for the education policy train wreck she
has created. Let's not beat around the bush. Mrs Parata is
attributed by Prime Minister John Key as one of his
I struggle to understand on what basis Mr Key has accorded
Mrs Parata smooth communicator and able politician status
when the evidence clearly suggests the contrary. However,
that is political game-playing and even Murphy was an
optimist. If Mrs Parata's policies and decisions were not so
heart-breaking for entire school communities, they would
provide the perfect script for a modern-day comedy of errors.
The reality is that she has created the perfect educational
Since she took hold of the education reins, policy
implementation by Mrs Parata has been beset with problems of
her own making. Failure to do her homework or take advice,
judicial reviews and regular about-face turns have been the
hallmark of her handling of the portfolio. Mr Key stated that
the education portfolio is an innately difficult one to
manage, that teachers and the unions are never happy and are
always resistant to change. Not so.
Teachers and principals bring their heart to the job and
rightly wear their children's hearts on their sleeve. Why
wouldn't they? At the chalk face, dedicated teachers and
principals daily do a good job. Perfect, no. Room for
improvement, yes. I have never yet met a teacher or principal
yet who has claimed there is no room for improvement.
For teachers, principals and, by implication, parents to be
perceived as activists for challenging the policy direction
of education does a disservice. They have not dropped the
ball, unlike their education minister who has been a master
I could not help but to be moved as I observed the reaction
to earthquake school closures in Christchurch recently.
Children and teachers were elated or gutted. What struck me
was the raw emotion displayed by Tony Simpson, principal of
Phillipstown School, when he explained the pending closure
and merger of his school to his children, teachers and
parents. A community wiped out in a single stroke of a pen.
Fast forward to the six o'clock news, when Mrs Parata
unemotionally read word for word a prepared statement about
earthquake school closures.
I can hear you saying that someone has to do the job and
deliver the bad news. Fair comment. My point here is the
difference between those serving on the front line and those
who drive policy reviews. Yes, politicians have an important
job to do. However, they need to know the difference between
doing things right and doing the right things.
Even President Obama showed empathy and emotion when
acknowledging recent school tragedies. He also acknowledged
bad policy, the need for rapid change and suggested he would
do all in his power to bring about change. There is much to
be said for the human touch and it even helps win elections.
This is not about teachers, principals and school communities
displaying an inability to accept change and having a bitch
because they cannot get their own way.
Schools are well versed about the realities of life, falling
rolls and school closures. They are a fact of life and school
communities live with it. They have never been sheltered from
the social and economic impact of such events. What they
should not have to do is experience such ineptitude in
education policy and then have to set out to try to right the
wrongs. Novopay, class sizes, charter schools, the Salisbury
school sham consultation and closure and U-turns over
earthquake-affected Christchurch schools. The list goes on.
Basic 101 in educational change management notes that teacher
commitment is a key to a school's capacity for reform. It is
the quality of the teachers and the nature of their
commitment to change that determines the quality of teaching
and the quality of school improvement during periods of
upheaval. With an election looming in 2014, the Government
may find that there is a high level of voter scepticism
around flawed education reforms. Getting offside with
teachers and principals is one thing. Getting offside with
parents who now understand the impact of the darker side of
flawed education policy is another thing altogether.
- Dr Latham is a senior lecturer at the University of
Otago College of Education. He works in the Centre for
Educational Leadership and Administration and his research
interests include the politics of education.