Parata's reign 'a string of blunders, miscalculations'

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 ''smoothest communicators''.

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 storm.

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 of subterfuge.

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.

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