Tolley's reputation put on the line as school goes back

Education Minister Anne Tolley is the first minister to be reshuffled on the basis of John Key's own National standards.

If the introduction of National Standards in primary and intermediate schools was going well, Mrs Tolley would not have lost Tertiary Education this week in order to concentrate all her efforts on the new policy's implementation.

It is not going well, and what happens in the first term of the school year, starting next week, is crucial to its success.

This, being the middle year of the three-year term, is a huge policy year for National.

The Government's balloon could deflate over some big policy decisions ahead: on tax reform, the foreshore and seabed deal, the roll-out of the whanau ora welfare policy in the Budget, or a combination of all. Mrs Tolley's implementation of National Standards promises to get messy, but it does not carry as big a risk as the aforementioned decisions.

Not yet; unless the teacher union wins the support of parents in its bid to delay implementation until the National Standards have been trialled.

The primary teacher union, the NZEI, will begin a national campaign next week to try to get parents and boards of trustees on side.

They may have more success than National is anticipating.

Primary schools are closer to their communities than secondary schools and could be more persuasive.

The Government believes it can afford a fight with the teachers.

Giving teachers more time to implement National Standards could simply be giving them more time to sabotage the implementation altogether.

What the Government cannot afford is a fight with a lot of boards of trustees or to be seen to be running a shambolic process, and principals and teachers against boards of trustees.

The primary teachers loathe the prospect of tables comparing schools the media will inevitably compile from Ministry of Education data on National Standards - although secondary schools have got used to it.

They genuinely hate the prospect of kids being labelled as failures (one of the four grades is "below average").

And they fear it could all lead, in a few years, to performance pay for teachers, that teachers who are able to produce the best improvements will be financially rewarded.

What is indisputable, although not acknowledged by the unions, is the Government has a clear mandate to implement the policy.

It will be a fiery start to the school year, and a fiery start to the political year.

Mrs Tolley and the Post Primary Teachers Union head, Kate Gainsford, have already clashed publicly on quite personal terms and clearly have no respect for, or trust in, each other.

Labour suggests Mrs Tolley is out of her depth and has been promoted because she is a woman in a party that is short of women.

There are only six women in the Cabinet of 20.

But Labour is also treading warily about the way it opposes National Standards and Mrs Tolley.

It knows the policy is popular with parents, and while Mrs Tolley is not widely known publicly, she projects herself as a decent and solid person with genuine motives.

A public mauling of her by Labour's education spokesman, Trevor Mallard, would do her no harm.

She impressed her caucus colleagues when she returned to politics as MP for East Coast in 2005, after a term out of Parliament.

She was elected senior opposition whip and handled it well.

She inherited education from Katherine Rich a year out from the 2008 election.

But the National Standards policy had its genesis in Bill English's days as education spokesman, into which he threw himself after losing the leadership to Don Brash.

Auckland University's Prof John Hattie has been consulted by National throughout the development of its National Standards policy.

Prof Hattie is an important figure in the debate on National Standards.

He designed Asstle - Assessment Tools for Teaching and Learning - a computer programme widely used to assess literacy and numeracy skills in children.

His criticism of National's haste on the policy implementation late last year was a major embarrassment.

The vote-winning policy, which sounds so simple - setting National Standards in reading, writing and maths for primary and intermediate pupils, and reporting clearly to parents on them twice a year - is not simple to implement.

By most measures it is a rushed process.

The new curriculum and NCEA were given years to be developed and implemented.

Prof Hattie and others were concerned the rushed process had led to flaws in the new system that were so serious implementation would not be successful and would likely lead to dangerous side effects.

One of the concerns is that there is room for a great deal of inconsistency in the judgements of teachers as to whether a particular National Standard has been achieved by a pupil.

Some fear the upshot of such inconsistency could lead to the widely dreaded national testing - something even National said it would avoid.

National has been handed a gift by the uproar that is going on in Australia at present.

There, the left-wing Deputy Prime Minister in the Labor Government, Julia Gillard, is taking on the teacher unions over providing parents with greater information on schools.

That simply boosts National's case.

It is willing to dismiss the concerns of teachers and the Labour Party, but National won't ignore Prof Hattie.

He was one of the first people Prime Minister John Key got to know when he took over the National Party leadership and wanted to deepen his knowledge of education.

On Tuesday, Mr Key told reporters he was not considering acceding to the calls for a trial before full implementation of the National Standards policy.

On Wednesday, he was having discussions in the Beehive with Prof Hattie about his concerns.

There is no question National Standards will be implemented.

How it will be done is the only question.

And how it is done will affect Mrs Tolley's reputation.

If she emerges too damaged from the process, she may be reshuffled out of the portfolio for good before the election next year.

Audrey Young is The New Zealand Herald political editor.


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