Scoop Election 08: edited by Gordon Campbell

Anne Tolley’s last stand, and those abusive mayoral texts

December 14th, 2009

Education Minister Anne Tolley is painting herself into a dangerous corner by threatening to sack the boards of trustees at any primary schools still refusing in February to implement the national standards. Tolley seems hellbent on treating the issue as one of disobedience of the law, which is a needlessly inflammatory form of crisis management. Right now, we are still at the point of bluffing and threats – but if anyone eventually falls in February, it is more likely to be her. Because her handling of the standards issue is starting to look more and more like Custer’s Last Stand.

Obeying the law is one thing. Yet boards of trustees are also motivated by what is best for children and their community. When threatened, boards could well feel duty bound to resist a law that is treating their children as guinea pigs, without trials or pilot schemes, and in the face of overseas evidence that the national standards in dispute are likely to do more harm to children than good.

Is Tolley really prepared to put herself and the government at loggerheads with teachers and school principals – who in overwhelming numbers at present, oppose the route she has chosen ? The Minister appears to be relying on supportive comments from the School Trustees Association. Tolley plainly believes she can play off the boards of trustees against the school principals’ and teachers’ unions. As the meat in the sandwich, boards are being lobbied by teachers and principals on one hand, while being threatened by the Minister on the other. Who would want to volunteer for such a job ? More to the point, should the Minister who has let this crisis develop be allowed to keep her job?

The teachers and principals unions are not the only ones calling for a breather, in order to enable the contentious system to be trialled, and its merits established. As the NZ Herald reports this morning:

University education head Professor John Hattie and three other education academics have made a joint call for a trial, saying a hasty implementation could result in failure of the policy.

Disturbingly, Tolley painting herself as someone who ultimately has no choic. “I do have the power to dissolve the board and put in a commissioner,” she said [to the Herald] “In the end, I would have to do that. I don’t think it would come to that, but if it went to the nth degree I would do it. You just cannot have schools disobeying the law.”

In reality, she does have a choice, and always has. She can announce a trial and defer implementation of the standards until the results are known. The wellbeing of children after all is supposed to be paramount, not who blinks first in a ministerial showdown with teachers and principals. Does Tolley really think she can win a public relations battle waged on pushing through standards – when all that is being asked is that they be tested first, before being used on children?

If the real agenda is to use national standards as a hammer to break the teacher unions, then perhaps Tolley should say so. Even on that battleground, any decision to use primary school children as an instrument in an industrial battle would deserve to fail. The board trustees after all, are the parents of the children in the firing line – and they are likely to regard trial evidence as being a reasonable ( or even necessary) pre-condition before implementation of the standards.

Currently, this dispute has all the signs of a classic John Key failure of management ie, let Ministers drift along and get themselves into a pickle, then belatedly realize there is a problem, and then ride in at the 11th hour to the rescue. Trialing the system still looks like the only reasonable compromise on the table. Yet because Tolley has ruled that out so dramatically, it may leave Key with a nasty option: fire a large number of parents, or fire his Minister.


The horror, the horror

To state the bleedingly obvious : any bad manners from North Shore mayor Andrew Williams pale in comparison, I would have thought, to the Key government’s trashing of proper democratic process. Time and again this year, the government has rammed legislation through under urgency and evaded proper scrutiny of laws for which there was no justification for rushing to judgement. Now that’s bad manners. Williams’ texts also pale in comparison with this year’s rorts by Rodney Hide and Bill English : up to and including the mayor’s recent revelations about the paltry value –for-money from Hide’s jaunt overseas with his girlfriend.

If Williams feels cranky in the night about any or all of the above… well, good on him for speaking truth to power. And is the government really gathering up its skirts and reaching for the smelling salts over those horrid, horrid texts? Of course not. This beatup is merely the Act Party dealing to one of its most persistent critics. I mean, when you have Cameron Slater publicly lamenting the mayor’s lack of ‘decorum’ you know you’re dealing with the theatre of the absurd.


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