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Paul Holmes interviews Anne Tolley

Published: 1:11PM Sunday September 20, 2009 Source: Q+A

PAUL Anne Tolley was first elected to Parliament as a list MP, but since 2005 has been the MP for East Coast. She was appointed as National's Education Spokeswoman just last year and after the election she became, remarkably, the first woman in our history to be named Minister of Education.

Since then Anne Tolley has been in an arm wrestle with sceptical teachers and principals as she tries to introduce National Standards for Primary school children. Education issues are very much back on the agenda, so this morning we welcome the Minister.

Anne Tolley good morning and welcome to Q+A.

ANNE Good morning Paul.

PAUL Did you expect when you became Minister of Education that within a few months we'd have people marching in the streets over the reduction in funds for night classes?

ANNE We knew the decision to reduce funding for Community Education would have a reaction&.but we're in the middle of an economic recession so there are hard decisions to make. We know that a third of the unemployment figures are represented by young people under the age of 25 and so the decision around where to spend your money in a very tight economic situation was made to invest in those that are youth guaranteed - give them the opportunities. And that meant that something else had to stop.

PAUL Did you really know the reaction it was going to get or did you mis-read it?

ANNE No, I knew that the reaction would be

PAUL you knew we'd have people in the street?

ANNE Well, I knew that the opposition would run a campaign, and they have indeed.

PAUL It was a hell of a savage cut though wasn't it - the night class community adult education budget was what, 16 million dollars. What' the education budget in total - 10 billion?

ANNE 10.8 billion this year, we've increased it by 300 million.

PAUL Right, so you've cut it from 16 million to 3 million. That's 80% reduction in funding for night classes.

ANNE But overall there's 124 million, so we had a budget of nearly 180 million over the next - 190 million - over the next four years. I've cut that back to 124 million.

PAUL What's that for?

ANNE That's for adult and community education. For night classes that will happen at schools, will happen at polytechs, that's still happening in the community.

PAUL Night school classes you've taken from 16 million to 3.2 million.

ANNE in the school sector. Because largely their courses were hobby and recreational courses - so the choice that I had to make.

PAUL Let's talk about that shortly. But 200,000 New Zealanders a year go to night classes to improve themselves. Grown up people - that's a helluva lot of people to annoy for 13 million dollars.

ANNE Well 124 million dollars will still be spent in adult and community education. What I've said is we're going to focus on literacy, numeracy, language, foundation skills - those courses that will lead on to employment. We're still in an economic recession, there are people out there, particularly young people, who are the most vulnerable, they are the most likely to lose their jobs and the least ones likely to get jobs.

PAUL Yes, but night classes in schools of course as adults - migrants, refugees adults trying to improve their lot - the strugglers.

ANNE Some of them are, some of them are hobby courses courses like belly dancing, ukulele playing. We've got courses like pilates and yoga - I've attended those classes myself. The average age of people attending those night classes is about 46. What we're saying I had a half billion debt from the previous government to find in tertiary education what we're saying is we're going to put those tax dollars into supporting our young people through the recession.

PAUL I understand. Go to those classes again, Minister. Some of those classes might have been questionable - belly dancing, Cook Island drumming, cheese-making, folk art for beginners - but there were also book-keeping basics, English as a second language, learning Mandarin

ANNE Yes, English is important, language classes will remain as I say

PAUL Share market computer animation - good useful stuff I suppose for people - but at the end of the year savagely 80% of it will go

ANNE Well that's a decision the schools will make - there's nothing stopping schools and in fact many schools have indicated they're going to keep those courses going on a user pays basis. All I've stopped is the government's contribution towards it - people were paying a little bit towards it - a large number of people have written in to me saying let's keep the courses I'm happy to pay a bit more. As I say, a number of schools have said.

PAUL Well a lot of people aren't going to be able to pay more are they - these are the strugglers. The average age might be 46. You can't dismiss a person because they're 46. The government's going on all the time about increasing our productivity.

ANNE It's not easy making these sorts of decisions. But in an economic recession with a certain limited amount of money you do have to set some priorities and our priorities are with those young people, particularly Maori and Pacifica young men who have no qualifications, we're putting in place our youth guarantee which will guarantee them access to school level education up to the age of 18. 2,000 of them next year and another 2,000 the following year. That's the decision we've made.

PAUL Which is fine, but you've got the politics of angering 200,000 people who are hitting the streets. But of course there's another aspect to it

ANNE We haven't had 200,000 in the streets let's be fair, we've had a couple of marches with a couple of hundred on each of them.

PAUL At the same time as you've cut this 13 million, you increase the funding by 35 million for Private schools. You cut night classes for the strugglers by 80% to 3.2 million a year and you find, in a recession - you keep going on about the recession you find 35 million for the rich, independent private schools. How is that?

ANNE Well they're not all rich but there's 31,000 children in private school in New Zealand. They have had a funding cap - the previous government capped their funding for the last ten years. Economically, private schools save the State system money. I'm looking at a small private school at the moment that's probably going to close - wants to integrate - currently costs the State around $65,000 a year. If it integrates and comes into the State network it's going to cost $380,000 a year which is an enormous difference. So to give them 10 million a year to try and keep them in place.

PAUL This is all very well but people see you cutting 13 million from the strugglers and you're dishing it out to Kings and Diocesan and all the other 35 million

ANNE a quarter of that is actually going in scholarships which will give children who might not necessarily have the opportunity of attending a private school.

PAUL ... yes but appearance is that you are favouring education for the children of the rich and that you are penalising strugglers who are trying to improve themselves..

ANNE I have a couple of private schools in my electorate that I don't think you would class as schools for the rich. So there's a spread. There are some very wealthy schools but there are also some small schools who you wouldn't even classify - if they were decile rated - would be in the lower decile.

PAUL But funny that in the recession that you would find 35 million for private schools and you couldn't spend.

ANNE Well as I say, economically that makes good sense. If they were to come into the State system, or if they were to close and those children come into the state system, they would cost us a lot more.

PAUL The other thing I suppose about the night school cuts, is that the average age might be 46 and some of those people might be as I say, they're strugglers, they might be able to improve themselves as adults which is a damn good example for their children. Mum and Dad are not too proud to go back to school

ANNE And that's why we're keeping 124 million we're still continuing to spend in adult and community education. It's a really important part of the Tertiary Education system.

PAUL Just finally wrapping this night school business up. Are you going to have to change your mind?

ANNE No, we're not. Those young people, that's where the decision's been made to spend the money. We're absolutely committed to making sure that they have a good opportunity to get a good job as we come out of the recession. We need them - we're going to need that skilled labour.

PAUL One other little bit of information, of intelligence, which has come to the ear. Are teachers' advisors, who are teachers who go around teaching teachers and advising teachers, are they going to be scrapped at the end of this year if they are not advisors on numeracy and literacy?

ANNE I'm not aware of that... teacher advisors? What we're doing next year is focusing on the support, school support systems on numeracy and literacy, and the professional development to support the national standards.

PAUL Right. Some say that you're a puppet in the education sector when we ask them about you. They say you always say I've got to refer that back to the Minister of Finance. Is that true? Are you a puppet?

ANNE No, no. What I do talk about - I mean the reality is that you negotiate a budget with the Minister of Finance, they have what you call bilaterals. I don't think anyone who's worked with me would suggest that I was a puppet!

PAUL What do you know about education?

ANNE Well I've been a parent of three children and I'm a grandmother of two. So I've had three children go through the education system and I've also got a family of teachers so I've lived with education all my life.

PAUL How many of our schools are leaky and what is that going to cost?

ANNE Too many of our schools are leaky and it is a big issue for us and we have a special budget set aside to address those. It's a big part of our capital budget.

PAUL Do you know how much? Got an idea?

ANNE Off hand no, no I don't.

PAUL Millions?

ANNE Yes, it's millions.

PAUL Let's talk about the other contentious issue - contentious particularly with the teachers. Your planned set of national standards for primary children - explain to us all, what is that? Why do you want to do it? What's it going to do? How does it work?

ANNE OK. Well 2007 ERO report showed that less than half of our schools were using assessment techniques effectively to inform their teaching. And that meant - that's formative assessment it's called

PAUL Was it five or six years old? This is very early

ANNE Right through Primary. So our national standards are setting clear expectations of what children should learn and by when. And, every assessment method that's used by teachers has some form of normal. What we're saying is that we're going to have one set of standards across the country. And then schools are going to be required to report to parents in plain language about how well their child is doing against those standards.

PAUL Don't they do that now?

ANNE No, they don't. In fact I have parents come into my electorate with their school reports and they say what does this tell me? That Johnny is a delight to have in the class, he's doing really well, I walk away from my teacher-parent interview and I have no idea what it is that I need to do or where my child is performing.

PAUL Don't we have national assessment now?

ANNE No, we have about half our schools using assessment techniques quite effectively but we know we've got about half of them who are not.

PAUL And you're going to start assessing at five, yes?

ANNE Well, teachers are constantly assessing a child's progress

PAUL So are we assessing kids against kids, or should we be assessing kids against how they were last term?

ANNE We should be assessing children constantly on the effectiveness of the teaching. So if a teacher is teaching something they need to be actually checking that the child is learning and if not they need to change what they're doing so that's the good use of assessment.

PAUL But should we necessarily panic if a child doesn't appear to be learning - I mean are we putting too much pressure on kids too early. Will this put too much pressure on kids too early?

ANNE Well no, the national standards have been linked right through to NCEA level 2, we've done that quite deliberately because the world we're facing today Paul is quite different to the world that you and I faced. And the classic for me is my garage mechanic in Gisborne - who said to me in the old days when I was looking for an apprentice I'd get someone who just liked to tinker with the motor. The average car today has 12 computers so the numeracy and literacy requirements for those newer apprenticeships is much higher than it used to be so we have an obligation to make sure we've prepared our children to have those qualifications they need to have the options to get a good job.

PAUL Hence numeracy and literacy

ANNE Hence numeracy and literacy now we've had a consultation process and we're going to release the analysis of that this afternoon. Parents told us quite clearly - over 5,000 of them either came to the consultation meetings or wrote in - they want to know how well their children are doing or what their weaknesses are, they want to know it in clear language, not education speak, they want to know it in language they can understand and they told us they want to know what they can do to help their children.

PAUL Teachers are I think, fear this system because in 2012 school's are going to have to report the standards to the Ministry, is that right?

ANNE That's right, and to parents

PAUL Right, but then what's going to happen the day it goes to the Ministry - am I for instance going to be able to find out what my producer's child is doing at age 5 at a school in Meadowbank?

ANNE No, individual information about students is only ever allowed to be the privacy protects that between a parent and the school. But you know there's been a lot of scare mongering about league tables - but in fact the Media can go in now to - a school has to report to both parents and the Ministry now on an annual basis and the Media has full access to those.

PAUL I know. Teachers fear though I think that this, your national standards, will lead even more to blame and shame. The media of course will start ranking the schools even more intensely than it does now, and even where teachers are struggling with kids from very difficult communities so they'll get the shame, so those schools will die off.

ANNE But the thing about what's been reported&

PAUL through no fault of the teachers.

ANNE .. is the progress. I mean the most important thing about a child's performance at school is their progress. So even those children who come in, who are not necessarily prepared for school, it's the progress that they're making against the standards that's important, it's not important where they are at any particular point, what is important is where they've come from and where they are. And if they're not making the necessary progress what needs to be done to lift them. And I say to those parents of bright children - they also want to know that those bright children are not coasting. So even if they're above standard that they're continuing to improve.

PAUL Couple of quick ones - how do you rate New Zealand teachers?

ANNE I think we've got some fantastic teachers.

PAUL How do you get on with them?

ANNE Reasonably well.

PAUL How are you getting on with the principals?

ANNE Um, quite a lot of them are being very constructive. Look there's always some who don't like what you're doing for a variety of reasons.

PAUL Do you support performance pay for teachers?

ANNE No, I don't.

PAUL Why?

ANNE I don't think we've found a good way of measuring it. I think what we're doing with our national standards in the system that we have now, if we have parents with good information who are having good dialogue with good teachers, they will drive performance that way. And we have our Board of Trustees who are well able to ask of their principals good, searching questions about the performance of the school for the kids - it's all about the kids - that will drive it that way.

PAUL Why shouldn't a teacher in some decile, high or low decile, get some form of performance incentive pay?

ANNE Well I think we do have a problem that we aren't able to, we don't have a good career plan for teachers. At the moment in the system if you want to step up through the ranks you have to go into management. And I've set up an advisory group from the education sector to have a look at a) how we attract the best and brightest into teaching - because it's the most important job after parenting - how we train them and then how we retain them in the education system. And part of that is about really good teaching.

PAUL Last question - brief answer please if you would - how after three years should we judge you as Education Minister?

ANNE Well I'd like to be judged on the performance of the sector, the fact that children are leaving school better able to read and write and do maths, with better qualifications.

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