Natter with Nikki

I had preemptively titled this interview article, ‘Natter with Nikki’ – after all, we are roughly the same age and I’d anticipated a bit of chitchat perhaps. But Kaye is professional to a fault, very cautious in her responses, and incredibly astute. She is also busy beyond belief – our interview was rescheduled over and over again as she struggled to find a spare half hour to chat. By the end of our interview, I’d concluded that ‘natter’ was no longer appropriate, but I’m such a sucker for alliteration that it remains.

I come to my interview with Kaye armed with questions about how she would approach the role of Education Minister, should she secure it in May. Prime Minister Bill English has indicated that it is likely that the 36-year-old will take over the education portfolio from Minister Hekia Parata. I’m itching to ask her what her plans are for the education portfolio and what changes she’ll make.

But Kaye nips that line of questioning in the bud.

“I don’t want to do myself out of a job,” she says. She is mindful that voicing her ideas about how she’d approach a job that isn’t yet hers would not be entirely sensible.

I grudgingly agree, as I draw a line through each of my first five questions. I turn the focus to her new delegations, which include communities of online learning (CoOLs), communities of learning (CoLs), teacher workforce supply, collective bargaining, charter schools infrastructure, school transport and technology.

There are some big-ticket items on there, not least among them CoOLs, which haven’t been wildly popular with the sector so far.

Kaye says she “completely understands” the nervousness around CoOLs.

However, she firmly believes that with the huge investment in internet connection around New Zealand, we have a “unique opportunity to deliver more subjects to more students”.

“Why wouldn’t we grab this opportunity?” she says. “A longstanding issue for a small nation like ours is: how do we enable choice?”

I point out that many schools believe they already have the tools and systems in place to deliver online learning to students in remote areas, with the Virtual Learning Network (VLN) as the prime example.

But Kaye thinks the Virtual Learning Network will welcome the CoOLs.

“Instead of relying on the next round of funding, [the CoOLs] will give them a permanent home,” she says.

Kaye perceives digital technology to be one of her biggest challenges in approaching her new delegations. With the $700 million invested into connecting schools to unlimited data, there is a strong obligation to ensure the best possible teaching and learning is happening. She’s conscious of the speed with which digital technology is moving and wants to make sure the “learning is good”.

Part of this means looking beyond schools and tapping into expertise within the wider community. She mentions working with programmes like Manaiakalani and MindLab.

“How do we ensure, whether it is through the curriculum, or teachers, or the wider community that we are enabling the best teaching and learning possible?”

Digital fluency is a priority for the Communities of Learning (CoLs). Kaye is itching to get out and about in the sector and get to see the CoLs in action.

She thinks schools in the CoLs are now at the stage where they are eager to start seeing some benefits from their collaboration. She says the bundled services project she’s currently working on will help to save schools money and free up time for principals and teachers.

Kaye is well aware of the mounting paperwork and administrative workloads facing teachers and principals and is keen to pursue ideas that result in their improved wellbeing.

There have been pilots rolled out for a number of schools in the areas of facility management, and these have been positive, says Kaye. The next step will be to work with the Ministry around further pilots before hopefully introducing bundled services for schools that are part of a CoL.

Kaye is mindful that schools might think that the Ministry is trying to foist these bundled services on them, or that there is some hidden agenda.

“There really isn’t. There is enormous potential – for CoLs and schools that want it – to spend more time on focusing on teaching and learning.”

Consultation with the sector is, to my mind, so important when it comes to education, so I’m interested to hear Kaye’s views on things like pilots and sector engagement and union discussions prior to introducing new initiatives.

She agrees it is important, but says there is a “delicate balance” between getting buy-in and progressing initiatives.

She praises the cross-sector forum established by Minister Parata, viewing this as a stable vehicle to manage the large number of stakeholders the Ministry engages with: unions, teachers and principals, parents, their own caucus, other political parties.

When it comes to working with the unions, she is optimistic. She is well aware that the relationship between the Ministry and the unions has been fraught at times, but suggests that her youth will allow her to approach this without historical baggage weighing her down.

“I’m an eighties baby,” she says – something we have in common.

Kaye thinks it is inevitable that there will be disagreement with the unions from time to time.

“Where we agree, that’s fantastic,” she says, “And when we disagree, that’s fine too – there is always respect.

“Education is, in my view, arguably the most important portfolio. And it is perfectly natural to have some heated debates and some emotion around these issues.”

Some of these heated debates are around partnership schools, another area of Kaye’s new delegations.

“I completely understand why some people are sceptical,“ she says, “but we have a very proud history in New Zealand of supporting diversity, and partnership schools provide another option for families.”

The other big challenge is around infrastructure. She emphasises that the Government has invested heavily in school property in a relatively short space of time, spending billions of dollars on fixing leaky buildings, old buildings and addressing growth issues. Canterbury and Auckland schools have dominated much of this spend, but she singles out other areas of the country that have also seen significant growth like Queenstown and Tauranga.

The challenge is how to manage these projects, how to utilise space better.

She believes that the sector has some way to go in this area, and says there are “many misconceptions around Modern Learning Environments”. While there is a lot of research around MLEs, she says the Ministry’s guidance actually only extends to the basic standards of heat, light and connectivity. It is up to schools to integrate these standards in a way that provides the best environment conducive for quality teaching and learning.

We’ve only really scratched the surface of her new delegations, and yet it all sounds like a lot of work. But I sense Kaye is up for the challenge. She’ll make a good Minister of Education should the education portfolio come her way.

Chat with Chris

Education is the obvious portfolio for Chris Hipkins. He has had first-hand experience with just about every sector within the education system – from schooling, to university, to working within the industry training sector, to managing oil and gas apprenticeships. Even now, he’s pursuing postgrad study part-time, with his Master of Public Policy nearly completed.

It was his high school years that lured him into politics. Attending a “failing secondary school” opened his eyes to the inequality within our education system.

“I had a good upbringing; my parents were interested in education – I was always going to succeed. But many others weren’t so fortunate.”

He says the prevailing mood from the government at the time was that “competition rocks”, which led schools like his to suffer. He joined the Labour Party in his last year of high school, determined to seek more equity within state education.

Early Childhood Education is the only area of education with which Hipkins hasn’t had much personal connection. Until now, that is. As a new parent – his baby boy is just five months old – he will no doubt gain first-hand experience of ECE in full swing.

Being a parent certainly changes everything, and I detect this in Hipkins. All the policy, the initiatives and so on, take on a new meaning when you envisage how they are going to affect your child.

Hipkins is currently in the throes of working on Labour’s education manifesto.

At this stage, the manifesto appears to be big on ideas and light on detail. But it’s still early days. Hipkins says he’s keen to try something “a bit different” with communicating the party’s key policies. The manifesto will hinge on five or six priorities.

Top of the list is free public education for all, which Hipkins describes as “part of our DNA”. In addition to making state education truly free again, Hipkins has boldly said that Labour will introduce “three years of fee-free post-school education for every New Zealander”.

It’s a similar proposition to the Productivity Commission’s Student Education Account idea, which didn’t make the cut in the Commission’s final report. Perhaps they have arrived at similar conclusions through the same underlying opinion that New Zealand’s current tertiary and post-school education set-up is in need of a shake-up.

The Productivity Commission was talking in the region of $45,000 per New Zealander, but I can’t pin Hipkins down on numbers. He is confident it will “cost less than tax cuts” though.

At this stage he’s more interested in the bigger picture – and he paints it well. He envisages that this policy proposal will promote a “direct transfer from welfare to training”. He sees it as encouraging more incentives for both employers and employees to engage in apprenticeships and expects to see an “explosion” in on-job training.

“Secondary school is no longer enough,” says Hipkins. He believes we should be focusing on providing another three years of education after NCEA Level 3 – whether it be at university, polytech or pre-trade training. The three years could either be used in one chunk – towards a bachelor’s degree, for example – or staggered over time to allow people the chance to upskill or change vocation at a later date.

It’s certainly exciting stuff – although I hope a clearer answer to the nagging ‘But where’s it coming from?’ question in my head will emerge soon.

Hipkins talks about the need to move on from a system that was designed post-war to serve an industrial workforce.

“The National Party is refining an education system based on 20th-century life,” he says.

He believes there is too much emphasis on NCEA attainment at secondary school and not enough on post-school outcomes.

“There is currently too much focus on outputs – the piece of paper – over outcomes – what students end up doing,” he says.

“We are over-assessing kids,” he says. Our current assessment protocols have become, to Hipkins’ thinking, “a system of hurdles” leaving students and teachers over-burdened and anxious. National Standards are “poorly constructed, blunt and arbitrary” and NCEA is “too loose” in the way it is currently used.

It’s a criticism I’ve heard before from many different corners but I’m eager to hear Hipkins’ ideas of how to ensure accountability and monitor progress within a higher-trust setting that allows teachers more freedom to teach.

NCEA shouldn’t be the end goal, he says, rather a marker along a path that extends beyond high school and into a student’s pathway into work-based training or higher education.

Learning planning – as opposed to careers advice – should begin at year 9 at the latest, says Hipkins. It should focus on where a student’s interests lie and on encouraging their skills, utilising many different areas of the curriculum. He gives the example of nurturing a budding entrepreneur with the relevant courses in maths, digital technology, English and business studies. He acknowledges that things are improving in this area.

He’s a fan of initiatives like Gateway, STAR and particularly the Vocational Pathways, but “they haven’t gone anywhere”.

Similarly, he likes the idea of Communities of Learning (CoL) – or more accurately, he likes the idea of collaboration between schools – but he thinks the system is too rigid, as it stands at the moment.

“We have schools that genuinely want to collaborate but are being met with resistance. Until the managerial focus is removed, we won’t see any progress,” he says.

He argues that if a community of schools identifies a need to focus on wellbeing or socioeconomic challenges instead of assessment outcomes then they should be able to set this as their challenge.

“They need to redefine ‘achievement’,” he says.

One policy of which he is not a fan is the introduction of charter schools. The existing charter schools don’t stand much of a hope if Labour is elected. Hipkins says there would be a range of options for the schools and he would deal with each on a case-by-case basis.

I’d previously imagined Hipkins charging into the charter schools with his tools and tearing them down, but now that we’re face-to-face I get the sense that he won’t relish seeing them close. He’d rather find solutions that worked for them, and particularly the kids.

Special education is another area he desperately wants to fix, viewing it as “the most unmet need” in the system.

“As a potential incoming Minister of Education I want to grab every dollar,” he says.

He’d make a good Minister of Education. He’s a big-picture thinker and his enthusiasm is infectious. But the job he’s eyeing up is enormous. It isn’t surprising that Labour intends to keep tertiary education within the education portfolio, given its focus on the continuum of learning, but this makes the Education Minister remit seem titanic.

I’m looking forward to seeing Labour’s education manifesto – but it will need to provide directions as well as the destinations if it is to stand up to a critical New Zealand public.


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