Education Minister Nikki Kaye and I are both apologetic as we begin our interview. Kaye is getting her make-up done in preparation for a Facebook live stream. Meanwhile I have ducked out of a keynote speech at a conference to take her call. So it is to a backdrop of blush brush sweeps and conference chitchat that we conduct our interview. It is literally the only time we can find a spare 20 minutes to talk, such is the frenzied countdown to the election.
So much work has clearly gone into National’s education policies, and I sense Kaye is mildly frustrated by people not bothering to take the time to really read and understand them.
“I would really appreciate it if people would look at the policies, and not just read the [news]papers,” she says.
As a media player, I’m a little torn whether I should feel offended or flattered at her choice of words. I opt for the latter. It is clear Kaye is eager to see policy discussed – and that has been my goal with this series of interviews.
Her number one priority for New Zealand education is, like that of every political party, to make it more equitable. Every party has a different proposal for achieving this; National’s is all about fixing the funding system.
The Risk Index funding, pegged to replace the decile system, is only part of this, Kaye explains. An entire funding system review is on the cards, which will see “significantly more money” invested into education to support a better and fairer system.
Number two is raising achievement.
Most of the other parties are calling for National Standards to be abolished with no plans about what will replace them, she says. By contrast, Kaye says National has listened to feedback on the areas where National Standards have been found lacking and is looking to address these areas. So, for example, in order to tackle the criticism that National Standards show only a snapshot of children’s learning, instead of their progress, they are introducing National Standards Plus, an online tool that will give better access to children’s progression.
The other criticism, that National Standards narrow the curriculum to reading, writing and maths, will be addressed through a move to gradually broaden the National Standards out to other curriculum areas.
She is mindful of the issues around teachers’ workloads, and says the $45 million earmarked for the National Standards revamp will be aimed at making life easier for teachers, not harder.
Investment in teachers contributes to the goal of lifting achievement. Along with delivering intensive support for students and providing extra classroom resources, Kaye expects an initiative to improve the maths skills of primary school teachers to boost student achievement in maths. It’ll cost $126 million.
Priority number three for Kaye is all about supporting the children who are most disadvantaged, and she says she has worked hard in her first few months as Education Minister to look at how best to support behavioural and learning differences. She will be looking to place “targeted investment in this space”.
Her fourth area of focus is more about the long-term game, on how we best equip our students for the workplace in 20 years’ time. Predictably this involves leveraging digital technologies.
Kaye is critical of Labour’s ‘device for every student’ proposal. She believes National’s approach to technology is more future-focused than this, with more emphasis on how to use digital technologies as tools for learning. To this end, they’re pumping $40 million into teachers’ professional development in this area.
There is no denying that Kaye has a very firm grip on National’s plan for education. The figures are all at the tip of her tongue.
Take the second languages initiative. It will cost $160 million, she says. She acknowledges this figure might be on the conservative side in order to roll it out across all primary schools in the country but says feedback has been “really positive”.
The fifth major priority for National is to support teachers’ workforce issues. She is proud of the traction she’s made in this area so far. Certainly, after the voluntary bonding scheme was brought out of obscurity by the unions, Kaye acted quickly to extend it to Auckland schools. She’s also increasing the Auckland Beginner Teacher Project and increasing the availability of relocation grants.
She’s sceptical about the Act Party’s proposal to raise ‘good’ teachers’ salaries.
“We don’t support it. Evidence doesn’t support performance pay,” she says.
I get the feeling Kaye is keen to look beyond the quick fixes, as tempting as they might be in the run-up to an election. With the moratorium that prevented new teacher education programmes now lifted, she is keen to work with the sector and the Education Council to ensure teacher workforce issues of quality, supply and retention are addressed through a 10-20 year strategy.
Having said that, Kaye doesn’t demonstrate that same enthusiasm for a cross-party, sector-wide education hui as the spokespeople of other parties, which is understandable given her party is currently making all the decisions. She says, however, that she is happy to work with the opposition wherever possible.
One area in which I can’t see agreement being reached is that of school donations.
Kaye thinks Labour’s proposal to pay schools $150 per student per year if they agreed to stop asking parents for school donations would be a bit like a “hornet’s nest” if it came to actually delivering it to schools. Kaye would rather keep donations, but emphasise to schools and their communities that they are voluntary.
She’s open to the idea of change, however. We discuss the possibility of making revisions to the Communities of Learning (CoL) model. I suggest that some CoL are frustrated with how rigid the rules are around achievement challenges and CoL leadership. She counters that initially it was necessary to keep the parameters tight while the CoL were being established, but agrees there could be scope to introduce more flexibility into the model.
I detect Kaye’s eagerness to really ramp up CoL, but she keeps this in check. They could potentially become the vehicle of choice for delivering bundled services to schools, a one-stop-shop of sorts that would save schools time and money. But she’s careful to point out that new pilots, like the recent learning support initiative, will also be extended to schools that are not involved in a CoL.
As the current Education Minister, Nikki Kaye has the distinct advantage of being able to talk about seeing projects through and putting plans in place. But she doesn’t strike me as complacent either. National has a very real fight on its hands and she knows it. Education is one area that will speak to those sitting on the political fence.