Education reporter JUDE BARBACK interviews Act Party leader David Seymour about Act’s education policies.
David Seymour and I lived in the same university hall of residence, some 16 years ago. You never know when you’re going to cross paths again with people in this tiny country of ours.
“Isn’t it scary that people like us are now doing these sorts of jobs?” he muses. I assume he’s remembering those early days of deadlines and debauchery. While we’ve all grown up since then, it’s a humble gesture to put me in the same boat as him; I definitely prefer being on my side of the interview.
When you hear the words ‘Act Party’ and ‘education’ you typically think partnership schools, so that’s where we start.
And certainly, Seymour appears to be in comfortable territory when discussing partnership schools.
Seymour points out that the analysis of a recent PISA test shows that if the results were broken down by ethnicity, European New Zealanders would outperform all other countries, while Maori would come 28th, just behind Mexico.
“That’s not the kind of New Zealand we want,” he says.
One of the fascinating things about interviewing a range of political parties about education is that from the far left to the far right, all are concerned with addressing the inequality in New Zealand education. Yet while this is the major priority for all parties, all have very different ideas about how to tackle it.
Act’s answer, unsurprisingly, rests in partnership schools.
“We need a wider range of options,” he says. He points out that where state schools aren’t working for families, they should be given a choice.
I argue that while partnership schools may be a good solution for a small number of kids, they’re unlikely to affect the wide-scale change that is really needed.
“There’s no limit to the number of partnership schools,” counters Seymour. He believes if there is enough competitive pressure from partnership schools, the bar will be lifted for all schools.
There are currently 10 partnership schools, with another round to be announced shortly. Seymour would like to see the policy changed to allow state schools to convert to partnership schools, should they wish.
This would allow what he dubs “one-year schools” to benefit from the input of private sector and community organisations. These are the sorts of schools that have ERO knocking on their door every one to two years, that have statutory management in place, that have very low levels of achievement. To Seymour’s thinking, the current ‘fix-its’ aren’t working, so partnership schools allow for different sorts of solutions.
He gives an example. During a visit to Pacific Advance Senior School (PASS) he encountered, to his surprise, a vast dining hall where the kids ate breakfast together each morning with the teachers. While initially it seemed odd and costly to Seymour, the school leaders explained that the shared morning meal meant that not only were the kids getting at least one decent nutritious meal to start their day, but they were getting the chance to interact with adults, be listened to, share their aspirations and any concerns.
He also thinks partnership schools have the potential to address the gender imbalance in teaching. A lot of kids lack male role models in their lives, he says, which can have a profound impact on not only their education, but their lives in general. Partnership schools have attracted a high proportion of male teachers, leaders and supporters so far. For example, All Black Keven Mealamu is an ambassador at South Auckland Middle School and has a great influence on the kids, particularly the boys.
“At the moment, there’s no clear mechanism to allow state schools to convert to become partnership schools,” he says.
He’d like to see this change. He points out that there are a number of constraints faced by schools and educators within the state school sector, such as zoning and school management.
Having said all that, Seymour is realistic about the growth of partnership schools.
“They might take off, or they might remain quite niche,” he says.
Either way, he is under no illusions that they could be under threat if, as he puts it, “the election goes wrong”.
There have been some criticisms that the start-up funding for partnership schools is decreasing. Seymour says that while it has decreased a bit since the first rounds, the current level is more realistic. He says it works out as around $1000 per student.
With 26 applications for the most recent round, interest in setting up partnership schools doesn’t appear to be waning, and Seymour says antipathy from state school sector is slowly lessening as well.
That may be the case, but Seymour concedes we’re still a while away from seeing partnership schools becoming part of Communities of Learning. While in theory it is possible, the funding set-up makes it tricky, meaning that the partnership school couldn’t receive any funding via the CoL.
On the subject of funding, he thinks the new Risk Index funding has the potential to be quite regressive. Ditto, National Standards. Most teachers are frustrated by National Standards, he says. At the same time, he’s not convinced ditching them is the right solution either.
He doesn’t think it necessary to push for a mandatory postgrad qualification for teacher education, but does believe we need to revisit as a country what we are prepared to invest in our teachers.
“There is a very strong case to be made, particularly in Auckland, that teachers are underpaid,” he says.
Act’s recent policy announcement regarding teachers’ pay gives this idea some bones. Seymour has announced a $975 million scheme that would allow schools that opt into it to pay excellent teachers up to $120,000.
“Top graduates don’t want to start at around $50,000 and wait in line for a pay rise up to a maximum of $78,000. After that there is almost nowhere to go. Many have to go into management away from the students that need them most.”
The policy has been criticised heavily by the unions, with NZEI Te Riu Roa describing Seymour as “out of touch” with what teachers want. The union argues that all teachers need to be paid more, not just some.
Controversial or not, it is good to hear Act’s education policies stretch beyond partnership schools, adding different perspectives to the debates around teachers’ pay, Auckland Grammar zoning and other issues.
I’m not surprised, however, that Act doesn’t share Labour, Greens and NZ First’s desire for a cross-party, sector-wide forum on the long-term goals for New Zealand education. Seymour isn’t convinced an education hui would achieve anything. Interestingly, 89 per cent of respondents to an Education Central poll have voted in favour of an education hui.
“There are real differences worth debating,” he acknowledges, “The political left argue for no measurement, no competition. They could be right. I don’t think they are.”
Right or left, right or wrong, Act does bring something different to the table. For education, and indeed most of its policies, the party takes its cues from the business world. They are interested in how competition can drive growth. Seymour points to the taxi industry as an example where this has been effective.
What fascinates me most, is that when it boils down to it, David Seymour actually wants the same thing as his political polar-opposite, Catherine Delahunty from the Greens – to see our most disadvantaged kids succeed. They just want to resolve this problem in very different ways.