• Wyatt Creech


Mr President

This morning the Prime Minister advanced an idea for a new direction for social policy - a new direction for getting people at community level actively involved in solutions to these persistent problems. This has to be the way ahead.

Sometimes we are accused by our political opponents of "not caring". It is not true. We pour money into these programmes - more and more all the time - but the problems just go on and on. We read about them every day in the media. We have to find a better way.

I am pleased to be here with my colleagues the Ministers of Health and Social Welfare. Together we form part of the team within Government that is working on the Strengthening Families project.

Our Strengthening Families project has three limbs.

First, to properly coordinate the responses and actions of our respective departments in dealing with social problems at the community level. This is just plain commonsense. School goes from 9.00 to 3.00 but life goes on all day - and where we are dealing with at-risk families we need a response that solves their problems as a whole. We cannot do it just at school. We have to work together: the welfare agencies, the health agencies and the education agencies, to coordinate our activity. It is in all our interests to address early the needs of families and children likely to become "at risk".

Already in West Auckland this idea has been tested and found to work with a successful initiative underway in Waitakere. That approach is spreading around the country as senior officials from the three agencies talk to local community leaders about how they can better integrate services for people in each region throughout New Zealand.

Education too is playing its part. Better education and better schools will play a major role in strengthening families and communities. Each contributes to building strength in the other. Cohesive, supportive communities and families mean vibrant schools - good schools add strength to families and communities.

In National, we seek for all New Zealanders an education system that delivers high quality education. An education system that is responsive to individual student needs - that will change to meet the demands of a rapidly changing world - that will enable students from all walks of life to participate effectively in New Zealand society. We want school communities themselves to take responsibility for setting the priorities on how their education dollar is spent. For communities to take ownership of problems and take initiatives to solve them - to find ways that communities themselves make the best use of available funds to ensure their children receive the best education and that they fulfil their potential.

Community participation is at the core of the Tomorrow's Schools system. School trustees make decisions on behalf of their community. We need parents with enthusiasm and commitment - we provide training and guidance. People sometimes ask me why I am so in favour of putting the resources into the hands of the community. Sometimes it is easiest to explain these things by anecdote.

Let me tell you of the case of a school that had managed to get hold of a disused former school building. It moved the old building on to its own site. You know what those buildings are like when they have been moved - pretty rough around the edges. They approached the authorities to get the money to do the building up as a classroom. After a lot of argy-bargy and 'to-ing and fro-ing' it was agreed that they could have $30,000 to do up the roof.

Being an inventive local community they found a way they could get the roofing iron at mates-rates, the paint cheap, the plumbing done voluntarily, the carpentry carried out by locals and so on. In fact they found they could get the whole building done up with the $30,000 and went back to the authorities. The answer was No. The money had been appropriated for a roof, it could not be used for anything else.

From a taxpayers' point of view, that is absurd. We will gain more education, both infrastructure and education output, by allowing the community to take those resources, stretch them as they will and spend them better. By spending money better we are automatically getting better value for those taxpayer dollars we apply.

Likewise with our teaching staff. Our policy supports voluntary bulk funding. The Ministry of Education's national formula for staffing applies the same staffing ratio to every school from North Cape to Bluff. Schools can be sure they will get that staffing. But bulk funding allows them to take that staffing resource in money and decide for themselves how to extract the maximum value from that taxpayers' money.

The resistance to bulk funding is hard to explain rationally; schools that are bulk funded report real improvement and success. I could tell you of case after case. If you want to read about one, read the North and South article on Ponsonby Intermediate. Mostly the anti bulk funding campaign is pure opposition for its own sake. It has more to do with maintaining power structures within the system, rather than the interests of pupils.

There is one ingredient we do need, however, before we get open-hearted community support for the idea. We have to build real trust and confidence between central government and local communities.

Once we have that trust and confidence the idea will be accepted. It empowers the professionals to really expand what they can do for those in their charge. Highly-motivated professionals will take that taxpayers' dollar and do more with it - more for the pupils, more for taxpayers whose funds are being spent.

With bulk funding, schools can make their own decisions that suit their staffroom and student body needs - that react to community needs with community solutions. Schools can recognise and retain good teachers by paying them more - can use this funding to attract teachers to less popular areas. In short, use their funds so that they benefit their pupils most.

Giving power back to communities is the goal. We can do it through direct resourcing, through increasing self-management over property decisions and though our just-announced plan to pass to schools, where they want it, responsibility for managing their own payroll. Anyone close to education will know the difficulties we have had managing teachers' payroll centrally, and yet I am sure there are many in this room with their farm or business who will know how straightforward payroll management can be. Communities know their own needs better and can react faster than some official in Wellington.

In Budget '97 we greatly expanded the Financial Assistance Scheme. Under this scheme communities raise funds for projects, which is then matched by Government. Inevitably, taxpayer money goes only so far. We are making other changes to enhance the ability of school communities to manage their property and building projects. Already I have seen successes under this programme - anyone who has seen the new Arrowtown School will know what I mean. We will also allow "sweat equity" - hard work by volunteers - to count as well as straight cash. There are so many initiatives in this policy area. Under our clustering policy, small schools can apply for the capital they need to develop their ability to work with other schools in their area to reduce administrative costs and hassles by pooling their talents. All sorts of "multi-campus" administration arrangements are possible. Community support and input enhances and strengthens these initiatives.

We are putting considerable effort into addressing the problems of children who would, without this effort, be at risk of joining the ranks of those who fail through school. Sadly, for some children, school is the safest place they know. Schools do not invent social problems, but they have no choice but handle them when they come through their gates. They have to deal with social issues more and more. Some parents abdicate their responsibilities. For these young people, schools increasingly have to show them how to interact with others and how to conduct themselves - as well as deliver 'straight' education.

Sprouting up around New Zealand we see a range of measures. There are social workers based in schools - some who have responsibility for clusters of several schools. There are "one-stop shop", full-service schools that integrate health and social welfare to get young people on track. There are homework centres and drop-in centres at schools because some homes can't provide the space, quiet or adult supervision. Some of you will have read of the Tu Tangata programme that involves adults from the community sitting in and supporting students during class. Truancy drops and behaviour picks up at these schools - and the adults sometimes gain qualifications they missed out on earlier themselves!

Other programmes within schools identify at-risk children early and sort out family and other problems before they get to crisis level. Some provide anti-bullying programmes, conflict-resolution and anger-management classes. The Budget included $3 million for drug education programmes, so prevalent have those problems become. And new nationwide truancy initiatives were announced in the Budget

We are strongly encouraging the inter-agency approach to dealing with children and youth at risk. I have talked already of better co-ordination between health, education and social welfare. But this is not just an issue for government - it works best when local governments, non-government organisations and the business community across the country gets involved. When people - schools, communities, government departments - work together, the sum is greater than the parts.

There is no one, correct approach - we seek different local solutions suiting different local needs.

And what is our goal? We want to unite the various educational interests in the new drive to raise standards in schools; to be advocates for the spread of good practice that will achieve higher standards; to keep our schools abreast of best practice nationally and internationally; to work with national agencies and others to improve outcomes everywhere for literacy and numeracy.

To me, we have the opportunity for a new beginning for education policy in New Zealand, where improving quality, improving standards - not the old arguments about mechanisms and structures - are the prime concern. We want to unite the whole education sector behind this approach - to put aside the divisions and conflict of the past. Through the simple formula of achieving success we can reinforce improving morale in the education sector and give children a real chance of achieving their full potential.

We need to encourage greater involvement from parents. Without them we will only be partially successful - with them, we can really make a difference.

This idea is one whose time has come. Big centralised bureaucracy cannot address the problem with the same local knowledge and understanding as the committed local. Central control requires rules that have to be the same from North Cape to Bluff; local management can flexibly apply local solutions to local problems. The very strength of this idea is its commitment, its flexibility and its variety.

There is a real chance that this new approach will reawaken enthusiasm in our communities and significantly improve social outcomes. What we do not need are sceptics, cynics, and assorted other energy sappers, whose continual harping negativity will erode that opportunity.

The message is clear. This is a can-do Government. To those who constantly talk about demoralisation and by doing so, demoralise not only themselves but others, I have one clear message. If you are not with us, then step aside for there is no room in the education service, at whatever level, for those who are not committed to do their best - to really perform - for the young people of our country.

We need to focus entirely on what is working and what can be spread from one school to another. There is not a soft option - failure simply cannot be tolerated. Working together and uniting behind a new consensus to spread success to every school is not only simple, good common sense - it is what is best for every young person in New Zealand.

That is what we are there for.

Thank you very much.