Supplementary Estimates and Imprest Supply Debate

  • Brian Donnelly
Associate Minister of Education (Early Childhood Education and Maori Education)

I rise to speak in the Supplementary Estimates and Imprest Supply debate.

Yesterday there was considerable comment on the Institute of Economic Research's latest economic forecast. Pretty obviously there was focus upon the headline "Ten reasons to be positive about New Zealand." One of those reasons I believe has escaped commentators' notice.

Amongst the usual and undeniable reasons for confidence in the management of our economy , its openness which forces businesses into concentrating upon what they do best, low inflation rates ,low levels of government debt, budget surpluses , was one reason which stood out for its unusualness - rising education spending. Mr Speaker, the Institute of Economic Research has identified rising educational expenditure as being one of the ten reasons to be positive about or economic future.

I make this point because of the significance of what it is saying. No economist in his or her right mind would say that increased expenditure per se on education would automatically lead to better economic prospects for a country. Every economist worth a grain of salt would know that ,whilst educational expenditure is critical to the development of the social and economic infrastructure of a nation , wise governments differentiate between soft, low and zero-level expenditure and that which provides real returns for the future of the economy. This is the real significance of IER's inclusion of additional educational expenditure in its ten reasons to be positive about NZ's economy. It is not that the coalition government has dramatically increased expenditure on education at a level of increase I do not believe has ever before been experienced by this nation. It is because of the focused quality of this increased expenditure. This has not been a big spend-up to keep happy certain sector groups for political purposes. I can say categorically that the idea of placating interests groups for political purposes has never entered the intensive policy and economic development work that has been on-going since the coalition government was formed. The total focus has been on answers to the question "how can we ensure that NZ has the best and the most efficient education system in the world?" ,"How can we as government ensure that our people are the most skilled population in the world? Mr Speaker, I believe that the assessment of IER is a statement by the economic community that this government is getting its educational policies, its educational expenditure and its educational priorities right.

The IER position is, in hindsight, not unexpected. The reaction to increased social spending in this last Budget has been very positive. On the morning after the budget, myself and the Associate Treasury Minister addressed a breakfast meeting of local business people and educationists in Whangarei. There was overwhelming endorsement of the budget by both groups.

I believe Mr Delamere would endorse my statement that we both came away taken aback by the fulsome endorsement of the people at that meeting.

However, subsequent response by the whole of the population merely demonstrates that the feedback we received at that meeting was not an aberration The budget was given the thumbs up by financial and economic commentators who recognised it struck a balance and provided a stable foundation for further economic growth.

This Coalition Government continues to operate a responsible social democracy, looking after the interests of all New Zealanders.

New Zealanders want responsible economic management But they also want the best possible delivery of social services. And in the field of education I believe that better delivery was needed.

The Opposition and other doom merchants have made much of the serious problems being experienced throughout Asia. Given our trading relationship with these countries and the fact that we are identified with them, we have been caught up in the backwash.

But we must keep things in perspective. The government is holding its nerve. It is maintaining a prudent watch on events abroad and will take action if necessary.

So far this Government has provided 1.7 billion dollars of additional expenditure on education.

In this year's Budget we provided$590 million more over three years. This financial year there's $180 million extra for 460 new classrooms and school upgrades.

This new funding is on top of $860 million over three years from the 1997 Budget.

But we can provide endless lists of additional expenditure in the field of education. It is one characteristic which differentiates this coalition government from the previous twelve years of purely Labour and National administrations. The point is and always must be "Can we justify the additional expenditure?.

It is at this point I want to challenge all opposition parties. Let's give us your total package. Please stop this nonsense where you have one spokesperson telling us that we have to spend more money in certain areas when your colleagues are telling the public that the government should be cutting expenditure. Let's have the whole package.

I'll give a simple example. ACT says we have to cut government expenditure . Not only that, they plan to cut educational expenditure by 80%. At the same time, I have to listen to speeches in the House that ACT intends to increase expenditure on early childhood education and their leader claims that ACT will fund private education at the same rate as the public sector.

The Prime Minister is correct. It is just not credible. The average third-former understands that you cant add to one side of an equation and subtract from the other and still retain a balanced equation. Only the whizz -kids from ACT seem to know how this can be done. But then again they know how one can invest $450,000 and achieve a return of $65 million dollars.

Whilst cutting educational expenditure by 80% , ACT would also support the bulk-funding of teachers salaries. The only trouble is, to be fair, they would only support the Labour Parties bulk-funded system.

The public and the press cannot comprehend the resistance by teacher associations to the Fully Funded staffing Option which gives schools access to $220 million more over three years to lift educational standards.

Well I can. The reason I can is because the last Labour Government was going to introduce a draconian form of bulk-funding of teachers salaries.

It was embedded in "Tomorrow's Schools reforms and quite rightly scared the hell out of both teacher associations and parent education groups.

The problem is that people feel that if the Labour Party, which has always bowed to teacher association pressure, can yield to New Right pressures (which it did) then there is no hope of ensuring that we could ever have a government that actually understood the social and economic investment that educational expenditure represents. The message which I believe the total population has received is that New Zealand now has is just such a government.

Extending a school's control over its budgets to include teachers' salaries is not the big bogey that some teachers continue to claim.

How do I know. Well the first reason is because I have been the principal of a bulk-funded school. And the school I was at did not enter the system because of ideological reasons or because of financial gain.

I can guarantee the public that there is no-one in this House who has a greater understanding, both theoretical, economical, educational and political than I have.

However, I want to say that when the coalition agreement was made there was no intention of introducing a no-loser formula into the choice for schools.

Coalition with National however brought us into teacher work-load talks with sector representatives. These meetings had been established by the previous National administration but had been endorsed by the coalition agreement to address teacher workload issues.

During those talks we continued to ask the question. "Where are these pressures coming from?"

Analysis of all the input showed that some of the pressure was coming from government initiatives. As a result the government has undertaken a number of actions. (Actions to be added)

However, there were a number of elements of teacher workload pressure which were identified and agreed to by all parties which could not be resolved by central government. These were the pressures that were created by community expectations, by school administration expectations and by teacher expectations of themselves and their professional expectations. If these were the sources of teachers workload pressures, there was no way that they could be resolved through central formulae.

Last year I sat through meetings with representatives of sector groups over teacher workload
issues. Contrary to the public image of irreconcilable hostility between different educational players, I felt the discussions were free, frank and constructive. Nevertheless I came away with a feeling of discomfort.

The discomfort came from the underlying assumption, which no-one seemed to be prepared to question, that all workload pressures had to be solved by central government. All group representatives seemed to approach the exercise from a viewpoint of how they could advance the interests of the group they represented by extracting additional resources from the government.

Analysis of the discussions showed that teacher workload issues are a complex set of factors. General social and economic changes have impacted upon schools as have specific educational policies. There are elements about which the government can do something.

However, there are another set of pressures which are beyond the control of government in the devolved, decision-making environment of "Tomorrow's Schools". It is critical that these are faced up to by communities, boards of trustees, principals and teachers themselves.

It is quite incorrect to claim that the government has not taken any action as a result of the workload talks. The speed of the new curriculum implementation was identified as a factor. We implemented a new, more manageable process, endorsed by the workload consultation group.

Review processes by ERO were identified as a source of unnecessary workload. We have changed the process. The workload of Maori teachers in immersion programmes has been recognised with an emphasis upon the rapid development of required resources.

Behavioural problems have been recognised in a range initiatives including through Special Education 2000. School clustering initiatives are aimed specifically at reducing the workload of teaching principals. The government has responded where it can.

However, the belief that all workload issues will be resolved by central government initiatives is as mythical as the idea that teachers work only from 9.00am to 3.00pm. A significant component of the teacher workload challenge must be resolved at the school level, by communities, by boards, by principals and by teachers themselves.

The reforms of our schooling system have provided local communities with greater control of the total use of the educational resources provided by central government.

However, if the devolution of the reforms is going to function fully some of the mind-sets of the past have to be challenged.

Communities cannot continually demand more and more of their schools within the resources
available. They must balance demands with the capacity of the resources available.

Hence the decision to go to a fully funded staffing option.

The threat of industrial action by the PPTA recently flies directly in the face of what their own representatives were telling us at the workload meetings - that schools need the capacity to respond to workload issues in a variety of ways. Some want the capacity to introduce Tu Tangata type programmes, some want to employ social workers and nurses in their schools, some wish to employ more teaching staff, some wish to employ more paraprofessionals; each school community saw different solutions to local problems. Therefore PPTA threats of industrial action at schools considering entering the fully funded option are both immoral and irresponsible.

It is like nurses refusing to treat patients because they didn't like some Government policy.

All we've done is adjust the formula for schools wanting to take control of their total budgets making it fairer.

Under the old system, in which all schools were centrally funded, schools with the same rolls were funded at different rates by the government. Poor schools were particularly disadvantaged by the system.

Under the current bulk funding scheme schools get funded for each teacher based on the average pay rate. If they have a lot of teachers at the top of the pay scale they don't get enough the money to cover their costs.

They were 'loser schools'. It just wasn't fair. From now on schools will get funding for each teache based on the top teacher pay rates, so they don't lose out.

So, including the cost of recent teacher pay settlements an average of $270,000 extra per school is available over the next three years.

To me the most significant achievement in education of this government has been its delivery on its promise of a unified pay system for teachers in the compulsory schooling sector. Costing close to a quarter of a billion dollars over three years it means that a primary teacher and a secondary teacher starting their career in February this year will be eligible for the same pay rates throughout their jobs.

Already this achievement has had significant effect in our schools. I visit many schools and the atmosphere is extremely positive, extremely bouyant.

One principal recently told me that he has, within his 35 years in schools, ever known it to be so good. The spin-offs are obvious. If teachers feel that they are valued they will pass that feeling on to their students and better learning will result.