Haere rā, Hekia

June 2017

 

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JUDE BARBACK chats to former Education Minister Hekia Parata about her time heading up the education portfolio, the next big challenge for Kiwi schools, and what’s next for her.

hekia
Former Minister of Education, Hekia Parata.

I try to think of some original and insightful questions to ask Minister Hekia Parata. After all, she has completed a spate of these “exit interviews” and I imagine she must be finding them a little tedious. I share this with her, and she laughs. There’s not a hint of boredom in her voice – the Minister sounds upbeat and genuinely pleased to talk about the education portfolio, which she has led for the past five and a half years. I reflect that this is just shy of my time editing Education Review and in some ways I feel like I have accompanied her on her journey.

Like anyone taking on a new job, I wonder if she started out with any particular ambitions for the education portfolio, and whether she feels she’s achieved these, now that she’s out the other side.

Since her earliest involvement with the National Party, Parata had always had her heart set on the education portfolio.

“It wasn’t because I wanted to make specific changes to the system,” she says.

Rather, her hankering to get involved with education was more to do with her personal experience – the opportunities afforded to her and her wider whānau by education. “And I thought, how do we make that happen for every young New Zealander?”

Parata has set about this challenge very systematically. In fact, she describes herself to me as “an extremely methodic and systematic person”.

She likens the task to building a house – it takes a long time to get the foundations right, before the finished product is ready to admire.

“I’ve focused on all the unsexy stuff – the legislation, the data framework, the funding review, lifting the quality of teaching, fixing the leaky buildings,” she says.

Her biggest concern when she approached the portfolio was that the focus was on adults.

“All the discussion was on schools and provisions and not on the kids,” she says.

Parata is confident that kids are at the centre now. Interestingly, she has taken a very data-driven approach to putting kids at the heart of the system. She cites achievement of the Better Public Service targets for NCEA and early childhood education as evidence.

Parata dedicated most Fridays during school term time to visiting three to four schools.

“At first the schools seemed a bit bemused. They’d want to give me classroom tours – which is all very lovely – but I wanted to meet with the principal, the board chair and see how kids were performing, look closely at the data,” she says.

I share with the Minister that my kids’ school, where I sit on the Board of Trustees, is intently focused on the data.

“Yes, it’s become the norm now, but it wasn’t always like that. There was such resistance to National Standards.”

I suggest that one of the big challenges appears to be how to balance this emphasis on accountability and measuring student achievement with giving teachers the freedom and flexibility to really teach. The Minister bristles ever so slightly.

“That is one of my big grudges,” says Parata. “There are seven elements of National Standards and six of them are completely within the schools’ decisions. Only the seventh – reporting to the public – is imposed by the Government.”

She points out that while the media publish league tables, the Government doesn’t.

Parata thinks there is plenty of scope for schools to explore how to offer the best possible learning context for their communities.

“How time, space and people are arranged is completely up to the schools,” she says. “That is the next big challenge, I think – how do we arrange these factors to create rich, deep learning experiences for children?”

Parata is also adamant that the system should benefit every child.

“It can’t be one-size-fits-all,” she says.

She reflects that her two daughters learn very differently. I say the same could be said for my children, aged eight and six.

“By the time your children get to secondary school, there should be a personalised pathway for them,” she says.

Parata sees the Communities of Learning as part of the answer to this.

She’s realistic that the quality of teaching varies, as in any profession. The Communities of Learning will enable expertise to be shared more widely than the classroom, she says. They will create new career pathways and professional development opportunities for teachers.

The Communities of Learning, while one of her biggest achievements, is also a source of frustration. She envisaged things being much further along by now.

“We reached agreement with the PPTA within a month, but then of course it took a subsequent year to reach agreement with the NZEI. So because of the year’s delay, we’ve only allocated 20 per cent of the funding so far.”

It feels like many things that the Minister has worked on are nearly complete, but not quite. I ask if she feels she has any unfinished business.

“I feel content about leaving at this time,” she says. “I think a whole lot of stuff will come together very quickly.”

She has set a “very clear programme” for her successor, Nikki Kaye, to follow on with. There is clear policy in place; funding has been secured for the digital platform to support this; the funding review is in progress.

“The new Minister should just slipstream in,” she says.

I ask if there will be much of a handover with her successor, but she dismisses the idea, saying that the new Minister will want to get on with it without her looking over her shoulder.

So what’s next for Hekia Parata?

“I shall be a very compliant back bencher for the next four months,” she says with a hint of playfulness.

And after that, Parata is keen to spend some quality time with her family – her husband and her two daughters. From a commentator’s perspective, it has been a fascinating five and a half years in education. There have been low points – she describes 2012 as her “annus horribilis” – but there have been many achievements too. While not everyone has agreed with the policies and initiatives rolled out under her leadership, few could accuse the Minister of lacking in passion, drive and a desire to do the right thing by Kiwi kids. She has certainly earned her break.


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