I chaired a public meeting on education in the Manurewa electorate last week. This is the community which has been the focus of media attention with several high-profile killings this year, giving it unwanted negative publicity. With this background the meeting was called to put education in Manurewa in the spotlight with local political party candidates invited to discuss education in the suburb.
Forty-two people from the local community came along on a rainy night to hear six local candidates, no fewer than four of whom were either on a local school boards of trustees or had previously served on boards. Among the audience were local principals, teachers, parents and community workers.
Each of the candidates was asked to comment on issues affecting education in Manurewa including: the chronic shortage of early childhood education services in the area; the well-known long tail of educational underachievement in Manurewa (and low-income areas generally); the high cost of tertiary education; the decision by Auckland University to restrict entry to all its courses next year in such a way that will disproportionately penalise students from low-income areas and on-going serious problems for special education services.
Four of these issues relate to the failure to deliver quality education services while the remaining issue, the long tail of underachievement, is one of the outcomes. Could there possibly be a connection between this failure to deliver by the Government and the underachievement, social alienation and crime which follows? And should we not realise that underpinning the educational issues is the realisation that the long tail of underachievement is in fact the long tail of poverty resulting from Labour and National policies these past two decades in particular?
It was a largely rhetorical question for most of the audience but not for the local MP George Hawkins. He saw many positive things happening in education in Manurewa and this is undoubtedly correct. School principals and parents attested to the great job done in schools where the social problems of the community are brought into the classrooms every day.
Mention was also made of eight scholarship passes at one of the local high schools last year. This is a cause for celebration but why should the community be asked just to celebrate the exceptions and ignore the rule which is that underachievement dominates the wider area of South Auckland?
Hawkins tried hard to explain that poverty wasn’t at the core of the problem. It was a factor he acknowledged but he said that without detailed research we would never know for sure. In the meantime alcohol is his big focus and while it’s important it is once more just a symptom of the problem.
Unfortunately, that was as far as it went with George. Yes, it would be nice to have more money for this and that in education but it was largely business as usual for the Government. This former minister of police, having shed his collective Cabinet responsibilities, will not become an active backbench critic of the failures of his party.
For the National candidate it was also largely business as usual. National has become comfortable following on Labour’s coat-tails for a long while now as the country drifts further to the Right.
What of the minor parties?
The ACT candidate was typically a vouchers man. The funding would follow the child, was his oft-repeated theme for the evening. The answer to most questions about resourcing, class sizes and the like was met with comments such as: “No, we wouldn’t, we’d leave it up to the school and the school will respond to signals from parents making choices in the local educational marketplace.”
He spoke fondly of the Swedish system which he grossly misrepresented. If New Zealand followed the Swedish system, as ACT says we should, then not a single private school in New Zealand would receive a cent from the government. To receive government funding in Sweden private schools must not charge additional fees and cannot pick and choose between students who wish to enrol.
The most interesting and thoughtful contributions came from the local candidates for the Greens, United Future and New Zealand First. Each person was deeply involved in the community and in education and a committee of these three could make a huge contribution to local education if their drive and ideas were given some space.
For example, they all recognised the pressing need for a review of Tomorrow’s Schools while National and Labour thought things were going pretty well and just a bit of refinement might be necessary.
On issues like truancy, underachievement and early childhood education these parties were the most passionate and creative in their thinking. They emphasised local solutions to local problems but with the resources necessary to do the job properly.
Why is this too much to ask for?