It’s not often that I get grumpy enough to take a Herald on Sunday columnist to task over their opinion piece. I would certainly never be spoiled for choice. I don’t mind that a newspaper presents a range of opinions, from left to right, so long as they’re not of the barking-mad variety (e.g. Paul Holmes on an off day, Michael Laws every Sunday), and so long as there’s some attempt at balance overall.
Of late, however, the Herald group of newspapers seems to have taken a frenzied approach towards the hiring of curmudgeons, Actoids and libertarians to write opinion pieces. Have they spotted a hole in the right-wing opinion market that others (Roughan, O’Sullivan, Hopkins, Holmes. Woodham etc) aren’t filling?
The column by one such opinionator, Damien Grant, in the HOS got my blood boiling. I don’t know much about Grant, except that he’s a liquidator and a libertarian. I’m not sure if he’s a full-blooded objectivist, but he does appear to contribute regularly on Lindsay Perigo’s odd Solo Passion site, including on discussions regarding their prophet, the somewhat batty Ayn Rand. And when I say "odd" I'm actually being charitable.
So it stood to reason that Grant would hold views somewhat outside the political mainstream, I was not disappointed.
Bill English mocked the demonstrating post-graduates and suggested they take lessons in rioting from the Greeks. They do not need to look that far; New Zealand's teacher unions have provided a fine lesson in how vested self-interest groups can defend their entitlements.That these teachers dared to defend themselves when the government tried to sack a bunch of them! The shame! The shame! Presumably they should have just rolled over and agreed to the loss of their livelihoods so that people like Damien Grant would feel better about the tax cut he got.
What has been lost in the debacle is that the Treasury Secretary pointed to hard evidence that showed class sizes made little difference. What mattered was teacher quality. John Key made the point that in the past 10 years the teacher roll had increased 12.5 per cent to 50,000 and student numbers had risen by 2.5 per cent. Rebalancing was in order.“Rebalancing” is one of those terrible euphemisms, like "collateral damage", that means something much more unpleasant that it sounds. In this case it means firing teachers and sending them to the scrapheap.
The “hard evidence” Grant refers to doesn't say what he thinks it does. There is evidence that marginal changes in class sizes are not as critical a factor to a child's education as the quality of the teacher, but the argument does not follow that we can therefore just increase the average class size without any impact. There will be some impact, however minor.
Otherwise, why wouldn't we just create classes of 100 kids per student? If you think that’s an absurd argument to use, bear in mind that it’s pretty much the same argument John Key used in the 2011 election campaign to attack Labour’s minimum wage increase policy: if a marginal change has no effect on employers, why not make the minimum wage $20 or $30 an hour? Allow me then to beat Mr Key with the same stick, since he's no longer using it.
There is a larger problem with Grant's overall argument. It relies on with the assumption that we have a general problem with teacher performance. I would argue the opposite. Sure there are some rubbish teachers (I have also met some terrible, terrible liquidators in my time), but New Zealand’s education system is admired around the world. I would guess this is in no small part down to the motivation, enthusiasm and dedication of teachers. For many teachers it isn't the money that motivates them, because if it was all about the cash most of them would have found another career by now. Sure they want to be remunerated fairly, but if you paid them a bit more it wouldn't necessarily result in better quality teachers.
In a tight economic environment, a policy was devised to cut the teacher roll marginally and introduce performance pay to attract and retain quality teachers. How hard a political sell is that?The problem with such a sell is that voters can usually sniff out bullshit when it’s served up to them. As for “marginally”, when the policy was first announced some schools said they were going to lose up to 10 or 11 teachers. Intermediate schools were going to have to drop or severely curtail metalwork, woodwork and other technical subjects.
Would you rather have little Johnny in a room of 30 kids being taught by a competent, energetic pedagogue or in a class of 28 being taught by an unmotivated dullard?Where are these dullards? Which schools are they currently teaching in? How would the proposed policy have got rid of them?
This, however, was not the question that was asked in the mindless vox pop quiz to the "man in the street".
The question was "do you want larger class sizes" and not "do you want your kids taught by unmotivated dullards?"Perhaps because that would have been a really stupid, dishonest thing to ask people. Most teachers are not unmotivated dullards, so how would not increasing class sizes make them so?
Teacher unions were always going to react to a cull. Overstaffing benefits them significantly but the burden of this is spread over all taxpayers.Clearly this is untrue, considering that some taxpayers got rather handsome tax cuts, and that a large number of our super-wealthy continue to use every trick under the sun to minimise their taxpaying obligations. To Rand-worshipping objectivists those avoiders are probably heroes, but to the rest of society they are the real bludgers.
The “burden” as Grant describes it, is a world-class education system that other countries admire. It should also be remembered that in most private schools the average number of students per class is even smaller. Clearly those who choose to pay for private education (including our Prime Minister and a significant proportion of his cabinet) understand the importance of small class sizes, even if some of them refuse to countenance the same ratios in public schools. New Zealand schools are not overstaffed.
We remain passive while the unions successfully exert enough pressure to keep their snouts in the Government's trough.No we don’t remain passive at all, as the debacle over classroom sizes shows. Grant is one of a small minority who don’t get the genuine anger most parents of school-age children felt over this issue. It wasn't something the unions just whipped up. If it was it would gone nowhere, just as union protests over National Standards have.
Presumably Grant thinks those unions with their “snouts in the Government’s trough” should just disestablish themselves on the basis that our wise and benevolent government will do the right thing by our kids. However, this fiasco shows that teachers and parents know more abut what's good for kids than Treasury officials.
We can only assume that Grant has never himself sipped from the Government's trough. Presumably he has a firm policy of never acting for Government agencies, and has never claimed any sort of benefit or entitlement from the Government.
Key talks about economic growth like farmers talk about summer. It will arrive; we just have to wait long enough. If only that were true.Well we agree on something at least.
Improving the standard of education was something real he could have achieved and it would have had a positive impact on economic growth. It is an opportunity missed.Grant appears to think that if he repeats this line about improving the quality of our education it might become true. I fear his hopes will be disappointed.
If Grant wants more money spent on teacher development (and that's a big "if"; I suspect his frustration over National's backdown comes from watching an opportunity to slash teacher numbers go by, rather than a desire to increase the quality of our education system), then he should argue for the government to still spend that money. There's plenty of money to pay for it, and we wouldn't have to increase class sizes, if we reversed some of National's tax cuts or re-prioritised some of National's other spending.
Following the unions' example, the demonstrating postgraduates must feel confident about overturning the Budget change that prevents them being able to claim student allowances. They can, however, borrow money from the taxpayer at the very attractive interest rate of zero. They can still apply to tutor undergraduates, seek sponsorship, do private teaching work or, heaven forbid, get their hands dirty working at McDonald's, assuming McDonald's will take them.Many students already work part-time to supplement their measly student allowances. I would confidently predict that students work much harder in general than they did when Mr Grant was at University (I am making an assumption that Grant was university educated). Such is the cost of accommodation and transport that many students still struggle to survive.
Let's keep in mind that student fees do not cover the total cost of a university education. The budget provides $1.1 billion for universities (presumably including renamed technical institutions like AUT) to cater for 118,000 students. This comes out at more than $9000 a year per student, or $29,000 per degree. Plus student allowances.
The Government still subsidises the cost of postgraduate education. Expecting students to do some work is not a cause for rioting.This boils down to Grant saying that by investing more in the development of teachers we will keep them motivated and performing, and by investing less in university students we will achieve the same result. Can anyone else see a problem with that argument?
The government tried to sell this policy as a trade-off between smaller class sizes and better teachers, as if we cannot have both of these things. If teacher development is so important to the government they should find the money for it. There's plenty of money for motorways. Let's put some of it into education.