Education Minister faces down first Select Committee

Education Minister Nikki Kaye appeared before the Education and Science Committee for the first time on Wednesday. Photo: Lynn Grieveson

New Education Minister Nikki Kaye has survived her first appearance before the Education and Science Select Committee relatively unscathed, writes Shane Cowlishaw, who sat in on the hearings into Vote Education and Tertiary Education.

Nikki Kaye got off to a quick start, talking about how privileged she felt to be the Education Minister.

She also praised the work of the select committee that was about to grill her and perhaps the flattery worked, as Kaye emerged from the hour-long questioning barely breaking a sweat.

Guns in schools

Perhaps the hairiest moment of her appearance came when Green MP Catherine Delahunty raised an incident where the army brought guns into a Manawatu primary school.

Children at Whakarongo School disassembled and fired guns as part of a leadership course, Fairfax reported in April.

Kaye said she had been assured no laws had been broken, but when she had asked if there were any guidelines about bringing guns into schools the answer from officials was 'no'.

She said her personal position was that there should be no guns in schools and she had asked for official guidelines to be developed, which should be ready in three to four months.

Speaking after the hearing, Kaye said she was “pretty conservative” about guns, but understood there were some situations where they were acceptable in schools.

“We don't want a situation where the Armed Offenders Squad can't turn up to a school if there’s a threat, also I’m aware there are some situations, we have an Olympic sport in terms of shooting so there are some schools that are involved in that.”

She did not believe it was part of a recruiting drive by the Defence Force.

More metro schools for Auckland, Wellington, and Christchurch

Kaye was asked about her support for so-called “metro schools” in intensified urban areas that could be located on compact sites without their own playing fields and recreation centres.

She said as long as there was proper investment and access to recreation facilities nearby, there was no research to suggest any negative effects on educational outcomes.

Several schools that could already be considered 'metro' had approached her, concerned by negative reaction to the proposals and worried they may be closed down by people who did not support small, urban schools, she said.

“I don’t think we should be scared of this. Look across many countries - we are quite generous in terms of space…and it’s not uncommon at all in inner city areas to have a variety of education facilities.”

When asked where any future metro schools would be located, Kaye said they would likely be in Christchurch, Wellington and Auckland.

Early Childhood Education

The Labour Party’s Education spokesperson Chris Hipkins questioned Kaye about Early Childhood Education funding.

On Tuesday the ECE sector publicly called for more money from the Government and a return to funding for centres with 100 percent qualified teachers.

Hipkins said $528m in savings had been made in ECE since 2009, mostly through dropping subsidies for having fully trained teachers. He asked what impact that had on the sector.

Kaye responded that the number of registered teachers had actually increased since 2009.

She said that, for every dollar parents put into early childhood education, the Government contributed $4.80, and New Zealand compared favourably in affordability to many countries because of the 20-hours of care funding, subsidies, and rising average wages.

Goldsmith defends tertiary sector

Earlier Tertiary Education Minister Paul Goldsmith also appeared before the committee, alongside Tertiary Education Commission (TEC) chief executive Tim Fowler.

Hipkins questioned the pair about Quantum Education Group, which has been accused of inflating student completion rates above the number of actual students enrolled, and asked what measures had been put in place to ensure something similar did not happen again.

“If we’ve got robust systems in place, how were Quantum able to enrol 3600 students and claim student loan support from them, but only report 1800 students to the Tertiary Education System?” Hipkins asked.

Fowler said TEC’s investigation into Quantum was almost complete and they could not go into details until it was finished.

Since 2013, there had been 25 investigations, with four coming from complaints and the rest through TEC’s own inquiries.

Improvements to IT systems would make it far more likely similar behaviour would be picked up quicker today, he said.

New Zealand First MP Tracy Martin quizzed Goldsmith about New Zealand’s poor completion rate, where only 57 percent of students completed their studies compared to 80 percent in Australia and 93 percent in Finland.

Goldsmith said the figures sounded “a little implausible” and completion rates were increasing, although Martin responded that she would be happy to send the Minister a copy of his own department’s report.