More of the same from Labour in education pledge

Labour's education spokesman Chris Hipkins says their manifesto may be similar to 2014, but that's not a bad thing. Photo: Lynn Grieveson

Labour has released details of its full education policy, which will bring a smile to the face of teachers and union supporters but contains little that has not already been seen before.

Voters were given a clear choice earlier this week between universal tax cuts or social spending.

Labour’s plan to scrap the carrot dangled in front of voters by the Government and instead spend $17 billion over four years in areas including health and a families package was strategic and the party will be hoping it will help regain some ground in the race to the ballot box.

Education will soak up almost a quarter of that spending at $4b and the full details of Labour’s education manifesto was announced on Friday afternoon.

There were few surprises in the package, with many of the initiatives having already seen the light of day.

Introducing three years of free post-school education to New Zealanders who have not studied before was first mentioned in January last year. Labour would also abolish the national standards assessment system and replace it with a new model.

Boosting funding for Early Childhood Education centres that employ 100 percent qualified teachers has also already been announced, as has a goal to employ at least 80 percent qualified teachers by the end of Labour’s first term.

The “pre-announcement” drip-fed out on Thursday night for the morning media cycle that Labour would scrap school donations in exchange for $150 per student from the Government is also a hangover from 2014. Back then they were offering $100 per student.

Other initiatives in the manifesto include:

  • $107m to provide all students with access to mobile digital devices

  • An initial $40m for teacher supply shortages

  • $1.7b re-building worn-out and dated school buildings by 2030.

  • An adjustment to student support payments

  • Consideration of a “First in Family” scholarship for those from families with no prior achievement in higher education

  • Voluntary bonding with graduates having their loan written off in exchange for working in the public sector or areas of critical skill shortages.

Despite not being the freshest policy package it is one that will please Labour’s education power base who have been calling loudly for a fix to what they see as critical issues that have been caused by underfunding in the sector.

Chalk and cheese

There is little common ground in Education between the Government and Labour.

Chris Hipkins, Labour’s education spokesman, said if elected they wouldn’t throw out every National policy “for the sake of it” and would likely keep policies they agreed with such as the recently announced IT curriculum.

But most major initiatives would be scrapped including the Communities of Learning, aimed at bringing together clusters of schools to work on common challenges.

“We’ll be going back to the drawing board with Communities of Learning, we don’t have a problem with collaboration but we know there are a lot of concerns from schools.”

Charter schools would also be abolished, as would the Government’s plan to change tertiary education legislation so private providers received the same funding as public institutions.

Hipkins admitted many of the manifesto’s initiatives were carried over but said he had been proud of the 2014 version - and several of the problems it had been aimed at fixing had intensified in the past three years.

There was undoubtedly a severe teacher shortage, despite the Government and officials playing down the problem.

“I think it shows how out of touch the Ministry is, you only have to talk to principals to know that they are really struggling to find enough quality teachers.”

Education Minister Nikki Kaye deferred comment to Finance Minister Steven Joyce, also National’s campaign chairman.

He described Labour’s approach as stale, with an education policy almost identical to their 2014 one.

“Across their nine headline initiatives, only one is different to 2014, and that was announced 18 months ago. And even that wouldn’t fully take effect until 2025," Joyce said.

“It appears that Labour’s 'fresh approach' is largely re-running their 2014 campaign with David Cunliffe’s name twinked out and replaced with Andrew Little. It all amounts to the familiar Labour trifecta of more spending, more debt and higher taxes for hard working Kiwis.”

Scrapping donations may hit a chord

Labour’s $70m plan to end ‘voluntary’ donations would see schools paid $150 per student per year if they agreed to stop asking parents for cash.

Schools would still be able to ask parents to pay for activities such as camps, but would be barred from requesting voluntary donations.

The practice has faced strong criticism, with many parents feeling they have no choice but to pay the donations even if they can’t afford them.

While Labour’s plan may not be broad enough to cover every school, it will likely prove popular with many.

But it wasn’t all smooth sailing for the party’s announcement, with Labour’s decision to drop its 2014 policy of reducing class sizes not going unnoticed.

While NZEI, the largest education union, applauded the move to bring back the “free” into free public education it fired a warning shot hinting it was not completely thrilled with the announcement.

“NZEI members look forward to it fully restoring funding that’s been eroded from ECE after an eight-year freeze on the per-hour per-child subsidy.

“NZEI will also continue to push for smaller class sizes, which are not promised in Labour’s plan.”

Hipkins said the commitment to reduce class sizes had been dropped because the 2014 manifesto had allocated money from the Government’s $359 Investing in Education Success tent pole policy.

That had now been implemented so the money was no longer available, but Labour was still committed to the goal.