Thursday, March 11, 2010

Education Cuts

It’s appropriate that Roger Douglas ended up in the ACT party. He’s the only Labour Finance Minister to cut actively the public service.

The public service I joined was apolitical. Ministers came and went and we got on with the job of serving them as well as we could. Peter Boag gave me a piece of advice. ‘You can tell a minister twice the policy is not sound. If they insist you have two alternatives. Resign or implement it.’ To the best of my knowledge no one resigned for that reason during my time there.

Douglas was helped by two very funny TV programmes; our own ‘Gliding On’ and Britain’s ‘Yes, Minister’. Both held gems of truth but they reinforced the stereotypes. After the sour Muldoon years people were in a mood for bureaucrat-bashing.

Since that period the numbers in the public service tend to reflect the government of the day. National to cut numbers, Labour to increase the figure. I recall Lockwood Smith launching my education book ‘A Quality Partnership: the transition from school to workplace’. In my speech I regretted the closing of the Northland branch of the ministry of Education. Afterwards we sat talking. He argued he’d had to make some cuts in expenditure. "Where would you have made them Harvey?" I understood his dilemma. I did not have an easy answer.

Now, the present government is well and truly on this hobbyhorse, albeit in a haphazard fashion. Today’s Dominion editorial is on the warpath, taking them to task for not proceeding faster. OK, I understand the tax argument. But there is another side to the coin.

The Education Ministry is to shed jobs. But I’m also aware that such cuts are at the expense of teacher professional development, curriculum development and research. The implementation of national standards is going to require careful monitoring. What else will be sacrificed for the sake of slashing expenditure.

Such cuts have downstream consequences. Thank goodness Merv Wellington and Lockwood Smith over-ruled Treasury advice to cut back teacher training. Otherwise we’d be facing a grave shortage of teachers. The announcement of education job-shedding means a subsequent generation will be affected.

Vernon Small, also in the Dominion, points out that ‘National will always cut too much (and fill in the gaps with consultants and contractors) while Labour will always expand too much (and top up that with consultants and contractors).' Cynical, but reasonably accurate.

I have another concern. The Americanisation of our public service. The change in the nature tends to alter perspective of the service from serving the people to serving the government; a strange contradiction from an administration claiming to reflect the opposite.

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