National forgets history lessons in class size debacle

A lack of political memory and of old-fashioned electorate experience are at the heart of National's F-grade performance on education and class sizes. If MPs did their homework they'd start looking, well, closer to home

Perhaps the oddest thing about National's woeful handling of its attempt to increase school class sizes in the Budget was its collective forgetfulness; it's as if the entire cabinet all suffered a bout of amnesia as to just what a hot button issue this is.

National have now backed down, of course, leaving staff:student ratios and class sizes as they are. The hope is that the political damage has been contained, but it's probably forlorn.

Will voters remember this particular failed effort when they enter the booth in 2014? Probably only a few. But the previously teflon government has earned itself a level of disdain, which alongside a bit of asset sales here and a little state sector cuts there, will undermine its likability.

And that likability is crucial in a party that relies so heavily at the polls - and in cabinet - on John Key. The biggest worry for National's strategists will be the damage done to its relationship with women voters. The mums won't have liked it and the policy will have reminded them of the National Party stereotype, that when push comes to shove Tories care more about the bottomline that little Johnny's start in life.

This is where the aura of trustworthiness projected by David Shearer could bear fruit, because Labour needs to win back the mum vote its ceded to National in the past two elections. Make no mistake, a shift in suburban mums could swing an election.

It's a terrible own goal by National, and all the more surprising given that less than three years ago National's antennae were sufficiently attuned for them to have backed away from this idea. Anne Tolley - who will be mighty relieved to have moved portfolios and is probably chuckling quietly to herself about how much easier prisoners are to manage than teachers - proposed increasing class sizes back in 2009, but the party's power brokers dumped the idea at the last minute.

Yet a few years later, those same leaders somehow forgot the political risk. Is this a sign of hubris creeping into a second term government? A lack of attention to detail? A fatalistic attempt to make change now because they think a third term unlikely? Or just a wide-eyed hope they could sneak it through? Perhaps they're just too in thrall to Treasury. Only cabinet members will know, but you can be sure they won't be taking the blame themselves.

Electorate MPs especially will be furious with Parata - and you've got to wonder if the education minister was an electorate MP, she would have made the same mistake. One of the worst aspects of MMP is that list politicians such as Parata can rise through the ranks without having to do the heard yards of electoral work before assuming higher office.

An MP who had knocked on more doors, held more meeting in more chilly halls, and been upbraided by more mums and dads at more school fairs would have been quicker to ask what impact any change would have had on the schools on her patch.

Still, you've got to wonder where the older, more experienced MPs were and why they weren't reminding those in charge that class sizes have long been a hot issue.

I happened to be writing a piece this past week for NZ on Screen's new anti-nuclear collection, and as part of my research I watched TVNZ's final 1984 Leaders Debate. Amidst the economic and nuclear to-and-fro, it featured a debate on, you guessed it, class sizes. There was Rob Muldoon arguing they didn't matter much and David Lange promising to get class sizes down. A quarter of a century on, it's the same debate. Parents still won't buy that class size doesn't matter; whatever the research; to attempt larger class sizes is akin to dancing into a minefield.

So what happened to National's political memory? It's inexplicable.

And what comes next? National's now decidedly on the back foot as it tries to make gains on performance pay and charter schools, while the unions are on a roll. What's more, having spoken so passionately about the importance of improving "teaching quality", National has to find the money from somewhere or be accused of not doing what it knows is best for our kids.

That's all well and good, because teaching quality does matter. A lot. But what National has avoided in this argument - and the related debate about performance pay - is that there's another, even more significant factor which determines student achievement.

What is it? It's called 'social class', ie what happens at home. If you really want to address that tail (which is closer to 15 percent than 20 percent, by OECD figures, and is said to be trending down), that's the place to start.

Helping the least achieving kids means making sure they're fed, cared for, read to and encouraged at home. Of course teachers can be trained better and increased pay could attract more talented folk, but the fact remains that our education system is consistently ranked near the top of the OECD despite the fact we spend below the OECD average per child and have larger class sizes than the OECD average.

The simple facts is that schools and teachers ain't our biggest problem. If National's serious about that tail of under-achievement in our schools it has to get serious about child poverty.