Colin Espiner on the ratbag teacher unions


Colin Espiner, hardly a card carrying right-winger, makes some observations on the teacher unions and their opposition to Charter schools.

I’d thought that centrally-controlled, one-size-fits-all approach to education policy had disappeared with the introduction of Tomorrow’s Schools more than 20 years ago. But I reckoned without the teacher unions.

The vitriol spouted by the Post-Primary Teachers Association (PPTA) and the Educational Institute (NZEI) at the Government’s announcement last week that it would fund five privately-run Partnership Schools took me back in a flash to my early days as a reporter covering teacher union rallies and marches.

Back then, it was bulk funding and the devolution of central control to community boards of trustees the teacher unions didn’t like. Oh, and Lockwood Smith.

They went on to oppose NCEA, National Testing, religious schools integration, private school funding . . . in fact pretty much anything that threatened the status quo and the teacher unions’ privileged position within it.?

Think again Colin, the dinosaurs simply oppose anything and never propose alternatives. The problem is that Labour panders to these neanderthals in education and roll back everything. Bulk funding was rolled back at the behest of unions, not because it didn’t work.

Now, as then, the teacher unions claim they have their students’ best interests at heart. And now, as then, they are a powerful voice. After all, they teach the children of most of the nation’s voters. And they have great political linkages, particularly within Labour. But when the Ministry of Education itself admits 20 per cent of students are still failing in the state school system, you do start to wonder whether there might be a better way to help them. And whether those who oppose change are more interested in their own employment conditions than improving the lot of those at the bottom of the heap.

The unions claim we need to spend more on education, yet we spend more per head of population than most in the OECD and even then it is clear that money does not buy you outcomes. If more money was the answer the long brown tail would have long disappeared. Just have a look at the decile system for the skewing of the pitch in favour of the poor.

Admittedly, Partnership Schools are very much an experiment. The Government is putting just $19 million into funding five schools in Northland and Auckland that will not have to operate under the normal strictures of the state system. They can choose their own hours, employ unregistered teachers, and offer subjects outside the standard curriculum.

The schools must, however, meet standards set down in contracts with the government, signed off by a board of independent experts from the fields of education, commerce, politics, and Maoridom.

Scandalous, cry the unions. “Barking mad” yells Labour. A “body blow for the public education system,” opines the Green Party. A body blow? If that’s true, the state system is in worse shape than I thought.

It is in bad shape, and the people most responsible for the shape of it are the teacher unions. They are the biggest bullies in our schools.

What’s so wrong with trying something a little different? With offering students failing in the mainstream education system an alternative? A little military training wouldn’t go amiss with some of them. And is a spot of faith-based teaching and some Maori immersion learning really going to do any great harm?

Apparently. According to the PPTA, these schools are so evil the union is considering asking its members to boycott all cultural, sporting, and professional events involving Partnership Schools. Marvellous – that’ll help those kids already alienated from the mainstream feel like they’re wanted.

If the state system was providing exemplary service and a top-notch education for all students, then the union might have a point. And there probably wouldn’t be much public appetite for alternatives. But it’s clearly failing some students, and parents who can’t afford to send their children to private schools currently have no other options.

None, not a single one, of the arguments against Charter schools has ever been able to stand up to close scrutiny. Many of the union arguments are in fact lies. If you tell lies when at school the teachers punish you, why are the teacher unions not punished for their constant barrage of lies?

No one is suggesting the state education system should be dismantled. It provides a mostly adequate, sometimes excellent, service. But even the bureaucrats in Wellington admit they don’t have a monopoly on good ideas. So what are the unions so afraid of?

Possibly more flexible working hours, fewer holidays, a greater range of pay rates, and non-unionised workers. A system outside state control, where commercial success is actually encouraged. A bit like the world the rest of us live in.

At worst, these schools will not live up to their potential and will be shut down, probably by Labour. But what if they succeed? It won’t just be the students who stand to benefit. It’ll be all of us.

Labour don’t care about kids unless they go on to become beneficiaries and union hacks…otherwise they simply don’t give a toss. Neither do the unions.