The other day when I opened a campaign letter from Chris Hipkins containing a spelling mistake and a considerable amount of gobbledegook, I couldn’t help thinking back to Peter Fraser, Labour’s greatest leader. He was also Minister of Education. I published a biography of him in 2001 and I know quite a lot about Fraser. He was not just someone who held the Education portfolio. Reflecting his stern Highlands Scots upbringing, he was passionate about it, believing that education was the only sure ladder for people wanting to lead useful lives. Fraser and his Director-General of Education, Dr C.E. Beeby, were associated with some amazing achievements: over fourteen years the percentage of children receiving a secondary education in New Zealand rose from 58% to 92%, and the numbers attending universities increased by 150%. Consultation with the public through representative committees became the norm. No spelling mistakes from Fraser, and no gobbledegook.
Our current Labour Prime Minister was also in charge of Education for more than five years. He presided over the greatest-ever collapse in school attendance, a rebellious teaching profession feeling under-valued and under-paid, abysmally weak departmental leadership, and erroneous school curricula formulated by incompetent, ideologically-selected “advisory groups”. Fraser would be appalled if he saw today’s school history syllabus and the mischievous bullswool added to the Treaty of Waitangi, now being dubbed Te Tiriti. Universities are struggling, courses abolished, staff made redundant, and all of it inflicted on the country by a so-called Labour administration.
Why? Apologists for this government immediately blame the sudden arrival in our midst of Covid. It certainly didn’t help. Student achievement levels declined as a result of school shut-downs, and the number of overseas students at secondary and tertiary levels and the revenue they provided were affected by strict border controls. But the rot was well underway before the bugs arrived from Wuhan. Labour’s Maori caucus was already plundering the exchequer for tribal gain, and incompetence within the Ministry of Education only accelerated under Jacinda Ardern and Chris Hipkins. Moreover, ministers are complete captives of the notion that education, like everything else, is something that has to be done for people, not something they should be incentivised to pursue for themselves. Fraser and Beeby would be shocked at this modern twist to Labour’s ideology.
Education is not only essential to foster a sense of self-worth and provide a useful knowledge of the world; educated people can make a huge difference to an isolated small country. Look at Finland, Ireland and Switzerland. All have become prosperous in our own time because of the importance they attached to education. Our current government is indifferent to our isolation, thereby fostering ignorance. Yet a knowledge of the wider world and sufficient skills to get a job are the only way to progress for the current generation of frustrated, bored youth.
Polling shows that a large percentage of the population thinks New Zealand is going in the wrong direction. They are correct. Things won’t turn around unless there is radical reform. And by that I don’t mean expensive restructuring, like this ministry did to health care, making it worse as they went along. We have over 100,000 “job seekers” unemployed for more than a year with little chance that many of them will lead useful lives. There is no chance of reversing that figure without special efforts being made to improve their literacy. And that’s in English, not te Reo. Helping them to achieve their driving licences and other useful skills can ensure we don’t write off the next generation too.
ACT’s promise to restore charter schools will bring back a successful way of offering schooling for young, otherwise disenchanted students. If their tuition is then supplemented with opportunities to train for the military, so much the better. Ignorant left-wing ideologues dismiss such suggestions as “boot camps”, always without having read that these ideas were put very successfully into practice by the American left under President Franklin Roosevelt. More than 2.5 million young Americans advanced as a result.
Opening New Zealand’s borders again will help our secondary and tertiary establishments including technical institutes and universities. After the 1980s, when the decision was made to sell education to other countries, New Zealand thrived on the diversity of students and the money they brought with them. Above all, we must get rid of the isolationist approach so beloved by this government. Internationally recognised science must be promoted, not fuzzy Matauranga Maori if we are to reverse our slide down the international educational tables.
All of this requires a substantial improvement in the standards of our public service. Wellington needs a shake-up. “Tipsy Tory” and her city council with their plans to recognise Palestine indicate that that city’s leadership – and the voters who put them there – are bereft of common sense. The Public Service Commission must up its game. And there needs to be a higher standard of staff in ministers’ offices. How come no one in the Prime Minister’s Office noticed a spelling mistake and gobbledygook in his letters before they were mailed out to thousands of readers? Ministers need to be able to have confidence that their departmental officials have sufficient competence both to advise them, and to enact decisions jointly taken. Peter Fraser would have judged the present bureaucracy and the government they serve a failure on both counts.