Double Standards: National’s Pyrrhic pragmatism

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[First things first, some great news: I’ve now joined Scoop as their new duty editor, which means that in between copy-pasting press releases I’ll be writing the odd story and doing weekly segments on Radio Active and bFM. Should you be interested I’ve already got a couple of things here, here and here.]

So the government’s surprise press conference yesterday wasn’t such a surprise after all. The PM and Education Minister Anne Tolley are sticking to their guns on their national standards policy; the one that guarantees young New Zealanders get a fair go, etc. etc. through regular testing on the three ‘r’s.  They’re so confident, in fact, that they’re refusing to trial it in a few schools first.

Except that they are. As we heard yesterday, they will be trialling the national standards for te reo Maori in some kura kaupapa to make sure they’re appropriate – an eminently sensible decision, but one which makes this battle with the teachers’ unions over the rest of the curriculum all the more absurd.

As Tolley acknowledged yesterday, the unions did work with her to develop the policy despite their reservations. In November they requested a trial, she rejected the request, the wheels came off the wagon and by the end of the year she was threatening to sack entire school boards for insubordination.

But rather than renegotiating the issue, the emphasis now is on reframing it. The mailouts and town hall meetings and what-have-you are about selling the policy directly to parents, while yesterday’s comments clearly attempt to establish a narrative where Key and Tolley have given up on a cynical union which is simply circling the wagons to protect incompetent members.

But even if this were true and their criticisms were entirely unfounded, a pilot programme is not an unreasonable request.  After all, National was amongst those railing against a “quick-fix” approach to NCEA back in 2001 and Key’s speech yesterday was riddled with “successful implementation”. Why the rush?

Tolley’s response thus far – “we’ve already tried not trialling it” – is patently nonsense and yesterday’s statistic-fuelled outrage doesn’t justify it either. For all Key’s reputation as a pragmatist, his flat-out rejections here are pointless and do nothing but antagonise the very schools he ultimately expects to fall in line.

So again, why not just run the trial and be done with it?

Key wasn’t offering any answers yesterday, and my best guess is he wants to railroad it through before it becomes an election issue in 2011. Yet even that doesn’t make any sense, since there’s no way Labour will let it lie and an autocratic, bullying attitude will only make National look worse. But no matter what the rationale, it looks like in the long-term Key and Tolley will be the ones getting schooled.

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