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Education Amendment Bill — Second Reading
Education Amendment Bill
- Debate resumed from 21 February.
ALLAN PEACHEY (National—Tamaki) : I rise to speak in opposition to the Education Amendment Bill. In doing so, I wish to focus on the new regulatory regime for the early childhood education sector. That is another example of the way in which the Labour Party thinks that by making a bureaucracy it can solve the problems of children. When will the Government learn that no child ever learnt to read in a bureaucrat’s office in Wellington?
I take on board the advice of the New Zealand Institute of Economic Research and the Early Childhood Council, both of which have expressed concern that the children who currently miss out on early childhood education will gain nothing from this bill. Yet it is those children who would benefit most from access to early childhood education. From among those children will come the silent catastrophe of New Zealand life—the 150,000 New Zealand boys and girls who will pass through our school system not learning to read, write, or do mathematics. This bill will do nothing for those children. We know that children who have good early childhood education are more adaptable when they start school, and more likely to pass through the school system and go on to tertiary education, than those who do not get that opportunity. So why does the Labour Government continue to ignore the children who most need opportunity—who most need help?
I reflect on the irony of this situation. If this were a National Party bill, people like me would be burnt in effigy on the forecourt of Parliament House by members of the New Zealand Educational Institute. Instead, kindergarten teachers are ringing and asking me to go and see them, or asking to come and see me. They are begging members to do something to protect their work practices and their work, because they know that this bill is the end of kindergartens as we know them in New Zealand.
I want to take a moment to reflect on what kindergartens have meant to New Zealanders—to think about what going to kindergarten meant to my four children, and to think about the opportunities that being involved in a kindergarten gave me to meet the parents of the children my children would go through school and grow up with. That went right to the very fabric of what made decent, caring communities. We got involved in volunteer efforts. I remember well painting the kindergarten roof, and two or three guys putting up a new shed there. Those were the days, of course, when a couple of volunteers could put up a new shed for a kindergarten—not like today. Those were the days when on a Saturday we would go and dig the sandpit or help clean the building. Our involvement would then carry on through the school and the PTA to the children’s sports clubs and that sort of thing. That is what we will destroy if we let the kindergarten system collapse—yet that is what we are doing.
I say thank you to the kindergarten teachers of New Zealand for the years of service they have given to children like mine, and to hundreds of thousands of others. I ask them to reflect on where the leadership from their union is—or is it just the fact that because this is a Labour Party bill it is OK? How many of those teachers forewent the opportunity of a decent tax cut to vote for Labour, and now what will Labour do to them?
This bill will be the end of kindergartens as we know them. We know that children who have the opportunity of decent early childhood education will be more successful at school, will not become the criminals of tomorrow, and will not be amongst the youngsters who will not learn to read, write, or do mathematics—150,000 of them, the silent catastrophe of New Zealand. This bill does nothing to give those children a start in life. The Government will spend $100 million, yet the children who most need access to early childhood education, and who most often do not get access to it, will miss out again.
What is it about socialism that says that it is legitimate to leave 20 percent of one’s population stranded—stranded in poorly performing schools, stranded in lousy State-funded housing, and stranded in crime-riddled streets—but not to lift a finger to deal with that silent catastrophe. In fact, we are introducing into this House legislation that will perpetuate that situation.
Hon Member: It’s just poor workmanship; that’s all.
Hon Brian Donnelly: He would have seen the figures that came out, just after you guys got out.
ALLAN PEACHEY: I would like to thank Mr Donnelly, the chairman of the Education and Science Committee, for the committee’s contribution. He does a fine job chairing that committee. I know that he must appreciate the disappointment of missing out on the baubles of office. I say to him that his leader owed him better than that.
So where is the New Zealand Educational Institute? Where is the voice of kindergarten teachers? And where is the voice of those parents who want a kindergarten education for their children—who do not want to drop their children off at 8 o’clock in the morning and pick them up at 5 o’clock, but who like the idea that their children can go to kindergarten for 3 hours in the morning, then spend the afternoon at home with their parents? Where is the consideration for those parents?
Let us not lose sight of one thing: the best upbringing a child can have is from that child’s parents. The more time a child spends with his or her parents, the better it is for that child, and we do not want to be in a situation of encouraging the State to take over the upbringing of our children. It is far better to put our resources and our effort into those children who are currently missing out. That is where our efforts should go, because that way we can finally start to break that chain of silent catastrophe. We can finally start to reduce the number of our children who are not learning to read, to write, or to do maths, and who will, therefore, have no place to contribute positively through our economy. That is what we should be concerned with—not with creating another bureaucracy that gives jobs to bureaucrats. And, please, will this Government understand: no child was ever educated in a bureaucrat’s office in Wellington.
Hon BRIAN DONNELLY (NZ First) : I could use up the whole of my 10 minutes picking holes in the previous contribution from the National education associate spokesperson, but I will not, and I will tell members why. I think that member has a lot to contribute to the debate and discourse on education, and to what the Education and Science Committee has to do. He has, without a doubt, a great passion for education. I do have to mention that I did spend some time with an education spokesperson from the ACT party who had a great passion for education, and she happens to be in jail now—but that is neither here nor there.
I am very pleased to be speaking in this debate. I am the fifth speaker in this debate, but I am the first speaker who actually knows anything about what this legislation is about, the first speaker who has actually sat and listened to the debate, and the first speaker who has had any involvement in making contributions to the changes made to the original bill. I would like to work through that process in a sensible way.
I want first of all to pay due tribute to the members of the Education and Science Committee in the last Parliament. In particular, I pay tribute to the two members of that committee who are no longer in the House, for a variety of reasons: Bernie Ogilvy and Deborah Coddington. Although much of this bill was motherhood and apple pie, and the report is a unanimous one—and I would like to point that out to members of the Opposition; there was no opposition, and there is no minority statement in the report back—we worked our way through the issues, and made a number of changes. The members of the Opposition parties on the select committee at that particular time contributed to those changes in a very positive way. I want to acknowledge that. The report was a unanimous one, but, as I said, there were a number of changes. The need for those changes was identified as a result of the careful work undertaken by the committee.
It was identified, for example, that certain clauses of the original bill—the bill as it was presented to us—had the unintended effect of preventing a teacher whose registration had expired from undertaking relieving teaching. I can tell members now that my registration has expired. It has been expired for quite some time.
Hon Tau Henare: And all the kids are clapping their hands.
Hon BRIAN DONNELLY: And on election night I was really glad we had made that change. I was really happy. It was a bit like 1999, I might add for Mr Henare. I had to really reconsider my registration process then! The bill contains a number of other provisions that improve the teacher registration process.
There are also a number of issues relating to the composition of the disciplinary tribunals. We recommended, for example, changes that would ensure that at least one member of a disciplinary tribunal—a disciplinary tribunal for teachers—must be a member of the Teachers Council, and that one may not be teacher, which allows for the appointment of someone with specialist knowledge, such as a lawyer with expertise in employment law. However, even with those changes, the way the original bill was drawn up meant that the disciplinary tribunals could have been composed of members, none of whom was a teacher. That seemed to the committee to be contrary to the objectives of the legislation that had established the Teachers Council. Those objectives were intended to professionalise teachers. I think it was the Education Standards Bill, which was in the name of the National member Alec Neill. One of the classic criteria of a profession is that it controls its own membership, including disciplinary action. Yet this legislation was going to take that away. The committee therefore insisted that any disciplinary tribunal must be composed of members the majority of whom are registered teachers. We believe that is right.
Hon Tau Henare: Why?
Hon BRIAN DONNELLY: Because of the professional process. That does not mean to say that other people cannot be brought into it, but if teaching is to be a profession, it must control the entry and exit of its own members.
The bill in its original form extended the prohibition in the principal Act that makes it an offence to abuse, insult, or intimidate teachers in front of children, to early childhood education and care services. It also increased the penalty from $40 to $1,000. The committee explored in detail the issue of the abuse or intimidation of staff, because it had come to our attention that many teachers, largely female teachers, in small and isolated rural schools were operating in fear and trepidation because of the current P epidemic. I take the opportunity to put on record that this is an issue the Government needs to address. However, the provision in the Education Act is specifically about abuse or intimidation of staff in front of students. What the bill intended to do was to extend that to early childhood education providers. What came about as the result of our extensive exploration of this legislation was that we found that under the present Act a student who abuses a teacher in front of his or her fellow students could be liable to a fine of, at present, $40, and maybe, in the future, $1,000. So the select committee put in a clause to make it clear that this provision did not apply to students, as we believed that such behaviour should be dealt with through the ordinary school disciplinary process or through the general law.
The bill also allows for people who renege on bonded scholarship contracts to be required to repay outstanding amounts through student loan scheme processes. That was unanimously agreed to by members, and it was good to have that position endorsed by members of the students association of Christchurch teachers college when I met with them on Monday.
Surprisingly, there was no objection from any party representative to the provision in the bill to extend the use of national student numbers to the early childhood sector and the compulsory sector. New Zealand First is extremely supportive of this move. Our particular concerns are issues of truancy and transiency. One of the real downsides of the Tomorrow’s Schools reforms was that large numbers of students fell through the cracks. They fell through the cracks during the transition process from one schooling level to another, and they also fell through the cracks when parents shifted homes, particularly from one location to another. This move, in fact, will enable systems to be developed that better track some of our most at-risk and vulnerable students.
However, notwithstanding the careful scrutiny by the select committee, a part of this bill is still of genuine concern, and I wish to focus upon this area of concern and bring it to the attention of National’s early childhood spokesperson. It lies in new section 317, in clause 43 of the bill—specifically, subsection (2)(b). The member who might have railed against regulations happened to have sat in Cabinet when the last set of regulations—Desirable Objectives and Practices—were put through in 1998. But this bill is actually trying to put through a different framework, and the Desirable Objectives and Practices will be collapsed into it. New section 317 allows for a process of putting regulations in place. That is fine and I do not think any one would disagree with it. But subsection (2)(b) states: “authorise the Secretary, after consultation with those organisations that appear to the Secretary to be representative of persons likely to be substantially affected by these regulations, to prescribe criteria to be used by the Secretary to assess compliance with the minimum standards imposed by these regulations:”. I want members to focus their attention on that. What it actually means is that, potentially, ministry officials could have the power—and Parliament could be giving them the power, without any review by the Regulations Review Committee—to determine exactly what every early childhood centre has to do, down to the colour it has to use—
Hon Tau Henare: And you like that.
Hon BRIAN DONNELLY: No, we disagree with that. We think that power is far beyond what was ever intended by the legislation, and if that is what the legislation is actually doing, we believe that in the Committee stage we need to draw back on it. We are signalling at this particular stage that we have a concern. We are in discussion both with members of the Opposition and with members of the Government itself to ask what exactly it means and what powers it gives. It was never drawn to the attention of the select committee, but it has been drawn to our attention since then. We want to ensure that the intentions were to set the regulations, then to allow some examples to be given for early childhood centres to draw on, rather than to provide that power.
Later on in that provision, section 317(2)(i) talks about: “prescribe offences punishable on summary conviction by a fine not exceeding $500 in respect of the contravention of or non-compliance with the regulations.” In other words, if a sleeping room is not coloured the colour that the ministry has determined is the right colour for children, one could be up for a fine of $500. That is completely the converse of the whole notion of keeping the diversity that is the very strength of early childhood education.
So I signal here and now to the House that we will be proceeding to explore this issue, and to try to resolve it—
Hon Tau Henare: Explore or resolve it?
Hon BRIAN DONNELLY: —to resolve it in a sensible way, to ensure that what it may be saying is not true.
Hon Tau Henare: Are you going to bring it up in a Supplementary Order Paper?
Hon BRIAN DONNELLY: We will bring it up and amend it at the Committee stage if that is necessary, yes.
METIRIA TUREI (Green) : I was very pleased to be able to sit on the Education and Science Committee for at least part of the consideration of this bill, and I did hear some of the submissions, but I was not able to be there for the last part. We will support the second reading of this bill, but we will not make a final decision until after the Committee stage because we still have some real concerns about it.
On the plus side, this bill makes some important and necessary changes. We are pleased to see changes to clarify and simplify the prohibition of corporal punishment in early childhood services. It is an important principle that children should not be subjected to violence, and we look forward to this House taking a similarly principled approach to my colleague Sue Bradford’s section 59 abolition member’s bill when it comes before the House for consideration. Some years ago the decision was made to prohibit corporal punishment in schools, and we, as a community and a Parliament, need to make sure we are consistent in our condemnation of violence against children, regardless of whether it is done by teachers or by other adults.
We are pleased to see that a new section makes the intimidation of staff at schools and early childhood services—where that is happening in front of children—unlawful, and that the fines have increased, because violence and abuse have no place in a child’s life, anywhere. We, as legislators, should do everything we can to make sure that the community knows that such behaviour is unacceptable and will be punished. We are also pleased to see that those provisions do not apply to children, and that more child-appropriate services and systems are in place to deal with their behaviour.
We are very pleased to see that a parent’s right to enter the premises of the early childhood service that his or her child attends is retained. I was very surprised when some privately owned centres asked to be able to exclude parents from entering their premises as they saw fit. That struck me at the time as being a terribly unsafe policy for an early childhood centre to have, and I certainly never would have sent my children to a service that barred me from entering its premises to check on their welfare.
The exemptions to this provision in the bill are generally sound, but I would like to see some tightening of the new section 319A(e), proposed to be inserted in the Education Act 1989 by clause 43 of the bill. This paragraph gives the operator a right to bar a person whom the operator considers is “exhibiting behaviour that is … disruptive to the effective operation of the centre …”. I think that it is not the operation of the centre that is the main concern, but the physical and psychological welfare of the children. Under this wording, an operator could bar a parent who wanted to come in, say, to feed or care for a child in some way, because that would disrupt the centre’s schedule. That is not a good enough reason to bar parents from checking on their children in those centres.
Our real concern about the bill, which was expressed by my colleague Rod Donald at the first reading, relates to the extension of the student number system from the secondary into the primary and early childhood sectors. Currently, those numbers are used for the secondary and tertiary sectors to collect and combine data for policy and analysis purposes—largely for the New Zealand Qualifications Authority and tertiary providers to use to verify the identity of enrolling students.
On the face of it, the network management system that has operated those numbers is used for fairly benign purposes, but the Greens have always been concerned that those unique personal identifiers could be readily misused. The only other existing national ID number is the national health index number, which is an identification number given to all children at birth. So we are already trapped for our entire lives, in some form.
The Greens are not yet convinced that those numbers will not be misused or that there are sufficient checks on their use in the bill. We are particularly concerned about the privacy of the children and the families concerned. There is no doubt that the numbers are useful for the better sharing of information between schools when children enrolled at those schools move, and for the better identification and management of truant children—and certainly the Office of the Children’s Commissioner supports the use of those numbers.
But there still remains a high possibility that a breach of those children’s privacy may occur. Just because they are children does not mean they have any less entitlement to the protection of their privacy. In fact, we should put in extra measures to protect their rights and interests, because they have even less power to make any changes or to hold people to account should that information be misused.
We are concerned that the information could be used to access children for advertising—even by the education sector itself. What is worse is that it could be used to trace and punish already struggling parents and families, who, for a variety of reasons over which they may have very little control, are already engaged in a cycle of transience and difficulties.
So we would like to see some better protection mechanisms placed in the bill and to see whether some amendments can be made to tighten up the rules. We look forward to seeing what happens at the Committee stage, but the Greens will support the bill through to its second reading.
- Debate interrupted.