19 Dec 2012

Calls for Education Minister to resign

10:34 pm on 19 December 2012

Calls are growing for the Minister of Education Hekia Parata to resign, with political parties saying she needs to accept responsibility for failures at the Ministry.

The Secretary of Education, Lesley Longstone, is resigning from her role and the State Services Commissioner, Iain Rennie, says her strained relationship with Ms Parata was a factor.

The resignation follows a series of problems at the ministry including failures with the Novopay payroll system, Christchurch school reforms and the High Court's overturning of a decision to close a special needs girls' school in Nelson.

The ministry has also been under fire on proposals to increase class sizes, and a report published by the Office of the Ombudsman on Tuesday heavily criticised the ministry's behaviour over Official Information Act requests about Christchurch school closures.

Labour's acting education spokesperson Chris Hipkins says Ms Parata should also resign.

"She's the one that sets the direction, she needs to accept responsiibility for this fiasco as well."

He says Ms Parata is not on top of her portfolio and if she doesn't step down, the Prime Minister John Key should remove her from it.

The Green Party also says Ms Parata needs to front up, and agrees she should quit.

Ms Parata is not available for interviews on Mrs Longstone's resignation. A statement from Mr Key says he has complete confidence in Hekia Parata as minister.

Relationship strained - Rennie

Mr Rennie announced the resignation on Wednesday, saying the last six months had been especially challenging for the ministry, and despite Mrs Longstone's efforts it became apparent that it was unlikely enough progress would be made in the near future.

"It's pretty clear there were a number of education sector groups that had a challenging relationship with the ministry over the last six months.

"It's also the case that the Minister of Education and (the) chief executive have had strains in their relationship over that period of time."

Mr Rennie said he and Mrs Longstone agreed two or three weeks ago that she should resign.

Mrs Longstone came from Britain specifially to take up the job a year ago. She will finish in early February and her final package will recognise that she has four years left on her contract.

Mr Rennie says there now needs to be a focus on rebuilding the critical relationships that have been strained.

Principals group says Longstone's messages lost

The Secondary Principals' Association says the next Secretary of Education should be a New Zealander.

The president, Patrick Walsh, told Radio New Zealand's Checkpoint programme the ministry has been dysfunctional and underperforming for many years, and it was a big ask for someone from overseas to take it over.

He says Ms Longstone has also had to implement unpopular programmes like Novopay, Charter Schools and National Standards, which were never going to go down well with the school sector.

"I think the minister has had some really good ideas. There's been a disconnect between the minister and the ministry and certainly a lot of the messages that the minster's tried to get to the school sector have been lost in translation through the ministry," Mr Walsh said.

Christchurch principals welcome departure

Mrs Longstone has fronted the ministry's proposals for sweeping changes across the Christchurch education sector, including the closure and merger of up to 38 schools.

Many principals spoken to by Radio New Zealand on Wednesday see her resignation as an opportunity for the ministry to mend what they say is its "broken relationship" with schools in the region.

Phillipstown School principal Tony Simpson hopes the ministry will go back to the drawing board on its plans to merge his school with Woolston, and will re-engage with stakeholders.

"We've been through quite a challenging time where we've sought information and not been given it, so - no I don't have faith at present. I'm very, very keen to sit down with key people and restore that back to a real trusting partnership."

Toni Burnside, the principal of Central New Brighton school, which is due to merge with South New Brighton School, says the resignation is evidence of ructions within the ministry.

She says it is evident good decisions have not been made and the proposals should be revisited.

Minister thanks Mrs Longstone

Ms Parata acknowledged Mrs Longstone's resignation and thanked her for her efforts leading the ministry.

She said it had been a difficult period and there had been a series of tough issues to deal with.

A spokesperson for Ms Parata said the minister was on leave and would not be making further comment until she was back at work at the end of January.

Former public service chief executive Peter Hughes will be Acting Education Secretary while a permanent replacement is found.

Mr Rennie said a severance package for Mrs Longstone would be announced in the New Year and she will step down in early February.