What to do after being leader? Go get an education

Bill English is back. No, not the leader. The thoughtful, modern-conservative policy wonk.

Having mused on a career outside politics but not being of the age when cushy diplomatic posts or board appointments are bestowed, he has found redemption in education.

No, not his own. Others’. Though he has been educating himself in the process.

English might have sought a life in politics’ “upper house” as foreign minister in a Don Brash government, which Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer did when ousted as Liberal leader as a youngish man.

Instead, he chose a domestic portfolio, potentially an election-deciding one, and fought off Brash’s move in March to take the tertiary part off him. He has done some headline-mongering, stopping Trevor Mallard’s politically inept school amalgamations and caning Steve Maharey’s tertiary institutions’ misuse of funds. But more important is his so-far unsung policy work which eschews his colleagues’ bumper-sticker posturings.

English still needs a presentational remake, the lack of which contributed to his 2002 election disaster. He still has not got the networks humming. But he has read a pile of books and articles and listened to experts here and abroad and to teachers, children and parents and is developing a framework for thinking about education which will challenge Mallard.

Actually, he and Mallard agree on quite a lot.

Both back the NCEA, for example.

Both want (and Mallard is driving) emphasis on literacy, including grammar, and numeracy, including mental arithmetic. This sounds like “back to basics”, one of National’s mantras, but has a more sensible basis: to ensure children have the “foundation skills” required for almost any job and to be the “good citizens” English thinks is the purpose of education.

Both think teachers can make a real difference, whatever children’s home and social background: big brown boys are not unteachable — “what you expect of a child makes a difference,” English says. Both emphasise, though in different ways, the value of early childhood education, particularly for children from disadvantaged homes.

Both enthuse over (and Mallard is driving) new teacher self-assessment techniques, such as asTTle, devised by John Hattie at Auckland University, which enable and encourage teachers to focus on what children are learning (rather than on what the teachers are teaching) and thereby reshape their teaching to bring about more learning. English endorsed the announcement a fortnight ago putting asTTle online.

These developments — some began under the National government — give hope that the generation-to-generation cycle of low aspirations and low achievement can be broken.

But there are significant differences between Mallard and English and they centre on flexibility.

Mallard has a 1970s-style centralist approach. Amalgamating state schools and zoning them to make them take all children living in their zone are examples.

English believes zoning locks large numbers of poor kids into poor schools, since Mallard has a near-absolute, preference for state-paid education to be delivered by state schools, “integrated” Catholic schools or Maori schools (where, incidentally, the unionised teachers are).

Mallard canned, for example, Christine Fernyhough’s bid to set up an intermediate school for gifted children; they are supposed to be (but are not) catered for within his overstretched state system. English would have approved it.

The difference is not just ideological. English, at 42, is of a generation which expects more customised services than the 50-somethings who run the cabinet. The 20- and 30-somethings expect even more customisation. The risk Mallard runs is that well enough off (or worried enough) parents will increasingly vote for their children with their chequebooks. If so, farewell Labour’s cherished equality of opportunity.

To meet diversity of need and diversifying community expectations, English insists, requires diversity of supply, both in the state system and through non-state schools — any group of teachers meeting approved standards should be able to run a school on state funding.

This is not simply “choice”, another empty National mantra. English would insist on strong accountability mechanisms and feedback loops in which parents were a part, which in turn would require much more information for and openness to parents, which would require measurement. He wants a “parent’s charter” — in opposition, as he sees, it to Mallard’s deference to lobby groups.

English may well be closer to today’s young parents’ intuitions than Mallard — though Mallard’s policy initiatives should not be discounted. But what is valuable, given education’s crucial importance, is not who is right but that there is a real educational debate, not just a political one, in the making.

Can Brash’s strategists recognise and capitalise on that? Not on the evidence so far. But Brash is a fast learner. English could teach him a thing or two.