National's Pre-election Handouts Begin
You can tell that election year is looming as the money starts to flow in some new directions and it is particularly obvious in education.
National's bias towards the already wealthy was obvious as soon as they were elected into government in 2008. Despite the looming recession they gave upper income earners a substantial tax cut that reduced tax revenue by around $2 billion a year and supported a sudden increase in income inequity.
The new National led Government then gave private schools a $35 million boost while at the same time cutting funding to the Education Ministry by $25 million. Against all advice the Government bailed out Wanganui Collegiate (400 elite students) by $3.9 million and committed to supporting the school by $3 million a year from then on. Research has shown that high decile schools are better off by around $1,000 a year per pupil (despite decile funding that favours lower deciles) and private schools receive the most taxpayer support for special needs. Kings College (attended by the Prime Minister's son) was able to get special needs funding for almost 25% of students sitting NCEA.
Education Ministers Tolley and Parata both declared that the supposed tail of under-achievement was their main priority and have voiced special concern about Maori and Pasifika attainment. National Standards were introduced with the explanation that they would help identify struggling students and enable support and funding to be targeted towards those with highest need. Despite all the good words this has not reflected the reality.
The Government has closed residential schools for high needs children based on mainly economic considerations and has taken the same approach when closing Christchurch schools. In both cases there have been serious concerns around the decisions and the level of meaningful consultation (the reverse happened with Wanganui Collegiate).
Primary school principals I talk to claim that they now have less support for their high needs children than before. Special Education Services have fewer staff and larger case loads (since the Ministry budget cuts) and RTLBs have had their roles expanded to the extent they are spread too thinly to be fully effective. Teacher Aids, who work directly with our high needs children, still have amongst the worst pay and conditions of any workforce. Any progress that has occurred has been a result of hard work from teachers in an increasingly hostile education environment, which hasn't been helped by the Novopay debacle.
After almost five years in government there is sudden announcement that $27 million of new funding will be spent over the next four years, aimed at 'priority' children. One of the programmes getting a funding boost is Ka Hikitia which existed before National become the Government and was largely ignored while National Standards were being implemented.
$27 million sounds like a generous sum of money and many will feel that it is a substantial effort by this Government to support struggling children, but we should put this put this into perspective. Around 4% of children attend private schools and yet they have received around $40 million of extra money and get the bulk of special needs funding. The Government claims that they are concerned about the 20% of children who are struggling and yet the funding they are prepared to commit is still chicken feed compared to what is spent on our most privileged. Even though the National Standards data was seriously flawed it still revealed that the most affluent communities tend to do better educationally and this government has been determined to keep it that way.
The $27 million of education funding for priority children should be seen for what it is; a pre-election handout that is too late and too little to have any real impact, especially for those who needed it five years earlier.