20 Apr 2017

Outgoing education minister Hekia Parata reflects on legacy

11:20 am on 20 April 2017

There are no short answers in an interview with the outgoing Education Minister, Hekia Parata.

The woman who entered parliament with the express aim of becoming the Minister of Education has the gift of the gab and she's not afraid to use it.

Hekia Parata

Hekia Parata becomes a backbench MP on 1 May and will leave parliament at the general election. Photo: RNZ / Rebekah Parsons-King

Relaxed and cheerful in her office on the fifth floor of the Beehive, Ms Parata said her five and a half years as minister had been "200 percent fantastic", though not without challenges.

"It is a tough portfolio, it is complex and difficult, it is impossible to satisfy everybody's aspirations," she said.

And her critics said there was no denying her passion for the role, even if they disagreed with some of her actions.

Changes under her watch included updating the Education Act, reviewing the school and early childhood funding systems, and focusing on using data and evidence to understand which children needed what help.

She hoped it was her focus on student achievement that she would be remembered for.

"We really are relentless about how do we make sure that every child, every day, everywhere, no matter their background, gets the best opportunities possible, and I am hoping that that is the key theme or legacy of my time as minister."

Ms Parata said she was also proud of the Communities of Learning - the multi-million-dollar policy that grouped schools together to work on common problems and paid some teachers and principals more to lead the work.

"Instead of every school, kura, early learning centre being an island unto itself, I'm interested in how do we create an archipelago instead of a very atomised system of very individual and very competitive entities," Ms Parata said.

She said the scheme would build on the strengths and fix the weaknesses of the system of self-governing and self-managing schools that was introduced in 1989.

And regrets about her job were "pretty much confined to 2012", she said.

That was the year she faced a backlash over plans to increase class sizes and, later in the year, to close or merge Christchurch schools in the wake of the Canterbury earthquakes.

Then there were ongoing problems with the Novopay school payroll system and the resignation of the Secretary for Education, Lesley Longstone, following a breakdown in her relationship with Ms Parata.

Ms Parata has been criticised for her personal style and she acknowledged she had not rubbed everyone up the right way.

"I can sometimes sound very provocative and possibly that also can be attributed to my driving personality," she said with a grin.

Education Minister Hekia Parata announces $10 million for maths and science at Ridgeway School.

Hekia Parata at Ridgeway School in 2013. Photo: RNZ

'She was incredibly passionate'

Those who have worked on the opposite side of the table from Ms Parata said her enthusiasm for education was genuine.

Angela Roberts was president of the Post Primary Teachers Association for four of the five years Ms Parata has been minister.

"She was incredibly passionate which is always great, she cared. Sometimes that passion got in the way of listening to the profession and sometimes it felt like she thought the profession was the problem, not the solution," Ms Roberts said.

Ms Roberts said teachers were likely to remember Ms Parata for a tiring number of changes, some of which seemed unnecessary and some of which would be detrimental, such as removing teachers' right to elect representatives to their own disciplinary and professional body, the Educational Council.

Chris Hipkins has been the Labour Party's education spokesperson for the past four years and was an associate spokesperson before that.

He too said Ms Parata had an undeniable passion for her portfolio, though she could be unnecessarily abrasive and heavy-handed.

"She should rightly be remembered for challenging the educational community to ensure they are responding to the needs of every child," he said.

"I think that what she'll also be remembered for though is that the rhetoric didn't always match up with the actions. So I often found that I was agreeing with what Hekia Parata was saying, but disagreeing with what she was doing."

Ms Parata becomes a backbench MP on 1 May and will leave Parliament at the General Election.