Sunday, January 22, 2006

Deborah Coddington: A shot in the arm for NCEA

Can the good lady doctor cure the New Zealand Qualifications Authority and, more specifically, the National Certificate of Educational Achievement?
Director-General of Health Dr Karen Poutasi has been appointed the new chief executive of NZQA in what must be, if I'm permitted one more bad metaphor, the hospital pass of the year.

NZQA has been the Labour Government's ICU patient and no education minister has been game enough to turn off the ventilators (no more, I promise).

Eight chief executives in as many years, the disastrously implemented NCEA, shoving the highly successful national Scholarship out of the way and insisting the bureaucratic standards-based scholarship had nothing wrong with it - just a sampling of the fodder gifted to opposition parties for lobbing at hapless education ministers.

Staunch work by National's Bill English saw off NZQA's chairman, Graeme Fraser, and the seventh chief executive, Karen van Rooyen. And not before time. These two appeared before Parliament's education and science select committee and arrogantly dismissed concerned questioning from MPs about the implementation of the NCEA, suggesting all was well and pesky parents who wrote to their local MPs demanding action should leave education to the "experts".

Their ideological intransigence was alarming, considering the growing number of parents who doubted the efficacy of these new-fangled qualifications.

But as the quintessential civil servant head Sir Humphrey told his Minister: "What on earth would parents know?"

National should not take all the credit. In 2003 Act's then education spokeswoman, Donna Awatere Huata, requested the committee hold an inquiry into NCEA. Every other party, including National, blocked it.

Undeterred, Awatere Huata, Richard Prebble and I held our own inquiry, traipsing around the country and meeting students, parents, teachers, employers - anyone who had strong feelings for or against the system.

Then last year there were not one, but three, damning reports on the NCEA. Fraser resigned immediately, slowly followed by van Rooyen who was put on gardening leave - serving out her three-month notice at home on "project work" for the NZQA board.

Poutasi's appointment won't please those who want the NCEA scrapped. She is, after all, just a bureaucrat, and one of the longest-serving chief executives of a government organisation.

New Education Minister Steve Maharey is hardly likely to overturn the wishes of his predecessor, Trevor Mallard, and tell the NZQA board to have Poutasi dump the NCEA.

But at least the appointment of someone with a proven track record of smoothly overseeing huge policy changes sends a signal that the Government finally recognises that if the NCEA is to work, there is much fixing to do. And let's face it, not every student in New Zealand is able to sit alternatives like Cambridge International or Baccalaureate.

So Steve Maharey should take some credit. He's replaced Fraser with Sue Suckling, a highly respected business figure who, more than anyone in academia's ivory towers, will appreciate how crucial it is for employment that high education standards are met.

Maharey's not an "on the ground" type. Anyone who manages to read his tertiary-education speeches without suffering eye-glaze-over from repetitive edu-babble will know Maharey sees himself as "Mr Big Picture".

I doubt Maharey will suddenly, now he's responsible for schools, morph into Mallard and behave like a technician, a meddler, a get-stuck-in-and-do-it kind of guy, whether that be closing down schools or declaring NCEA "a triumph". Which may be just as well if we want some good to come out of the NCEA mess.

Maharey (to use his own language) will paint a picture for Poutasi's board and she'll get on with it. Just like she got on with massive policy changes in the Health Ministry, including establishing District Health Boards and Primary Health Organisations.

You may not like those changes, but don't blame Poutasi for policy. Look beyond that to see she oversaw major upheavals with no correspondingly massive stuff-ups. Maybe Dr Poutasi is just the person to nurse the injured NCEA through to a healthily functioning working life. She's a medical graduate from Otago University and a management graduate from Harvard University. Her education was not based on one-size-fits-all; there were no feel-good prizes for losers. Plus she's a mother whose adult children, reputed to be academically gifted, came through the old system - competition, percentages and best in show.

And while Karen Poutasi is hardly a household name, she does attract praise from the commercial sector. The head of a training department at one of Auckland's major employers reckons she's just the person for "righting the ship".

It's true the news of Poutasi's new job, which she takes up in May, was greeted with a yawn, perhaps because it was announced at holiday time when the only interest in the civil service involves watching reruns of Yes, Prime Minister. On the other hand, the absence of friction could be a good thing. "Boring", on the resume of a top public servant, means someone who accomplishes results with minimum scandal.

If in doubt, think Christine Rankin.

Kerre Woodham: Not all sex acts are equal

The sentencing of a 23-year-old sex abuser to 240 hours of community service has outraged a number of people.

They reckon the abuser should have got jail time - never mind that the 13-year-old was physically mature and had represented himself as 17.

Never mind that the sex was consensual or that the teenager wasn't the one to lay the complaint.

And they weren't concerned that the teenager had gone to the home of the abuser and asked to stay the night. Nope. As far as some people are concerned, abusers are abusers and should be locked up and the key thrown away.

However, as we've seen with the new laws governing coach and taxi licences, not all sex abusers are created equal. The idea behind the law that came into effect on Monday was a good one. No sex abuser would be able to hold a licence to transport paying passengers. Who's going to argue with that?

But a storm arose when a couple of men spoke out through the media, complaining they'd lost their livelihoods because a lifetime ago they had been convicted of having sex with their girlfriends who were only just under the age of consent. They'd been convicted and fined, had lived blameless lives for the past 30 years, and now they had found themselves dragged into the same net as serial rapists and slavering predators.

Public sympathy was on their side. Criticism was made of a law that lumps people into one non-discriminating category.

But that's what laws do. They are blunt instruments that fail to take into account individual circumstances. That's what we have judges for, and in the case of the New Plymouth abuser, mitigating circumstances were considered by the judge. Hopefully, it's not because the abuser in this case was a woman and her victim, if he can be called that, was a boy. I presume the reason the judge didn't send the woman to prison was because, in this case, the boy was well and truly up for it and didn't see himself as harmed by the experience.

And I would hope that in the future, judges will apply those same considerations in cases where young women have freely and willingly entered into sexual relationships with men, despite the fact they are under age. Not all men are predators and not all young women are victims, despite what their appalled parents might think.

Of course, if couples who were going to copulate held back until they found out vital information, like dates of birth, that would save a lot of hassle and potential heartache.

The decision by legislators to treat males and females equally when it comes to laying charges of carnal knowledge is a good one. And so long as judges factor in that not all young women are victims, and not all young men are lucky little buggers for being seduced by suburban Mrs Robinsons, the law should provide protection for minors.

Each case is different, and must be treated as such.

Kerre Woodham: Burglar shamed himself

Remember the would-be burglar who was tackled and hog-tied by the elderly members of a Christchurch petanque club?

Clinton Dearman was sentenced this week, and his lawyer asked that the humiliation Dearman suffered be taken into account when the judge handed down the sentence.

I'm hoping the lawyer made the plea tongue-in-cheek, but I fear not.

Michael Knowles told the court his client had been the laughing stock of inmates in prison and he'd never be able to hold his head up in criminal company again after being pictured in the media hog-tied and surrounded by the stroppy seniors.

He said his client felt he'd been given an unduly harsh time and it wasn't fair because it wasn't like he was a murderer or a sex offender.

Judge Crosbie rejected Knowles' submission and told Dearman he'd brought his humiliation upon himself.

I wish the judge could give a talking-to to some of my talkback callers this week.

A couple of P-users rang to say they were sick of being stigmatised as violent offenders, and not everybody who used P would turn into a dirty, filthy, murdering rapist.

I couldn't believe their whining self-justifications. Of course not all P-users turn violent, but a lot do. You lie down with dogs, you get fleas.

The concept of individual rights has surely gone too far when Class A drug-users complain about their image.