Peter Hughes appointed Acting Secretary of Education

The State Services Commissioner has announced:

The State Services Commissioner Iain Rennie, today announced that he has accepted the resignation of the Secretary for and Chief Executive Ms Lesley Longstone.

Mr Rennie said that the last six months have been especially challenging for the Ministry of Education.  Despite the best efforts of the Chief Executive to work through a number of issues, there now needs to be a focus on re-building the critical relationships that have been strained.

Following very careful thought and discussion, Lesley and I have decided that the best interests of the Ministry would be served by her stepping down and the appointment of a new Chief Executive, Mr Rennie said. …

Mr Rennie said he was grateful to Victoria University of Wellington for supporting the secondment of former Public Service chief executive as the Acting Chief Executive and Secretary for Education. will take up his role from 9 February 2013. The State Services Commission will advertise for the permanent role in the New Year.

This has the potential to make a significant difference. Peter Hughes is the former CE of MSD and despite the huge complexities of that ministry, was twice judged top performing public sector CE by the Trans-Tasman panel.

By contrast, the Ministry of Education has consistently come near the bottom of the ratings for the 40 or so core public sector agencies. This has always been a huge concern when you consider the importance of education to New Zealand.

The departure of Longstone and appointment (for now) of Hughes, is an opportunity to change things for the better. I look at what I regard as the three main educational stuff ups of the year. They were:

  1. The Budget announcement on increased class sizes in return for improved teacher quality
  2. The Christchurch schools restructuring
  3. The Novopay performance

The 1st issue was a political failure. The Government failed to define what they would do to improve teacher quality, and hence it was like asking for a blank cheque. The policy could have worked if the work had been done on what precisely would be done to improve teacher quality – then people may accept the trade off. The responsibility for that one rests with the Minister, but to be fair to Hekia the decision was a collective one by Cabinet – not hers alone.

The 2nd and 3rd issues were primarily operational failures by the Ministry. The Minister is accountable for their performance, but not directly responsible. In this case, seeing the departure of the CE, and a very competent (temporary) replacement announced is exactly what should happen for such operational failings.

Hughes has a huge task ahead of him, to make changes to the Ministry. There are many good people there, but the structure and culture as a whole are not currently up to the job.

Enemies of the current Government will claim that everything that has happened has been the Minister’s fault. As I have said, she is accountable and there has been political failures also. But to be honest if you really care about improving the NZ education system, you’d be welcoming the appointment of someone like Peter Hughes to be Acting Secretary of Education.

The facts Hughes has agreed to take the role on, is very significant also. He had left the public sector. He would not take on the role unless he had confidence both in the Minister, and in his ability to work with her to make change for the better. He pretty much could have had his choice of any public sector job he wanted when he left MSD.

I look forward to seeing how 2013 goes for Education. It could be very different to 2012.

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