The National Party would cut primary school class sizes if re-elected, but it cannot yet say what the number might fall to or what it might cost.

Party leader Simon Bridges used the new policy – or the headline of a policy – as the centrepiece yesterday of his first big speech to a party conference.

Declaring himself to be from a family of teachers and wanting “to fight for our kids” Bridges chose education “to put a few ideas on the table”.

He said a National government wanted children to receive the individual attention in a classroom that they deserved. “That’s why I want more teachers in our primary schools, to ensure smaller class sizes for our children.

“Schools currently get one teacher for every 29 nine- and 10-year-olds. It’s lower than that for younger children. These ratios should be reduced.”

He did not nominate target figures, saying simply that “more teachers means more attention for our kids at a stage of life whey they need it most” and promising to consult and produce a detailed discussion document by next year.

“Some will say that class size is less important than teacher quality. Well I’d say they’re not mutually exclusive.”

If that comment had echoes within the party’s conference room, it might have been because National in 2012 said precisely the reverse, with education minister Hekia Parata signalling class sizes could rise. That intent was abandoned after a political backlash.

In 2014, Labour under David Cunliffe campaigned for lower class sizes, but that was not continued in its 2017 programme and the current Government has not made it a priority.

Pressed by media afterwards on how many children he thought would be ideal in a new entrant class room or that of a 10 year-old, Bridges demurred. He said the pledge to cut the ratios was real and would occur under a government led by him, but the discussion paper would provide the workings.

His best stab at the possible cost of the extra teachers was “in the hundreds of millions of dollars ballpark”, later refined to “$300m, $400m, $500m”. 

Education spokesperson Nikki Kaye explained one figure for a new ratio was not easy to nominate because of the moving scale of teacher to pupils per class through primary school years and also the differing use of individual and multi-class, open-plan modern learning environments.

It is clear, however, that National wants back into the schools education debate, at a broad public level but also in gaining the ear and attention of teachers. “Do not underestimate the signals this will send, as well, to a group of teachers and parents,” Kaye said. She and her junior associate spokesperson on early childhood education, Nicola Willis, were at Bridges’ side for the media questioning and both took their chance to augment what the leader was saying.

Kaye said: “We do not want to lock in a ratio right now. There’s a real variety across New Zealand.”

At an education session at the conference, Kaye, Willis, associate tertiary education spokeperson Simeon Brown and spokeswoman for Māori education Jo Hayes outlined areas in which National sees hope for developing policies distinct from Labour and with potential support from parents and teacher groups.

Kaye said party feedback would be sought on how a social investment approach might help improve special needs education, improved quality of teachers including teacher training and the pay structure in schools, the future of work and understanding what technology might be needed in future and governance – “what a school looks like in the future”.

Her education caucus would “go on the road, in and out of schools” to tease out these themes. 

Bridges dedicated almost the entire second half of his keynote speech to education. “It’s got to be about opportunity for all, here in New Zealand. And that starts with education.

“Education is a future leveller. It was for me – from Rutherford High in West Auckland to Oxford University – and it must be for our country’s children.”

He issued a warning to early childhood centres. “The early years are vital and I believe there is a lot that can be done to improve early childhood education. It starts with a focus on quality. 

“Most centres do a good job looking after our young children, but a few not doing good enough is a few too many in my book.”

Bridges said: “National will invest more to make sure our kids get the best quality start to their education, but we will demand nothing but the highest standards. Or frankly the centre should close its doors.”

Tim Murphy is co-editor of Newsroom. He writes about politics, Auckland, and media. Twitter: @tmurphynz

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