13 Nov 2015 The New Zealand Herald
Kirsty Johnston education firstname.lastname@example.org ‘War-room’ meetings
How can parents trust information about services if they are whitewashed? Catherine Delahunty, Green MP
A damning report by an education watchdog about babies and toddlers was partially rewritten after high-level meetings about its “risk” to the Government.
Documents show Ministry of Education advisers also tried to mitigate the impact of the Education Review Office report by planting good-news stories to balance negative media coverage, and carefully crafting a communications “narrative” during “war-room” meetings before its release.
Politicians and sector experts say the behaviour is concerning, and have raised queries about potential political interference in an independent body, plus a lack of transparency at the agencies.
The departments involved have rejected allegations of interference. The ministry said any changes made were a “decision for ERO”.
The ERO said “neither the Ministry of Education nor the minister directed or influenced the report in any way”.
The circumstances surrounding the release of the ERO report, “Infants and toddlers: competent and confident communicators and explorers”, were revealed in emails between ministry staff that the
Herald obtained under the Official Information Act.
They show staff frantically planning for the release of the study — which found almost half of early childhood centres were not doing enough for under-3s in vital developmental areas, and therefore not meeting their curriculum requirements.
The finding followed a series of other reports that highlighted issues with the quality of early childhood education, and urged the Government to raise standards. The worst of those pointed out that poor quality early childhood education can be harmful for children.
The most recent study was undertaken in early 2014. ERO sent it to the ministry in February this year, after peer-review and consultation. It initially recommended the ministry use the findings of the evaluation to “form policy development impacting on the education and care of infants and toddlers”.
This then changed, with ERO suggesting the report be shared with the Advisory Group on Early Learning, with emphasis on the curriculum. Initial communications plans were drafted, but it then sat in limbo until July, when ERO decided to make it public. The report was sent to the minister’s office on July 31.
Its imminent release sparked a flurry of activity at the ministry, including meetings with ERO and internal “war rooms” about risks, after which a message was sent by a communications manager saying the report was being rewritten — one day before its intended release — to “put the onus of responsibility more firmly on providers”.
Sources say the ministry wanted the report “reframed” as it was seen as a threat to the Government and could have potentially embarrassed the minister, Hekia Parata.
The final recommendations — updated on August 5, the day it was made public by the Herald — did not reference the ministry at all, with four bullet points focused solely on providers, including the need for them to “note the good practice examples included in the report”.
A list of self-review questions was also included.
Labour Party education spokesman Chris Hipkins said the rewriting was a “massive blow to ERO’s credibility”.
“They are supposed to be an independent watchdog. It’s unacceptable if the Government [was] putting pressure on them, and unacceptable if they bowed to that pressure.”
Green MP Catherine Delahunty said it appeared the ministry was trying to hide a problem to make the minister look good. “How can parents trust information about services if they are whitewashed?”
ERO said during the process, recommendations might change to ensure they are clear, useful and fit for purpose.
Responding to questions about the communications strategy, Ministry of Education deputy secretary Rawiri Brell said it was always looking to share news about early childhood services. “War-room meetings” were held when the ministry needed to bring together people within a tight timeframe to respond to a topical issue.