National MP Paul Goldsmith on his ‘shocker’ year and education plans

“A shocker” is the word National MP Paul Goldsmith chooses to describe his year in 2020.

The year was harder on some politicians than others, and Goldsmith has had quite a bit of wound-licking to get on with since the election – back in Opposition and out of the finance portfolio.

He talked to the Herald about that year, and his plans for tackling the education portfolio – including the problem of children missing school.

Goldsmith’s year began well, but he does not bother pretending the year ended up anything but dire for him.

As the party’s finance spokesman during the election campaign, Goldsmith took the fall for the blunder in National’s economic plan.

Collins had taken the fiscal hole mistake well enough, Goldsmith says: “I couldn’t fault her in that regard.”

However, she has since identified it as one of the factors in National’s result.

Goldsmith had told Collins he did not expect to retain the finance portfolio and, lo, so it came to pass.

“It’s not something I’m celebrating. That’s a role I’ve always been interested in, but I believe in accountability and we had a bad result and so I was accountable.

“I bumped into a former All Blacks coach in the car park a couple of weeks after, and he said ‘Paul, one word. Disunity’.

“I think that was the big thing that made it difficult for us. We struggled to get clear economic messages across.

“But a number of us made mistakes, and that contributed.

“Ultimately, if you’re a senior member of the team and there’s a bad outcome then you’re accountable.”

He admits there was a visit to the Slough of Despond after the election, but he is not prone to sulking.

“My attitude is you’ve just got to get on with it. So make the most of what you can and keep fighting.”

Now Goldsmith will try to rise again in the education portfolio.

He had asked Collins for the portfolio, saying anybody concerned about the long-term prospects of New Zealand knew how important a good education system was.

“It’s not some booby prize or anything like that. It really is something that has a lasting impact. So I’m happy to get my teeth into it.

“It’s also important for our economy. To be productive we have to have an education system that foots it with the best in the world, and I think we’ve got a lot of work to do on that front.”

He has already picked his first crusade in the new portfolio: truancy and absenteeism.

“One thing I will be focusing on is the appalling attendance rates at schools at the moment. I think people would be shocked to learn that only about 57 per cent of kids were attending school regularly in 2019, even before Covid. That to me is an astounding figure, it’s something we need to do something about.”

The Ministry of Education’s statistics show regular attendance (children who attend school at least 90 per cent of the time) has dropped from about 69 per cent until 2015 to just 57 per cent in 2019.

Goldsmith is also concerned New Zealand is falling off the pace in international league tables.

“We have to focus on improving our educational achievement, and the place to start is having kids at school.”

He says he intends to take a long-term view in his approach, rather than trying to get quick pot-shots off at the Government.

“A lot of the issues I’ll be holding them to account for are not brand new. The criticisms can be made of our time in Government too. Poor attendance levels have been bad for a long time.

“They’ve got substantially worse in the last couple of years, but it’s a long stand-standing issue.

“It’s absolutely critical we put a line in the sand and say it is not acceptable for kids not to be at school. The first duty of parents is to make sure kids are at school, and we need to think practically about measures to improve that.

“It should be a priority.”

He does not have the answers for the problem himself yet. “I’m not going to come out on day one with ‘the world of education according to Paul Goldsmith’. I’ll take time and talk to the sector.”

He is not beyond taking a pre-emptive pot shot at Education Minister Chris Hipkins, however, musing whether the demands of the Covid-19 portfolio Hipkins holds will mean education does not get the attention deserved.

“The Government has set out eight priorities for education, and none of them mention improving attendance.” (Hipkins has argued that the objective of putting “learners at the centre” of the system included attendance and achievement).

Goldsmith is also keen on better measuring how children are going at primary school level. He says National’s system of ‘national standards’ – scrapped by Labour – was “imperfect in many ways”.

“They weren’t independently assessed. So there is a need to do more on what we need to do to get clear accountability and data on how we are achieving at primary and intermediate schools.

“We also need to ask some hard questions about how NCEA is serving us.”

He does approve of the recent overhaul of NCEA, saying it put a stronger emphasis on numeracy and literacy.

However, he disagreed with the decision to remove accounting and economics for level one, replacing it with a more generalised commerce course until level two.

Goldsmith’s father was a teacher – a maths teacher – which has resulted in some ribbing of Goldsmith after his own mathematical lapse on the campaign.

His best mark at school was for chemistry. “I should have been a chemist, perhaps.”

He and his wife also have four children in the schooling system. “So, like most New Zealanders, we are touched by the education system the whole time. We all have strong views.”

He planned to go camping at Tawharanui for the holiday.

His ambition in politics is to be in the kitchen Cabinet – one of the inner circle around a Prime Minister.

He is now back in Opposition for a second term, and despite recent events still enjoys it.

“There’s a real element of camaraderie that comes with politics, and it’s something I enjoy.”

Asked if his ego had suffered, he said he liked to think he was a team player.

“The way I’ve gone about the Epsom electorate would not be consistent with having a raging ego. I’m prepared to put the team’s good first rather than my own.”

Epsom delivered one of the few bright spots in his year. Goldsmith is expected to lose Epsom to Act’s David Seymour each election while trying to hold up National’s party vote.

This time, Epsom was the only electorate in the country in which National won the party vote.

Its vote collapsed compared to the previous election even in Epsom, so it was a negligible triumph, but Goldsmith will bank what he can.

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