An evening with Lockwood

One of the marvels of contemporary political and education life is that Lockwood Smith was such a hopeless minister of education and such a good speaker of the house. (Probably rules and thinking in straight lines are his forte.)

Lockwood’s insistence on zoning being entirely a local matter was a characteristic of the very early years of Tomorrow’s Schools when the ministry and the education review office insisted on keeping away from the details of school functioning on the principle they were only interested in outcomes. Tomorrow’s Schools, it was believed, was set up in a state of near perfect balance, on the odd occasion when it had clearly slipped from that, no doubt ascribed to local fumbling, there was confidence an in-built natural mechanism for something close to self-correction, aided a little by locals coming to their senses, would soon right things.

The year was 1993

Network was going to be in Auckland, so when he heard Lockwood Smith was making a special trip from Wellington to talk to a group of parents about a controversial issue, Network thought he would go along to.

Most readers will be aware that when Network has written about Lockwood in the past, he has nearly always done so tongue-in-cheek. Indeed, to be frank, Network went along with the idea of writing such a tongue-in-cheek item.

As he drove along the leafy streets of this affluent Auckland suburb, he felt himself sharpening what he likes to call his satirical knives. Hold on, though, as regular readers might already have observed, if there was going to be a satirical article, the signal for this would already have been sent, but it hasn’t been.

Network would have dropped in some trifle like: ‘He hasn’t had a good laugh for a while so …’ or ‘Having nothing better to do (which is some indication of the present lack of stimulation in his life), Network thought he …’ or ‘Feeling somewhat stronger in constitution than usual, Network felt …’ Regular readers will know the drill.

But no trifle has been dropped in. As a result, those regular readers are entitled to ask: What’s going on here? Has Network gone soft? Having experienced Lockwood directly for the first time, has Network been won over by sheer persuasiveness of argument and power of oratory? Has he come to an acceptance that he has calumniated and libelled him on the basis of information false and rumour foul? Was Network going to recant? Instead of tongue-in-cheek was it going to be respectful obeisance? Was Network going to write an analytical discourse on the thoughts of Lockwood Smith so that people would see a flowering of genius where only intellectual weeds had been thought to grow before?

Whatever – the question remains, why no satirical signal where one could reasonably have been expected?

As indicated above, this was the first time Network had seen Lockwood in action ‘live’. Would the reality match with his view of Lockwood’s general incompetence, immaturity, and unsureness of educational grasp?

Dear readers, Network wants to say to you as clearly and as early as possible that, to his alarm, nothing he had heard about Lockwood before in any way prepared him for what he was to experience that evening.

Lockwood’s performance that evening put paid to Network’s tongue-in-cheek intentions, destroyed his confidence as an aspiring satirist. What he discovered was that Lockwood was beyond satire; what Network had thought were caricatures of Lockwood’s qualities were, in fact, pallid imitations. Indeed, as attempts at satire

Network could be sued for product misrepresentation.

Dear readers, that a person of this miniscule sensitivity, imagination, wit, and understanding could be a minister of the crown is incomprehensible. He is beyond Gilbertian, which was an initial image. This was not life imitating art, this was art desperately trying to find something to imitate in life and failing.

Lockwood Smith is beyond satire. He has outflanked satire so comprehensively his description demands a new literary genre. A kind of literary surrealism comes to mind as a possible recourse. Lockwood is so quirky he makes Dan Quayle look like Abraham Lincoln in comparison.

The horrible truth about Lockwood is that everything you have heard about him is horribly true, only worse, much, much worse.

That there hasn’t been straight talking about the fatuity of this minister is a testament to what David Lange has bequeathed to New Zealand schools – the high politicisation of education, the direct control ministers and ministry of education have over day-to-day affairs. The minister now has so much immediate power that various groups have become more intent on shoring up their position, rather than speaking out in the interest of education as a whole.

Well – back to the meeting in the leafy Auckland suburb. Network is not going to give special attention to the issue concerned and the agonies it is putting a school through, suffice to say, it is a zoning issue; the sort that wouldn’t have occurred under the previous system or, if it had, would have been resolved in a twinkle.

Into the hall were crammed over 300 people, they overflowed outside. Also outside was a cluster of police – a phenomenon which has become Lockwood’s only original contribution to education administration. It would be easy to slight the motives of the parents inside, yes it was about avoiding going to schools with a greater smattering of brown faces, yes property values might be affected if the exclusions stood, but these were good Kiwi parents trying to get the best for their children as they saw it, and the system allowed.

The meeting had already begun by the time Network found a place in the crowded hall entrance. On the stage to the audience’s left, sat Christine Fletcher, member of parliament for Eden, and a principal instigator for the meeting. Further along was the independent chairwoman, then Lockwood, and further along still a ministry representative (Network was told later).

In the early part of the meeting a succession of neighbouring principals went to the microphone to describe their zoning policies, their roll situation, and to give support to the idea of a demographic survey. The problem with a demographic survey, as it became clear, was that there was no-one immediately obvious to do it. Tomorrow’s Schools, as a system, is ad hoc at the local level, pure schlock at the national, with nothing in between except a mass of fluctuating interests. (Mind you, in the end, the ministry will come to the demographic survey party and, in doing that, have its ideological purity sullied. From there will occur the same kind of negotiations that characterised the education board way of doing things.)

Frank Dodd, former president of NZEI and principal of a neighbouring school, turned to the minister during his address and said, ‘I hope minister, it’s not your expectation that we compete as a natural state of affairs, and only co-operate to save the government when things go wrong?’ Frank Dodd was, of course, wrong in this, and with his experience should have known better. He was wrong because he had made the cardinal error of over-estimating the minister’s lucidity – of thinking the minister’s head could ever be sufficiently clear for such a thought to occur.

The parents listened attentively and, given the tension that gripped the hall, with relatively good humour. On the platform sat Lockwood, loopy expression and all, in permanent communication with a set of papers that came in and out of his breast pocket. From time-to-time, amidst this restless interaction, there could be noticed another expression competing with the loopy one – it had the appearance of someone who had experienced a moment of illumination, one that needed to be recorded immediately for fear that it be lost to posterity. (It was later revealed that Lockwood was noting down roll numbers principals were giving because they were at odds with the ones given to him by the ministry.)

Lockwood was introduced … all the way from Wellington … our minister of education … greatly appreciated … listen with considerable interest … There was an encouraging round of applause. Then, with that cringe inducing manner he essays so effortlessly, Lockwood came down from the platform to floor level. What’s wrong with that the reader might ask? Nothing really, except the unctuous way he presented it. ‘I’ll come down to where you are and speak from there,’ he mealy-mouthed. ‘I won’t speak from up there where the principals did.’ In his action there was provided an inkling of the attitude that was to lead Lockwood into such foolishness that evening and, indeed, of the attitude that underpins his actions as minister of education. You see, Lockwood, as it was to become clear, saw himself as the parents’ champion. They were his people.

Lockwood Smith lacks a conceptual grasp of how education in New Zealand works. Under the previous system he would have been both better advised and better protected. The minister of education now acts more like an emperor than an executive officer of a democratic government, and those around him more like fawning courtiers – made so by the vulnerability of their employment, their need for dispensation of personal favour.

No longer do education officials, Janus-like, have to look both ways. They no longer have to be equally alert to both minister and schools and, in the course of doing this, serve both the minister and schools better.

The result of this, especially for shallow ministers like Lockwood, is that they have no protection, no opportunity to grow into something resembling competence. Lockwood is condemned to be a minister adrift, unable to put anchor down or sail up, unable to get a fix on where he is, or in what direction he should be heading.

Lockwood is living in a fantasy world of his own construction. He has this perception of public dissatisfaction with schools and himself as a kind of white knight.

What this minister doesn’t seem able to grasp is that he is far from being viewed as a white knight, more a cross between Stan Laurel and Frank Spencer as Don Quixote.

When Lockwood stepped down from the platform that night and made his remarks, he was merely acting out his white knight fantasy. He was standing with the parents, their white knight, someone parents could look to for protection from those misguided teachers, their principals, and their wicked unions.

A reminder of the setting: an overflow hall, anxious parents, concerned teachers, fretful local member of parliament, and a police presence outside. And here was a minister of the crown, the minister of education, flown all the way from Wellington.

Lockwood stood before them, the loopy grin never more in evidence, and he began to talk. And he fronted up to the issue straight away.

‘The issue’, said Lockwood, ‘is a local one, so it has to be solved locally.’

And that, for him, was it.

With the issue dealt with, Lockwood now felt free to unburden himself on those present with the thoughts of Lockwood.

He spoke about parents as first teachers, his curriculum initiatives, special education, and the merits of changing funding arrangements.

There was complete bewilderment amongst the parents.

As he warmed to his oratory his loopiness became even loopier. It was only erased for a moment when the irrepressible Frank Dodd challenged him in booming style over special education funding. That intrusion over, Lockwood settled back into the comfort of his fantasy world.

The chairwoman had asked Lockwood to talk for fifteen minutes. These were nearly up. Parent bewilderment had turned to restlessness, now to anger. On he looped.

‘They’re with me all the way,’ Lockwood’s demeanour seemed to indicate. ‘I can even hear some murmuring of support.’

‘They even laughed at something I said. This was really worth the trip.’

The parents had laughed all right, laughed derisively. Lockwood had said, ‘You might know there’s a review office.’ For goodness sake Lockwood, of course they know there’s a review office. They also know there’s an election next year, a thought which might well have contributed to Christine Fletcher’s increasingly aghast expression.

Parents looked at each other in their mixture of bewilderment and anger. Lockwood at the parents and thought he was going famously. The teachers and principals looked at each other and thought – well, at least they know what we have to put up with. And Network looked at Lockwood and thought, ‘You bloody nincompoop!’

You can imagine Lockwood’s shock then, given his evident self-satisfaction as to how he was performing, when the chairwoman rose, crossed to the microphone and stopped him in full flight … ‘The clear targets in the curriculum initiative will …’

‘Mr Smith, I’m sorry for interrupting you, but would you please speak to the point.’

Applause erupted.

Such was Lockwood’s astonishment there was a temporary loss of loopiness.

How would Lockwood respond? The answer: In character – in caricature.

‘I’ve come a long way to say this,’ he whined, ‘and I would like to finish it. It’ll only take a few more minutes.’

And on he went … ‘will allow parents an exact picture of where their child is.’

And on and on he went.

Then, the mist momentarily cleared, reality intruded, and he addressed the issue.

‘As I said at the beginning it is a local issue … but have you heard of the government’s Educational Development Initiative?’ The reference to the issue was so quick, and the return to his meanderings so immediate, that we blinked in incomprehension.

Here was a group of parents, many of whom were deeply agitated about a zoning issue, one affecting their children’s lives in the present as they saw it, and a minister of education who had flown all the way from Wellington ostensibly to talk about a zoning issue but talked, instead, about a whole lot of other stuff.

Lockwood’s behaviour was grotesque. By declaring the issue a local one, he sincerely appeared to believe he had provided a solution. Can you see what Network means when he says Lockwood is beyond satire, and why this recounting has had to be a straight record of events?

Christine Fletcher who would have hoped that Lockwood might pull the chestnuts out of the fire, could only hope those present would be supportive enough to see some value in them as burnt offerings.

Network is a bit vague about the details of what followed but somehow Lockwood became disputatious about roll numbers given by various principals.

‘My figures have come from the ministry,’ he announced with an air of finality.

Cynical laughter came from a section of the hall close to, or exactly where, the principals were sitting.

Meanwhile, like Brer Fox watching Brer Rabbit getting stuck to Tar-Baby, the man from the ministry said ‘nuthin’.

With that the Hon. Lockwood Smith, minister of education, minister of the crown, who had flown all the way from Wellington, walked back to his seat in silence.

The debate that proceeded from there ignored what Lockwood had to say, whatever that was. A minister of the crown had flown from Wellington to speak at a meeting; he had spoken words, but he that spoke them was soon forgotten.

Why had his advisers let him come? The well-established rule of thumb for attendance at such meetings is that ministers don’t attend unless there are votes to be gained – that was not the case here. And given that it was Lockwood who was coming, he should have been chained to his ministerial chair. (The way Christine Fletcher was looking, she probably wouldn’t have minded if it was an electric one.)

But north he’d come; the white knight to the rescue – the parents’ champion. His head full of fantasy. And his lance had stuck in a windmill and he’d been spun around and dumped. But on his way back to Wellington, Network has little doubt that in Lockwood’s clouded consciousness another dragon had been slain and he was champion to a misty-eyed Christine.

Returning home to Cambridge that night, Network felt like weeping.

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6 Responses to An evening with Lockwood

  1. Vern Stevens says:

    Love it, what a picture you have painted Kelvin, brilliant! Amazing isn’t it how things really haven’t changed, the one liners, the outcomes obsessed approach etc. The people have changed, but still the same old neo liberal drivel.

  2. John Elliott says:

    Beautiful. I always thought he was an utter boghead. Sad thing is, the only improvement we have so far is the odd brilliant narrative like yours. This should be part of PD in every school’s next PD meeting. ‘Step back and think’ PD.

  3. Helen says:

    A good read, Kelvin. But the biggest tragedy out of that for me is that every one of those leafy suburbs parents would have gone on and voted National anyway. Sigh……

    Speaking of magic, I’ll be back before the election. I’m hoping that the Jacinda magic is working.


  4. Naomi and Frank Dodd says:

    Sadly Kelvin we could laugh in those days before child poverty, corrupt commissioners and school closures became everyday hallmarks of the neo-liberal landscape. Now if Jacinda could acknowledge and apologise for her Party’s part in starting the New Zealand slide one could hold out some hope.

  5. Kelvin says:

    Spot on my friend and first close down the most toxic symbol of that landscape – the education review office.

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