Your title is 'Associate Minister for Education'. What does ‘Associate Minister’ mean?

There’s actually three Associate Ministers – myself, Jenny Salesa and Kelvin Davis – and the Minister, Chris Hipkins, delegates to each of us certain areas that are affected [by] or affect education. I think I’ve got 15 areas of delegations. The biggest one would be special needs, so special needs support for our students and state schools. Some of the other delegations ... are, I’m responsible for the implementation of driver’s licence program across the education system, I’m responsible for alternative education and activity centres, I’m responsible for teen parents units, I’m responsible for the training of social workers.

You’ve done a lot of volunteering and fundraising for schools and school boards over the years. Is education something you’ve been particularly drawn to over your life?

Well, my mum is a primary school teacher and my older sister is a primary school teacher. So I’ve always seen teachers work and have a really high respect for teachers. The other thing that was part of my upbringing was that you volunteer; you make sure that you participate, particularly if you don’t like how something’s being done. Rather than be part of the problem, be part of the solution, so get involved. I started to get involved in the PTAs and so on with my children’s school. I started on the PTA and then I was elected to the board of trustees of their primary school, then elected to the board of trustees of the college that they went to. I was on both boards for a while, then just the secondary school board. I’ve been the chair of the board of trustees for over a decade at their secondary school. I just had to resign because I can’t be an Associate Minister of Education and on the board of trustees. So my expertise with regard to education is really around the governance part – that is, the model of Tomorrow’s Schools here in New Zealand.

What was your own education like? Your mum is a teacher, so that must have made it pretty interesting?

Well it was, considering she was teaching at the primary school I was at! Part of the problem with education is that everybody has been through it, so everybody thinks they know education because they went to school once. Now, my educational experience was similar to many in New Zealand. I was in a class of 30 to 35, you all had your individual desks, the teacher was at the front of the classroom, you all had to be quiet and follow the rules or you’d be put out of the classroom because with that number of children, the style of learning was very much rote learning. We call it the “sage on the stage” – the teacher at the front telling you what to do. There is no comparison between what my primary school education was like and that of my children.

Why did you go into politics? Was it that desire to be part of the change?

No, my mum was in politics before me. My mum was part of the original team that created New Zealand First, in 1993. I supported my mum, and she ran three times as a candidate. So, as you do, I spent a period of time in my youth putting up hoardings for my mum, handing out leaflets. I did that all the way through to 2008, and in 2008...my mum said, ‘do you want to stand as a candidate Tracey? Because if you don’t, I will, but I think you should stand’, so I said 'yes' because I believed that New Zealand First should be represented. That was the first time I stood as a candidate, and we didn’t get back into Parliament! We predominately ran the party out of my house in Warkworth for the next three years til we came back into parliament in 2011. I used to be a mum during the daytime to the kids, because Rose was eight...but I’m a bit of a workaholic, so in the evening when the kids had gone to bed, I did all the administration for the party.

Was taking on the education portfolio an instinctive thing?

Well, I didn’t get any choice! I had been education spokesperson for New Zealand First. After negotiations, I didn’t think I was going to get any ministerial role, so it was a bit of a surprise for me when the Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern, rang me first, and said, ‘Tracey would you consider being the Minister for Children’, because I had done no portfolio work in the area of social development. But she went through it with me and why she’d asked me, so I said I’d consider it, and the next day the Right Honourable Winston Peters rang me and gave me a few options, and said 'one of the things [Labour] would like you to consider as well is Associate Minister of Education' because I had worked so closely with Chris Hipkins on the Education and Science Select Committee for six years. It was a natural fit, I suppose. I developed all the education policies for New Zealand First from 2008, so it seemed to fit really well.

What do you enjoy most about your Education role?

It’s the key to opportunity, that’s what education is. With regards to our children and our young people, we need to make sure that they get that equity of opportunity. We need to provide different levels of support for different young people inside the school system, to give them all the same access to opportunity at the end of their educational journey. That’s quite exciting, because it has such an impact. That’s why, particularly in the area of special needs and diverse needs, I’m very, very passionate about that space because currently it’s broken. And the parents of the children, the students that we’re talking about, the students themselves, have said very, very clearly, the current system is not providing them with the opportunity to be the best they can be. So we have got to address the system for those students with diverse needs. So for me, the most exciting part of this is actually going to be able to work with those parents, work with those specific interest groups...to make this system work.

What’s the biggest challenge facing New Zealand’s education system?

The other thing that New Zealand First got out of the negotiations with the Labour Party was this nationwide conversation to set the 30 year strategic plan for education. Education has been mucked around with and mucked around with by politicians for a long time. You could start to track it from Tomorrow’s Schools really, and it keeps being tweaked and interfered with by politicians. Now, the model that that policy was based on is actually the Finnish model, where as a nation we decide what success looks like for a five-year-old, for a ten-year-old, for a 15-year-old, for a 20-year-old, and for a 50-year-old, because we’re talking about lifelong learning now. We get a majority agreement across the country about what that looks like, and then we the politicians actually step back out of the classroom and return to a high trust model with our teaching staff, with our educators, and let them deliver that success. That’s challenging because it’s a big conversation. It requires the Ministry to put aside their bias, if they have one, and allow the community groups and the stakeholders to tell them what success looks like. And that’s going to be quite a big shift after 25 years of the state saying,'actually, success looks like NCEA level two'. We’re not redeveloping the New Zealand curriculum. The New Zealand curriculum is a brilliant document. This nationwide conversation will influence a review of Tomorrow’s Schools, a review of NCEA, what does success look like for special needs students? So therefore it will affect all those other areas, but first of all that conversation is about the holistic view of us as a nation, what does success look like for these students?

What does success look like for you? What do you want to be remembered for?

That’s a really good question! Before I was a Minister, I had a big board put into my MP’s office down here in Wellington, and my number one KPI was, 'how many New Zealanders can I positively affect in the time that I have in this job?' And up on that board, we got some glitter paper and every time we got a positive outcome for a New Zealander from a government department we cut out a tag, we put their name on the back of it, we put the department that we had gained the positive outcome from, and we pinned it onto the board. We started with 10,000 grandparents and 12,000 grandchildren that I had managed to get legislation through to give them the clothing allowance. By the time I was finished in the last three-year term, that board was completely chockers with shiny tags. Now, I can’t do that in the same way as a Minister, because I’m actually not allowed to deal with individual cases like that. I find that quite challenging. So my KPI – the base is the same, how many people can I positively impact in the time that I have? But the delivery will be different. I’m going to have to do it in large groups of people. Can I implement a driver's licence program across New Zealand that will see all our young people supported from their theory driver's licence test all the way to full driver’s licence within this three-year period? How many of our students with diverse needs feel they are being well served and have equity of opportunity within a three-year period? So those are my KPIs, really.

Is there a core philosophy that drives you and gets you out of bed every morning?

The core philosophy is that the point of being here is to do something positive. The point of actually just being on the planet is to do something positive! This is my space; this is the space I’m in, so I have to use this space how I can, to do something positive.