Class Captain: Nikki Kaye, New Zealand’s youngest female Minister of Education

by Aimie Cronin / 20 June, 2017
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Nikki Kaye. Photo/Adrian Malloch

Nikki Kaye was a tearaway who wanted to leave school early. Now she’s our youngest-ever female Minister of Education.

Nikki Kaye is running late. Two people sit waiting for her just inside the door of her electorate office on College Hill in central Auckland, and when she steps inside, she realises she will be later still. But she hesitates only a beat before greeting them with an outstretched hand. “All good, all good,” she says.

Her press secretary, Glenn Donovan, has suggested we wait upstairs, and when the new Education Minister, dressed all in black, arrives five minutes later, she reaches out her thin hand and gives mine a little squeeze. She immediately shifts us from the boardroom to the couches to sit more comfortably and opens the bottle of kombucha that’s waiting on the table in front of her. “Yeah, nah, I’m an addict,” she says.

There’s something remarkably normal about her. She does chatting well: her diction has something of the private schoolgirl about it, but, perhaps unconsciously, she peppers the conversation with Kiwi slang. “All good, all good.”

Kaye says public interest in her has escalated noticeably since her appointment to the new job at the beginning of last month, but even before that, she had experienced a huge increase in approaches from strangers after being diagnosed with breast cancer and undergoing radical surgery last September. Before that, she says, people making a serious beeline for her were usually old girls of the now-defunct Corran School in Remuera, where she did her secondary education and was head girl. “Now, if someone is making a beeline for me, either they’ve had breast cancer or they’ve got a family member who has had breast cancer. It’s so prevalent.”

But in her short time as Education Minister, people have been approaching her with education in mind and they seem to care a lot about the subject. She says that passion is “beautiful”, but it’s not a straightforward portfolio to tackle. Kaye, the youngest female Education Minister in New Zealand’s history, says she’s up for the challenge.

The teenage tearaway wanted to leave school after Year 11.

Auckland-born and -bred (she owns a home in Ponsonby that she shares with a flatmate and two cats), she was born in 1980 and educated at Victoria Avenue Primary School and Remuera Intermediate. She says family life is what has kept her grounded for her 37 years. At age seven, her parents went through a nasty break-up: Kaye’s brother moved in with their dad; she and her sister stayed with their mum, Julia, who for a period worked three jobs before meeting her long-time partner, Neil Thinn, when Nikki was 10.

“It was really hard, actually, she says. “It was not a happy time at all. My memories are that I missed my brother terribly. I didn’t see my dad, and then mum was working to try to keep us above water, and, yeah, I sort of say I think I grew up quite young.”

She remembers her home situation being different from that of her peers at the highly conservative schools she attended. At her seventh birthday party at Pizza Hut, her parents fought and were overheard by a little girl who told everyone at school about it. Once she overheard a mother telling her child, “You have to keep an eye on her, because she doesn’t have a father.”

But she is grateful for what she calls a colourful upbringing. “Possibly the story of my life is that I have always been a bit different. I know that sounds weird, but in part – because I was taught by mum and Neil to stand up for what I believed in, fight for the underdog, help people – it’s always meant I have had a strong social conscience. I’m always in a situation where I am questioning or disrupting. Maybe there’s a part of me that took on more of that role because I was already different, I was already an outsider.”

At rear of group shot with brother Matthew and sister Genevieve.

Kaye has numerous half-siblings and step-siblings. Her father has been married three times, she thinks – she says she would have to check – and Thinn (Kaye’s stepfather), a lawyer who operated from the family home and whom Kaye is very close to, had kids before his relationship with Julia. His son, Clinton Thinn, is in a San Diego prison over an alleged bank robbery and in February news broke that he had been accused of killing his prison cellmate.

Kaye is reluctant to talk about it. “All I have said is that it’s pretty sad and difficult and that’s kind of an understatement. The challenge I have is that if I talk about his background and growing up and all that stuff, then it could be included in the case so it’s, yeah, it’s been terrible.”

Later, she says that Clinton lived with her family for “part of the time” as she was growing up and nods to the fact that her views on drugs have been in part due to her personal experience. She has softened her stance on medical marijuana use since she got cancer and underwent serious surgery.

“My views [on medical marijuana] have changed. I have always been quite conservative on drugs, in part because of family stuff, but what I have said is the reason I supported greater access is because I completely understand that if people are in pain, they want to use whatever works.

“[But] you’ve got to be pretty careful about how you design the rules or the laws around access, because I do see the other side of it, which is the destruction.”

Kaye’s mum, grandmother and stepfather Neil all contributed to pay the fees at Corran. As a teacher at the school for two years from 2008, I would often hear colleagues speak of the past student and up-and-coming National Party member. At Corran, life was in many ways a bubble. Those who went there liked to call it a “boutique” school: it began at Year 1 and, for those whose parents had the bank balance, went all the way to Year 13. Students wore cane hats and attended Mass each week.

At Corran’s graduation ball.

After teaching at a low-decile state school in the Waikato, I felt that the girls had no awareness of their privilege, but the sheltered nature of the school allowed them the confidence to play in a childlike way, to explore their ideas, in ways their peers at mainstream co-ed schools often missed out on.

“I’m so grateful for my education at Corran,” says Kaye. “They instilled in us a sense of self-confidence, good communication, courage, being able to construct an argument. When I look at my year group, they are pretty strong women generally, and I think we have been pretty successful because of that self-worth and confidence.”

In her maiden speech in Parliament in December 2008, Kaye talked about how grateful she was to her mum for working hard to give her a first-class education. I ask her what this says about her view of public schools. She gives a detailed answer.

She says she “philosophically” believes in a strong public system, “and I think we have got a very strong public system”. Private schools save the state money, but they provide innovation as well.

“Ultimately, I think that parents want a range of options, but I don’t in any way, shape or form think that private schools are somehow superior to state schools. Parents look at what are the schools in their area. It’s not about public or private for a lot of people; it’s about what are they offering in terms of subjects, sometimes how big are the class sizes, who are the teachers. I believe in choice.”

Nikki Kaye in the heart of her electorate. Photo/Adrian Malloch

Nikki Kaye in the heart of her electorate. Photo/Adrian Malloch

But only privileged parents get to make that choice, don’t they? “Well,” she says, “we have actually invested in a range of scholarships to enable greater access, and I think that’s very important.” (The Government offers 50 Aspire Scholarships each year “for students from low-income families wanting to attend a New Zealand private secondary school.”)

Labour Party education spokesman Chris Hipkins says Labour probably wouldn’t get rid of existing funding to private schools but would certainly not increase it. On the issue of scholarships, he disagrees with Government policy. “I think that money should be going into improving the quality of our public school system. Within those scholarships, there is room for the private schools to cherry-pick the best students from low-income communities and then pretend they are doing something for equity, when actually they are not.”

In response to a question about teachers’ struggles under heavier administrative and curriculum demands, giving them less time to teach and to play, Kaye sits forward. She talks about technology a lot and about her hopes it would reduce admin for teachers and offer far greater diversity in terms of subject choices for many schools.

She seems to have talked to many people in the education sector about it. “Why I think I am good at what I do is that I don’t just listen to the people in Wellington,” she says. “I go into schools and listen to teachers.”

Kaye on a school visit. Photo/Getty Images

This is, remember, a woman who famously knocked on 10,000 doors when she first campaigned for Auckland Central in 2008. Her own education may not have schooled her up on the realities of the mainstream classroom, but she is quick to defend her position, saying she has spent some serious time in the community and in schools and that the diversity of her upbringing has meant she could never be looked upon as a sheltered private-school girl.

Indeed, in 1996, before Survivor, almost before reality television, Kaye was one of six participants on the TV show Fish Out of Water, who were marooned on a small island near Great Barrier Island to fend for themselves for eight days.

One of her close friends from school, Samantha Dempster-Rivett – now a secondary school science teacher in Whangarei, who says with a laugh she’s hoping for a pay rise – describes Kaye as “determined, single-minded, always very ambitious, with a genuine desire to do better for everyone”. She says Kaye knew the name of every girl at Corran School – “she had time for everybody” – and past Corran principal Gillian Eadie agrees with those sentiments, saying she was “a fantastic leader”.

Kaye talks about drinking alcohol from a young age; being disrespectful to teachers in her teenage years; wanting to leave Corran after Year 11, but being told by Eadie that she had leadership potential and would not be going anywhere. She’s grateful for that and, perhaps because of it, recognises the power of teachers to change the course of students’ lives.

Coast to Coast, 2008.

“The great teachers,” says Kaye, “have the ability to make allowances, because they know you are dealing with stuff.”

Politician Kaye has a tendency when discussing her portfolio to talk more and say less. When her listener’s attention wanders during one of her lengthy speeches, she will lean forward and persist, as if to say, “Excuse me! I haven’t finished.” She says the door-knocking as an MP was a crash course in being able to face the public and speak candidly about big ideas, because that is what people expected. “It was so formative, so crucial,” she says, “because I hadn’t thought in depth about abortion or about religion. I had debated, but I hadn’t formulated the final position. When you front up to someone’s door and they say, ‘I just want to know one thing: if a piece of abortion legislation came before the Parliament, how would you vote?’, you’re in this practical, real situation where you have to have really thought it through.”

So, how would she vote on abortion. “It’s not a priority,” she says, “but, yeah, I’d vote, if it did come up, for change. At a principled level, the reason I don’t see a massive need is because I haven’t seen an argument that there are a whole lot of women who aren’t getting access, and I kind of see all of the other things that need to happen, right, in terms of legislation. But I think it’s pretty archaic, generally.”

Some of Kaye’s views might align themselves with more liberal parties, but she insists she is National at heart. “I want our country to be a place where, no matter where you come from, you can have good opportunities in terms of health and education and housing, but if you work really hard – start a small business or you’re self-employed – then you should be rewarded for that. So distribution for the sake of it for me is not philosophically what I believe in.”

She says her mum has always aligned herself more to the left – “I may at times have called her a communist” – and she “bloody hopes” Julia will vote National in September.

Nikki Kaye. Photo/Adrian Malloch

Next year, Kaye is signed up to race in the Coast to Coast, a 243km multisport competition that she has completed twice on her own. “They keep printing that I am an athlete, and yes, I was, but I am 37 now. And [when I did complete] I was, like, the second-to-last woman home.”

This time, she will take part in the team event with one friend, but has already said that finding the time to train is hard and battling the nerve damage and the effects on her body of surgery and follow-up treatment may prevent her participating. “If I’m not up to it, I won’t do it,” she says.

Kaye’s two cats got used to her presence when she was sick and now bristle when she leaves the house to go to work. “I’ve had so many conversations with friends and family about how the cats were going to cope when I came back to work. They know now when I am going to leave for Wellington and give me this filthy look.”

When we speak, Kaye’s time in the education portfolio has amounted to only days, so she doesn’t talk much about plans and policy. But she is aware that she has a short time to make an impact before the election. She hardly stops for breath as she lists her “pretty ambitious” work plan: curriculum changes and new technologies; upskilling the workforce to be able to deliver that; online learning and achievement challenges; the replacement of the decile system. (“What I am hoping is that if we get the funding right, the school will change itself. I mean, that’s gotta be the goal.”)

She wants to get kids moving more, to look more broadly at their health and well-being.

Unlike the Labour Party, she can give a straight answer to a question about charter schools: unless they are underperforming, she has no plans to shut them down. She says she feels that National should be the party for education. “I want us to be seen as the party that has done the most.”

It’s hard to know whether Kaye will be as controversial as her predecessor Hekia Parata, whom she credits for having laid a lot of the foundations that will enable her now to get things done. Will the newcomer, a product of privilege and private schooling, be the disruptor she describes herself as? This punishingly unstoppable woman has faced more than her share of personal struggles, but now the hard work really starts.

This article was first published in the June 24, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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