By: Simon Collins
In one corner of the election ring, National, the Māori Party and United Future believe that requiring schools to get their students up to national standards has forced teachers to put a lot more effort into those – mainly Māori and Pasifika – who were falling behind.
In the opposite corner, Labour, the Greens and New Zealand First all want to scrap national standards and restore what NZ First’s Tracey Martin calls a “high-trust model” – giving teachers much more scope to follow the students’ interests and let them learn at their own pace.
Gareth Morgan’s Opportunities Party is somewhere in the middle, broadly keeping the current system but delaying national standards until Year 6 and postponing the National Certificate of Educational Achievement (NCEA) until a student’s final year in school.
And out on the edge of the ring, the free-market Act Party has its own high-trust model, placing its trust in competing entrepreneurs and community groups to offer students a wide choice of educational options to suit every interest and temperament.
Remarkably, all the parties agree on the problem they want to solve: the yawning gap between rich and poor, advantaged and disadvantaged students.
Surveys show that our average 15-year-olds still out-perform the global median, although we have been slipping from near the top towards the middle of the pack.
But the gap between our top and bottom tenths of students in 2015 was the fourth-widest in the developed world in reading and 15th-widest in maths.
If the point of education is to help everyone get the knowledge and skills they need to contribute their best to the world, then our system is not working for too many of our young people.
To put a number to it, 12.9 per cent – one in eight – of our youths aged 15 to 24 were not in employment, education or training (‘NEET’) in the year to June, up from 11.3 per cent the previous year despite a strong economy. There are plenty of jobs out there, but these young people are not getting them.
Young Māori women (25 per cent) and Pasifika women (19 per cent) have the highest NEET rates, partly because they are more likely to be caring for children than young European women (11 per cent).
The next-highest rates are for young Pasifika men (17 per cent) and Māori men (15 per cent), compared with 10 per cent of young European men.
Labour education spokesman Chris Hipkins blames this partly on National’s target of 85 per cent of school-leavers achieving NCEA Level 2, which has driven schools to entice many Māori and Pasifika students into courses which get NCEA credits but not jobs.
“NCEA qualification levels have improved, yet the number of young New Zealanders who are NEET has increased at the same time,” he says.
“The thing that breaks my heart is when a young person says, ‘I have a passion for health so I did physical education and health, but I couldn’t get into it because I didn’t do maths.'”
National came to power in 2008 determined to tackle what it saw as a problem of under-achievement. National standards were introduced so that every parent could keep tabs on their own children’s achievement, and to generate data so that every school could see which groups were falling below standards and then do something about it.
Groups of local schools are now being organised in “communities of learning” which are setting “achievement challenges” for groups that are falling behind – often Māori and Pasifika children.
Māori Party co-leader Marama Fox says her party backs national standards “absolutely” because of this.
“Until we had national standards, schools got away with saying, how can we teach our Māori kids at the same rate as our non-Māori kids, even though they came to schools with no shoes and no books at home. That was often used as an excuse,” she says.
“Now that reason has been debunked and it’s definitely had an effect. Schools have lifted their game.”
National’s new Education Minister Nikki Kaye is now reforming the way schools are funded to give more to those with high numbers of students judged to be “at risk of not achieving” due to their family backgrounds including their ethnicity, their mothers’ educational qualifications and their fathers’ criminal history.
Education Minister Nikki Kaye plans to fund schools based on how many of their students are “at risk of not achieving”. Photo / Michael Craig
In managerial terms, it makes sense. We know we have a problem, so let’s identify it, give teachers the money to fix it, and then hold them accountable for the results.
But can children’s learning be treated the same way as a problem on a factory production line? Labour, NZ First and the Greens don’t think so.
They believe, instead, that learning depends crucially on motivation. All three parties want to restore funding for Te Kotahitanga, a programme developed at Waikato University which aims to empower students to design their own education with other students and teachers.
That means giving students and teachers freedom to pursue the students’ interests at their own pace, rather than tying them to reaching national standards in reading, writing and maths at fixed ages.
“Some kids naturally take to numbers, some naturally take to arts, some naturally take to words. They are going to develop different things at different rates,” Hipkins says.
“If you ask a teacher what is the first question parents ask, they will say it’s, ‘Is my child happy?'”
Tracey Martin says assessment should be “similar to Plunket growth charts that recognise that learning happens at different speeds for different human beings”.
The Education Review Office now does the checking, but since 1989 schools have had to buy advice and support from private consultants.
There are other differences between the parties, notably in tertiary education where Labour, the Greens, NZ First, the Māori Party and United Future all propose versions of free, taxpayer-funded tuition – another thing we haven’t seen since 1989 when former Education Minister Phil Goff started charging student fees.
These proposals, too, can be seen as entrusting students – seen by that age as independent of their teachers – to choose what they learn and when they want to learn it.
The high-trust approach, and the support that goes with it, would be expensive. Labour would spend an extra $1.5 billion a year on all its education promises by 2021, and its three-years-free tertiary policy alone would cost $1.2 billion a year by 2025.
The question for voters is: can we trust students and their teachers to use that money wisely to contribute their best to the world, or do we need to keep fees and standards to make sure the money is not wasted?
Source: NZ Herald