It can be difficult scheduling interviews sometimes, so out of habit I gave NZ First’s education spokesperson Tracey Martin the choice of a range of days in the following week.
“How about this morning?” came her swift response.
Tracey Martin certainly strikes me as a no-time-like-the-present, get-shit-done sort of person. As a participant at the recent Careerforce Workforce Development Conference’s political panel discussion Martin blew the other representatives from Labour and the Greens out of the water.
Her knowledge of and passion for New Zealand education run deep – but one of the key challenges she faces is getting this message out there.
It frustrates her that people still associate everything relating to NZ First with Winston Peters alone, and fail to bother finding out what the party’s policies are all about.
So perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised by her willingness to chat about the ins and outs of our education system.
We start with funding. Martin is not a fan of the newly announced Risk Index targeted funding approach, poised to replace the decile system.
She is advocating for funding to be more closely aligned with students’ actual needs, rather than the hypothetical needs identified by the risk factors.
She would like to see school entry assessments broadened to identify specific learning differences and needs. The assessment data would then be centrally collected, helping to inform exactly where the funding needs to go.
So Child A might be identified as dyslexic and in need of learning support, Child B might be in need of an early learning intervention and Child C is gifted and needs extension, Martin explains.
Not only would NZ First’s model help direct funding to meet individual learner needs, but these needs would be identified at an earlier stage, allowing for the appropriate interventions to occur.
Martin applies a similar line of thinking to the Investing in Educational Success policy.
“I would have preferred to see that $359 million front-ended, spent on students,” she says.
She takes issue with the way the Ministry has dictated to schools how Communities of Learning should work. By focusing so heavily on opportunities for teaching staff, they’ve removed student goals in the process, narrowing these to achievement objectives.
And from CoLs to CoOLs, Martin is disparaging about Communities of Online Learning (CoOLs). She worries that CoOLs have the potential to see students opt to stay at home to learn in isolation. They are unnecessary in her opinion, especially given how elearning and blended learning are now par for the course in education, with students able to access specialist subjects through skype and other technologies.
NZ First would also do away with National Standards. Like Labour, they see merit in using the New Zealand Curriculum as a guide for progression against the levels.
I worry that while freedom from National Standards might sound appealing, it might open our schools up to a lapse in accountability. Targets may be restrictive, but without them, there is a risk that some teachers and schools might let student achievement slip.
“That’s under a low-trust model,” counters Martin. She is an advocate for a higher trust model, allowing teachers more autonomy to drive progress.
“What does success look like? Success is not just a NCEA 85 per cent pass rate,” she says.
NZ First’s social policies – while certainly present and incorporating housing, domestic violence and other areas – are not as interwoven with its education policies as they perhaps could be. However, Martin is keen to see more counsellors in our secondary schools, and the introduction of counsellors in our primary schools to address what she describes as “the crisis of anxiety” among our children.
Martin would also like to see a more structured and effective careers service established to assist not only school students, but people at any stage of their career. An effective careers system, in Martin’s view, would include careers advisors who are independent of the education system. She thinks with all the pressure on achieving NCEA achievement targets, there is a risk that careers advice in schools can be biased.
She is incredulous of the Government’s decision to bury Careers NZ away in the Tertiary Education Commission, which focuses primarily on money.
A revamped careers system is part of NZ First’s upfront investment in post-secondary scheme, which aims to replace student debt with a repayable skill debt to New Zealand. Martin says better workforce planning is also needed across the various industries, to help manage demand for skills.
In terms of NZ First’s post-secondary education policy, perhaps the most exciting aspect is the Business Link Internship Scheme. The scheme was based on the success of what Dale Williams achieved in Otorohanga and was piloted in Martin’s town of Warkworth.
She says that of the young people in Warkworth, 20 per cent were high fliers and had a clear post-school pathway. Another 20 per cent needed extreme support and were receiving this. Her concern was the 60 per cent in the middle, for whom no one was doing anything. She set up a scheme that matched 38 business champions with local young people for three to six months. The champions gave the young people a taste of their industry, mentoring, pastoral care and a way of gaining industry training credits. And in many cases, it led to an employment contract.
Martin thinks the scheme has legs, and could easily be rolled out to other New Zealand towns and regions.
Ultimately, Martin would like to see cross-party, cross-sector collaboration on the future direction of New Zealand education. She thinks we’re in need of an Education Hui to help co-design a way forwards.
As we near the end of our chat, I throw her a tough question: in summing up NZ First’s education policy, what do you ultimately want to achieve for New Zealand education?
She deliberates for a few moments, and curses the Government for “bastardising all the good words” like ‘choice’ and ‘opportunity’. But her answer, in true Tracey Martin fashion, is considered and to the point.
“For me it’s about delivering an education system that is high-trust, human-focused – it’s not just student-centred – business-linked and future-proofed.”