As one MP once said to me: “Kids don’t vote”. In this election so far, the education outcomes for our children seem largely to have been ignored.

Maybe National has somehow convinced the electorate that all is well. It would be good to think that is true, but it is not. It would also be good to see genuine and costed solutions being proposed by other parties. (For instance, recently on Māori television Kelvin Davis said Labour would spend $40m putting a health professional in every school. That divides up at $15k per school if it is $40m per annum. Can’t imagine many ‘health professionals’ going for that!)

One battle that has been mentioned is around the effectiveness and retention, or not, of National Standards. These ‘standards’ are some guidelines for students in Years 1–8. There is no prescribed national test (although many schools use E-Asttle or PAT tests). Teachers gather ‘evidence’ twice a year to decide if a child is ‘well below standard’, ‘below standard’, ‘at standard’ or ‘above standard’. This overall teacher judgement (OTJ) is not necessarily checked between teachers – let alone between schools.

Sometime during the 1970s, jet engines superseded propeller driven planes for most domestic air travel in New Zealand, as it had for pretty much all international flights. The same should now happen to an archaic back-to-basics system like National Standards, which a modern understanding of effective teaching and learning had rendered out of date before they were even introduced.

Martin Thrupp of Waikato University is about to publish a book that will, without doubt, be highly critical of these National Standards. Unfortunately, even given the political capital, money and effort put into this aspect of education, he will be right.

So, what are the problems?

  1. As indicated above – there is no standard test. This gives significant scope for systemic inflation of outcomes and schools are no doubt under pressure to act in such a way.
  2. Even given that pressure, and the emphasis on the government for improvement, nothing is shifting. The statistics against these standards are disastrous.

National Standards 2016:
Reading: Year 1–8 average 77.8%   Māori 68.8%     Pasifika 66%
Maths: Year 1–8 average 75.4%     Māori 65.3%     Pasifika 62.7%
Writing: Year 1–8 average 77.1%     Māori 61.6%     Pasifika 60.5%

3. The overall averages have completely stagnated over the last three years. One of the more astounding statistics of our education system is that the numbers for Maths and Writing actually trend down the longer children are in primary and intermediate schooling.

National Standards 2016:
Maths: Year 8 average 70.7%
Writing: Year 8 average 69.3%

A cursory reading of this says that by Year 8 30 per cent of our school students are functionally illiterate and innumerate. What on earth has happened in those eight years of education (40 weeks per year, five days a week, six hours a day)? Keep in mind that the 2016 statistics are the children who started school in 2008 or 2009.

  1. We have a national curriculum that has eight important learning areas (effectively moving to nine in 2018 with more Digital Technology). The focus on just two areas (reading and writing being ‘English’) and emphasis on reporting to parents on those, has a significant tendency to de-emphasise the other aspects of the curriculum – Science, the Arts, Health and PE, Social Studies, Technology, Languages and overall wellbeing and areas such as problem-solving and creativity. For most primary schools, National Standards are the highly visible and obnoxious mammoth in the room making it far more difficult to get the other stuff done.
  2. Māori and Pasifika students are miles behind and the current incremental gains are tiny.
  3. Having National Standards assessed twice a year, every year, is like cutting down trees to count the rings. The majority of parents will say that they like them as approximately 70 per cent of them are told twice a year that their children are ‘at or above standard’ so why would they complain? But who are the 30 per cent who are ‘below’ or even ‘well below’ and why are they not improving and even getting worse? We don’t seem to care much.
  4. Schools are exposed in media published league style tables against these partially fictitious standards. Like the decile system this ends up being a ‘good school’ vs ‘bad school’ labelling system. Schools have very little publishable scope to talk about progressions.
  5. I know of no research (and I have asked) that correlates these National Standards outcomes with future NCEA or tertiary qualifications – let alone aspects for growing up in New Zealand such as creativity, interest in the sciences, wellbeing, and so on.
  6. The emphasis on getting students to being ‘at standard’ has the, probably unintended, consequence of minimising incentives for schools to extend students who are already doing well (e.g. note there is no ‘well above’ category) or those who are well below and have learning needs that make that likely to be the case for the foreseeable future. In many ways National Standards are the wrong drivers for schools in terms of both seeking excellence and bring children up who are a long way behind.

To sum up

The National Standards are dubious and not achieving what people said they were intended to do. The massive amount of time and effort that goes into assessing against them twice a year and reporting to parents about them is a huge distraction to teaching and learning and introduces the impression of high stakes outcomes at an age that is far too young. On average children are not improving against them. Minister Parata had an 85 per cent goal for 2017 for all three standards that quietly was shelved. There is now no Better Public Service goal for reading and it is 80 per cent for maths and 80 per cent for writing by 2020.

In terms of simply doing away with them, people like Chris Hipkins are partially right. However, we do need to know how our education system is working and international data such as TIMMS (Trends in International Mathematics and Science) and PISA (Programme for International Students Assessment) have not made good reading for New Zealand in recent years.

What are some solutions?

– No National Standards-type testing and reporting in Years 1–3 but clear guidelines for communicating to parents about indicators across all curriculum areas. Included in this would be enhancing the concept of parents being the primary educators at young ages and the necessity of their ongoing involvement in the learning and development of their children. In our political system, politicians are desperate to claim success and improvements. The reality is that education is a team sport and if you leave parents on the bench you are missing the most important component.

– A genuine, wide-ranging test protocol, covering the full curriculum and skills sets, at the beginning of Year 4 and the end of Year 6. On that basis, schools are able to publish and report to parents on both outcomes and progressions against the National Curriculum areas. This could be done also for intermediate schools (beginning of Year 7 and end of Year 8), middle schools/junior high schools (beginning of Year 7 and end of Year 10) and high schools (beginning of Year 9 and end of Year 10).

– Given the freeing of time and resourcing from twice-yearly assessing against standards, there is then scope to genuinely enhance the quality of teachers and support staff. Early in her reign, Minister Parata said that she needed to increase class sizes to allow finances to do that – then, somewhat miraculously found $359m for Communities of Learning and countless millions for Modern Learning Environments (MLEs), which are almost entirely without a research base to support them, but look good in photo ops. All primary school teachers need a academic base of core subjects behind them, which includes reading, writing, mathematics and science. The bar should be set for primary trainee entry at least Level 2 NCEA in maths, English and a science and those currently in the profession without those should be required to take advantage of our lifelong qualifications system and work to gain them over the next three years. Students and teachers would gain immensely from the increase in confidence and competence. That extra training should be funded.

– Pay teacher aides significantly more and place sound, on-the-job, NZQA certs behind them. These aides do an incredibly important job and need far more genuine recognition and training. They are currently paid much less than $20 per hour and only on a per-hour basis, not on a salary.

– Give principals and boards of trustees more choice with how the funding of the school is used. This is especially important for new schools and schools that are being redeveloped or expanded. At present, state schools are being established on massive funds for land and buildings (e.g. $40m for Rototuna in Hamilton, and approximately $700k per classroom for an expansion). There is almost no leeway under the current staffing contracts to provide incentives or to choose to use some of the funds that are going on these complexes to improve staffing or to support families (e.g. by providing uniform, stationery and IT). Some principals and boards, given the choice, may choose less costly facilities to enhance learning practices and lower other barriers. The compulsion to have MLEs should also be debated. Teaching and learning is almost always about people. The flash buildings and those aspects of them that are only occasionally used lose their thrill after the first few weeks.

Other education issues worthy of discussion

There are other issues that desperately need consideration in this election year.

The NCEA Level 2 goal of 85 per cent was never reached on a roll-based basis (it got to 74 per cent) and has now mysteriously disappeared. The 2016 UE results show huge gaps for the cohort that was Year 7 in 2008. The pass rate for Asian students was 66 per cent, European students 57 per cent, Maori students 31 per cent and Pasifika 30 per cent. The pressure to get results at Level 2 and the soft credits and manipulation of students between data sets has had huge collateral damage.

Even in her valedictory speech, Hekia Parata restated that “we are spending $359m on Communities of Learning [CoLs]”. By “we”, I assume that she meant the taxpayer. Again this is an unproven process and many schools seem to be treating CoLs merely as a funding stream for some staff. It is of concern that the new Minister appears to be funding some new interventions through the CoLs and thus disadvantaging schools not in CoLs. It is also important to get past the huge-sounding figure and do the maths. The $359m was intended to be for the first four years. There are 2,600 schools. That means the intervention is only $34k per school per year, i.e. approximately half of an individual salary per annum.

The doing away with deciles may make a labelling difference to schools. It is important to keep in mind though that the decile portion of the funding mechanism is relatively small. If funding is going to be more targeted towards disadvantage, it has to also be more financially significant to make a genuine difference. Funding allowing class sizes of 1:15 in schools with concentrations of students with these identified risk factors (probably approximating what are currently decile 1–3 schools) would be a good start. Powerful incentives for staff to work in these schools and make a difference would also help.

Much has been made on the introduction of ‘coding’. There are at least two issues. One, it is a swing to education as vocational training at a very early age; and two, it may be out of date before it is implemented. As one commentator has put it:

Technology is becoming more accessible even to the most non-techy among us. The internet was once the domain of scientists and coders, but these days anyone can make their own web page, and browsers make those pages easily searchable. Now, interfaces are opening up areas like robotics or 3D printing.

As Diamandis put it, “You don’t need to know how to code to 3D print an attachment for your phone. We’re going from mind to materialisation, from intentionality to implication.”

Artificial intelligence is what Diamandis calls “the ultimate interface moment”, enabling everyone who can speak their mind to connect and leverage exponential technologies.

A genuinely high-quality and innovative education is some that should distinguish one of the world’s wealthiest countries (with the ‘rock-star economy’) from the rest. All of our education statistics have a massive ‘could do better’ alongside them and we cannot be satisfied with up to 30 per cent of any cohort clearly struggling to achieve.

Our children deserve far more emphasis and air time in the weeks leading up to the election. They, and their families, need genuine solutions.


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