After Labour had been in power for nine years in 2008, ALWYN POOLE wrote a controversial piece titled Education a Disaster Under Labour. Here he takes stock of New Zealand education after nine years under a National-led government, and explains why education should be the major issue of this year’s General Election.

With education, it is important to keep in mind that every year a cohort graduates and if, as a nation of parents, politicians and teachers, we have not done our very best by them then we have failed in our privileged duty. We are a wealthy and small country with a self-proclaimed (and often genuinely earned) reputation for innovation and excellence. We have also had nine years of the ‘rock star’ economy.

Graham Henry was always one who discussed being judged on results. While people do not forget the 2007 World Cup result, they certainly do remember the redeeming triumph of 2011 (even if the final was a game not many would watch twice). What of the New Zealand progressions and results in education over the last nine years?

Early childhood education

There is a higher proportion of children in preschool education. I am not convinced that this is a good thing for many. It has huge potential to detract from the concept of the parents as first teacher and move the responsibility for education from the family to an institution at a very early age. In New Zealand the primary caregiver can get up to 26 weeks’ paid parental leave. That is a start. Given the changes for caregivers of the elderly and infirm, maybe consideration could also be given to paying the 20 hours per week ECE subsidy for parents who choose to stay in the home and engage their child(ren) there.

Saying that 95 per cent of children ought to be in preschool education has the potential side effect of making education seem a technical undertaking right from the beginning and not one that needs the full and engaged interaction of parents and wider family. Gaps such as the one described in the following quote will only be addressed by enhancing what happens in the home, and through parents and not through marginalising that aspect of development:

“Much of this disadvantage has been attributed to what researchers call the “word gap”. Higher-income parents spend nearly half an hour more per day engaged in direct, face-to-face, Goodnight Moon time with their children than low-income parents do, and by the time these children are five years old, the poorer ones will have heard 30 million fewer words than their wealthier peers. Nearly all of my more affluent students read in their leisure time, but approximately two out of every 10 of my poor students tell me, “I don’t read” when I offer to help them pick out an independent reading book.” (Source:

While the school sector likes to consider it is the most important determinant in the educational outcomes for a child (and the government can claim credit through that) the home environment is far more important and until policy works to enhance that relationship all change will be limited.

National Standards

National Standards (NS) were introduced by the National government and I am still to be convinced that they serve any fit purpose. Surveys can be done that show a majority of parents like them, but then the majority of children come within the ‘at or above’ standard for Reading, Writing and Maths – so why complain? The impacts on schools and families where the results are at the other end of the spectrum are not likely to be so flash. They also have the effect of putting pressure on to narrow the curriculum.

There were ‘Better Public Service’ targets set for NS of 85 per cent of students at or above standard by 2017. The incremental improvements were far from achieving those targets so the goals stopped being discussed and the gaps for Māori and Pasifika children remained significant. Reading goals have been dropped altogether and suddenly the ‘ambitious’ targets are 80 per cent at or above for year 8 Writing and Maths by 2021.

The two teacher unions quite rightly question this goal post-shifting and point out the 85 per cent goals were nonsensical in the first place – as are the standards themselves under any close scrutiny. You should ascertain what a child comes to school knowing and what they are able to do. You do have to be able to show significant progress but arbitrary and narrow standards and goals in modern education is not good practice. Love of learning is not inherent in National Standards. No seven-year-old is going to be motivated by such goals and nor should they be.


One of the great rhetorical questions of the gospels is whether any parent would offer a stone when a child asks for bread. The Better Public Service targets set in the last period were for NCEA Level 2 (with no coherent explanation why that was the level chosen) and that by 2017 85 per cent of students passing was the aim. If you take the more accurate roll-based measure, the target was missed by approximately 10 per cent. If you use the easily massaged participation-based statistic, it looks okay. The question is: at what cost? There are accusations of soft credits and students being ‘encouraged’ into easier and vocational credits. There are also discussions around ‘appropriate pathways’ (skin colour based?) and many students left with scant options in year 13. The 85 per cent goal has been dropped. No goal was ever set for University Entrance (UE) and, for Maori and Pasifika, it remains an absolute disaster and a national shame. The Asian student pass-rate for UE is 66 per cent, European 57 per cent, Māori 31 per cent and Pasifika 30 per cent.

Our young people need great educational ‘bread’. Instead they have been given stones – they may be bigger than before (credential inflation) and painted to look like bread, but it is not what is needed. There are schools that get less than 10 per cent of their year 13s through UE and very few people raise an eyebrow. Imagine the chair-chucking if that occurred at Auckland Grammar School or Epsom Girls’ Grammar School.

If you add in that New Zealand is now the lowest English-speaking country in TIMMS (Trends in International Science and Maths Study) and has a long-term downward trend in PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) that has slowed a little but not to the extent that the then Education Minister Hekia Parata proposed when she suggested the results should be “celebrated”.

So, why no fuss?

Why is this not a massive issue? I suggest three reasons:

Firstly, early in the second term of this government a well-placed MP explained to me that the National government had one clear political aim with the Education and Health portfolios: to keep them off the front pages of media outlets. The Ministry of Education similarly seem to view their role as unquestioning support of the politicians/policy, as opposed to bringing about great outcomes for the young. The things that are publicised are huge amounts being spent on new buildings and Modern Learning Environments (MLEs). Great photo ops but do they genuinely help the students?

Secondly, the majority of students are doing okay within the New Zealand system. International comparisons do not seem relevant to many, and why take into consideration the failing groups when thinking about your vote? In fact, one MP said to me when invited to speak to one of our schools: “Why would I? Kids don’t vote.” You could extend that to saying that parents of kids doing well are unlikely to consider the children of other families/groups when they cast their votes.

And thirdly, little or no clear, innovative and family-focused policies are being announced and promoted by any political party. Until political parties come up with genuinely ‘wow, this will actually help’ policies, education will not be central in this election. I try to follow education policies closely. There appears to be nothing in the offering of substance. There are trite sayings like “Every school should be a good school and we will fund them to be so”, but very little on the how.

Education policies should be our ideals and they should be courageous and detailed. They should explain fully how the adults of New Zealand are going to help a young person to get the best out of life, the arts, academics, philosophy/faith/wellbeing and, as a part of it, a career. It is not about simply educating for our economy or the workforce. That sort of reduction of the purpose of education does nothing to serve the whole child and certainly impacts on the mental wellbeing that is such a huge issue for our young today.

What are the current innovations?

Communities of Learning (CoLs) has some promise (and a $359 million budget) but it is a wait-and-see on measurable effects and whether schools merely use them as a funding stream for some staff or truly co-ordinate programmes for the wellbeing and outcomes of their students. To be a true education changer, CoLs should also include representation from the families with whom the schools work.

The compulsory digital curriculum also holds aspects of promise. However, it cannot merely be an IT industry pushed to upskill the work force and decrease their labour costs. It also has to be carefully integrated into a broad curriculum. Humans are not breathing robots. The push towards more technical learning (e.g. STEM) without the Arts is a glance back towards the 1950s and ’60s, with academic, business and technical streams and outcomes being largely predetermined by placement. What we understand about learning potential is now too powerful to reduce students to being merely economic fodder.

New Zealand businesses may want an emerging labour force that suits their needs. Some of New Zealand’s top entrepreneurs are warning that New Zealand’s education system needs to change if the country is going to keep up with a rapidly changing workforce.

However, preparation for a career is by no means the only objective of schooling. Teaching coding might have some benefits but care needs to be taken. On one hand we are told that the careers that our five-year-olds will pursue have probably not even been invented yet – then we are told that they must learn to code. It was also interesting that the policy was announced with $15 million of funding for equipment for schools. This works out at about $5,800 per school. The Microsoft ‘augmented reality’ glasses the Prime Minister and Education Minister Nikki Kaye were wearing at the announcement cost $4,500 each so every school in New Zealand could get 1.3 of those each.

Huge amounts have been spent on new schools and new school buildings. The average state school start-up is well into the tens of millions (and in some cases above 100 million). An extra classroom for an established school is now being priced at approximately $750,000. Making announcements, building flash spaces and photo opportunities when cutting the ribbons all looks like good education. However, while it looks good, is it the best way to use funds? Could the establishing board be given more choice in the types of building and spaces and the use of funds? Could some of those funds be used to help families more to support education from the home? Could more of the building fund be spent on support staff instead? None of those options are as ‘sexy’ as a new building being opened by politicians but they may be better at helping young people.

There are currently 10 charter schools (vested interest warning!). While they may be doing well for 1,200 students in some ways, it may be time for a party (or two) to write a more comprehensive policy around innovative schools in association with niche private providers but in a way that sits more comfortably and cooperatively with the state sector.

The school years are a one-time event for each cohort. Incremental improvements over a long period of time are not good enough in this sector because it means year after year of a significant percentage of leavers being harmed for life, as well as wider societal consequences.

What is needed for a great education system?

  • Outstanding leadership from the Minister and the Ministry of Education with the sole purpose of benefiting children (not political points-scoring and the perpetuation of power).
  • High-quality leadership within our schools.
  • A well-qualified teaching sector that has a high entry bar and is paid according to both. There should also be significant training and pay enhancements for teacher aides and support staff.
  • A massive emphasis on learning in the home and mechanisms for family engagement throughout the compulsory years.
  • In years 1-10 schools should be able to show progressions and improvements with the children they have and not have outcome based league tables published which gives them a pass/fail type metric.
  • Well-organised schools with minimum down time and best use of resources, including options for principals/boards to make some choices in use of funds (e.g. less building expense – more on lowering barriers for families and paying staff).
  • Genuine communal effort, regardless of who is in power, for the good of our young and a ‘who cares’ attitude in terms of who takes the credit.

A final thought

There is a lot of discussion and work going into re-modelling and renaming what is currently the decile system. My call would be that the decile system (which only accounts for a portion of funding) has not actually gone far enough. It should be embraced but the decile 1-3 schools should be funded massively for change in such a way that makes it highly-worthwhile to teach in decile 1-3 situations, reduce the class size to 1:15, trusts Principals with more resourcing choices and reduces barriers to families (e.g. provides uniform and stationery).

Kids don’t vote – but each vote should consider the best for them.


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