By: James Bentley

Many principals are wondering where New Zealand’s next generation of engineers, scientists, dentists and doctors is going to come from. Photo / Glen Jeffrey

New Zealand’s state and state-integrated education system has for more than 40 years been the envy of other nations.

As New Zealanders we have prided ourselves on the fact that our young people are exposed to the same opportunities in our schools, regardless of parental income or geographic location.

Until recently parents could have confidence that the quality of teaching and subject choices were pretty much the same across all schools. Unfortunately, this is changing and it is a problem that is only going to get worse.

From a funding perspective, recent governments can be praised for building modern new classrooms and rolling out high-speed broadband to schools the length and breadth of the country.

The problem is, these flash new buildings will soon be devoid of quality teachers inspiring our future generations. Only schools with the means to attract teachers through higher remuneration will escape the crisis.

It was disappointing that in the recent election neither of the major political parties produced a firm policy about how to address this issue, especially around the dire shortage of mathematics, physics and chemistry teachers.

Very few of our graduates in these areas view teaching as an attractive profession, mostly because they can earn far more in industry. Combined with this issue is the impending retirement of expert teachers over the coming years, many of whom have already delayed their leaving party as a personal favour to their schools.

Like me, many of my principal colleagues are wondering where our next generation of engineers, scientists, dentists and doctors are going to come from. This is because if we continue down the current path, only a vastly reduced number of students will have the essential grounding and skills to continue with high-level mathematics and sciences at university.

Statistics show the numbers of students taking Level 3 physics and calculus external standards has dropped since 2011.

Whilst there could be many other factors that have led to this decline, my suspicion is that, as with any subject, if the experience isn’t positive at the lower end, students will make the decision to not continue with it into the senior school.

These are highly challenging subjects and need expert teachers to guide students through the curriculum.

It is disappointing to hear from some quarters that schools need to adapt by putting non-specialist teachers into hard-to-fill roles. All teachers are professional experts in their field. All have trained for several years in their subject and are highly skilled practitioners.

To suggest that perhaps an English teacher can pick up a Level 3 NCEA physics class is ridiculous and devalues the profession. After all, nobody would suggest that we overcome our shortage of civil engineers by placing a lawyer in the role.

The shortage of science and mathematics specialists will lead to thousands of students having little or no exposure to these subjects at the senior level. The knock-on effect will be that only a privileged few will be able to pursue degrees such as engineering, architecture and medicine, where a high knowledge of these subjects is imperative.

The universities are also worried, as is industry, and yet the silence on solutions is deafening.

James Bentley is headmaster of St Peter’s College, Auckland.

Source: NZ Herald


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