New Zealand has long boasted of its world-class education system, and it received confirmation of this in a recent OECD report.

The OECD Review on Evaluation and Assessment Frameworks for Improving School Outcomes looked at the education delivered in 24 countries. As part of their review, the OECD team visited a range of schools in New Zealand and met with various agencies, academics, researchers, stakeholder groups, and Māori and Pasifika representatives. They examined student assessment, teacher appraisal, school evaluation, and the overall system.

The OECD report concluded that, on average, New Zealand students achieve very well by international standards. Apparently, New Zealand’s methods of evaluating and assessing student achievement are world leading.

“The report endorses our evaluation and assessment practices as being high quality and transparent. Reporting against National Standards will enhance this transparency,” says Minister of Education, Hekia Parata.

Unsurprisingly, the OECD praise is music to the ears of the Education Minister, as well as other education leaders.

“The report commends the professionalism of our teachers, the robustness and credibility of NCEA, and the ERO model for its approach to school evaluation,’’ says Parata. “It also praises our focus on improving teaching and learning.”

Paul Drummond, president of the New Zealand Principals’ Federation, agrees. “We welcome the latest OECD report, which praises New Zealand’s current education model,” says Drummond.

“It is vindication of what we have been saying for the last three years. We are already headed in a good direction, which is bringing us world class success, and we are ambitious to do even better.”

But there is an elephant in the classroom. “World-class” and “world-leading” overshadow the very loaded words, “on average”. To claim that “on average” our students achieve well by international standards is to hide the truth that the system is failing a vast number of young New Zealanders.

New Zealand is said to have the second highest rate of educational inequality in the OECD, with Māori, Pacific, and students from low-income backgrounds showing the highest rates of educational under-achievement. Statistics show that one in five New Zealand students leave secondary school with no qualifications; for Pacific students, it is one in four, and for Māori, one in three.

In fairness, Parata doesn’t hide from the facts: “However, our education system is still leaving too many learners behind, including far too many Māori and Pasifika learners, and this is what needs to change,’’ she says.

“The OECD report says National Standards will improve information about student achievement and progress, and identify the students who need more support. It recommends more work is done to implement the Standards, which is exactly what we are focusing on now – ensuring the Standards are further developed and embedded within our schools.”

Parata adds the findings of the report will be useful in refining our evaluation and assessment policies to focus on improving learner outcomes.

Many believe it is going to take more than better implementation of National Standards to see the issue of educational inequality addressed. Social inequity has a much bigger role to play in underachievement. The rise in violence, child mortality, and health issues are all symptomatic of the same problem.

Indeed, education is not alone here; inequality is seeping further and further into every New Zealand sector.

Leading medical journal The Lancet recently published findings from Otago University on the growing health disparities in New Zealand based on wealth and ethnicity. The research shows that infectious diseases have increased 51 per cent in the past two decades, with the poor, Māori, and Pacific Islanders accounting for the majority of this rise. The article calls for solutions.

Health and education are two significant areas that suffer from the widening gap between New Zealand’s rich and poor. An OECD report released late last year showed that this gap has widened more than in any other developed country during the past 20 years.

Figures from the Divided We Stand think-tank show the income of the richest 10 per cent of New Zealanders is now more than 10 times that of the poorest 10 per cent. This is up from a ratio of around six-to-one in the 1980s.

The OECD says the main driver behind rising income gaps has been greater inequality in wages and salaries, as the highly skilled have benefited more from technological progress than those with less skills. New Zealand is not alone; many countries are experiencing similar disparities between the rich and the poor.

“The social contract is starting to unravel in many countries,” said OECD secretary-general Angel Gurría. “This study dispels the assumptions that the benefits of economic growth will automatically trickle down to the disadvantaged and that greater inequality fosters greater social mobility. Without a comprehensive strategy for inclusive growth, inequality will continue to rise.”

It’s a harsh reality in New Zealand that where a child lives is one of most significant factors in determining how well they will succeed in education. One in five students leaves school without NCEA level 2. Those from low-income households are half as likely to achieve University Entrance as those from high-income households. Māori and Pasifika communities are the most disadvantaged.

Indeed, evidence of inequality is easy to spot in education. Decile rankings, public versus private schooling, and many other indicators acknowledge its presence. There is plenty of talk and even despair about the dismal literacy and numeracy levels of children from lower socio-economic areas. There is inger pointing at right-wing political strategies, and demands for solutions.

But what is being done about it? Will we be able to turn the tables? There are, it is heartening to see, a growing number of initiatives to address inequality in education.

For example, Teach First NZ, a not-for-profit organisation that is part of a global programme, runs a two-year leadership development programme that develops top graduates into highly-effective teachers and inspirational leaders.Teach First NZ, in partnership with The University of Auckland, prepares and places carefully selected graduates to teach in low-decile secondary schools for an initial two-year commitment. The teachers’ first priority is to improve outcomes for the students they teach.

In the long term, Teach First NZ hopes to build a network of leaders in education and across all fields who are committed to addressing educational inequality. The organisation states: “Our vision is that all young people in Aotearoa New Zealand achieve their full educational potential, regardless of socio-economic or ethnic background.”

The beauty of the Teach First NZ programme is that it doesn’t isolate education from its wider context. The programme is about developing leaders; participants in the programme are expected to have an impact, not only on the children they teach, but on the partner schools, organisations, and the wider community.

In contrast, many initiatives focus on a particular aspect of tackling inequality, whether it be looking at literacy concerns in early childhood education, or finding solutions for those struggling to pass National Standards.

There is some excellent research on addressing inequalities coming out of New Zealand’s tertiary institutions. We take a closer look at some examples in this issue: Jannie van Hees’ at The University of Auckland has been studying vocabulary gaps in children at low-decile primary schools; Garry Hornby at the University of Canterbury has been researching the link between parental involvement and a child’s success at school; and there is the Starpath Project, which aims to increase the number of Māori and Pacific students entering tertiary education.

We need to be sure the findings and recommendations of such research are being pooled and utilised to the benefit of New Zealand’s lower socio-economic bracket. Then perhaps the claim that our education system is “world-class” will sit a little easier on our conscience.

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