“I don’t think you can spend too much on education,” reflects Catherine Delahunty.
The Green Party’s spokesperson for education believes there currently isn’t enough investment into our schools. She wants to see early childhood education better funded, learning support staff better paid, class sizes reduced. And that’s just the beginning.
What’s not to like? Who doesn’t want to see more money injected into ECE and teacher aides’ salaries? But I’m mindful that it might be easier to say the words than turn them into cash.
However, Delahunty spots many opportunities for sourcing more education dollars. She scoffs at the 14 roads of national significance and the notion of tax cuts for the wealthy.
All of the political parties I’ve spoken with so far are concerned about inequality in our education system. The Greens, however, are truly incensed by it.
“In some schools in Auckland you have heated swimming pools and children learning to kayak,” she says. “Some schools can raise $80k in a single fundraiser, while others can’t even get enough people together to support a fundraiser.”
I ask what she thinks of the new Risk Index Funding model flagged to replace deciles; I thought perhaps the targeted funding approach might appeal to the Greens’ ethos of fairness.
But I’m wrong. She describes the Risk Index as a “deficit model” that focuses on the negative aspects of a child and has the potential to be stigmatising. She doesn’t agree with the “let’s find the bad families and fix the child” approach.
“I don’t believe in targeting – I believe in universalism,” says Delahunty.
This leaves me a little confused. Is she suggesting that every school should get the same, regardless of socioeconomic status?
No, she corrects me, but she does prefer the decile model, despite it being a blunt instrument.
“I think the conversation is completely unfinished,” she says.
In fact, Delahunty thinks there is still a conversation to be had about the very purpose and direction of New Zealand education.
While she’s pleased to see more emphasis on things like Enviroschools, she is sceptical about what is being prioritised in education, like the new digital learning curriculum, for example. She’s also concerned that the Education Act doesn’t commit to the voice of the children.
“What is 21st century learning?”
Delahunty isn’t satisfied we’ve answered this question for our students.
“It’s not just modern learning environments,” she says. “What about children’s roles in the Treaty? Their ability to grow food? Their understanding of climate change? Inequality? We need to encourage more problem solving, more critical thinking.”
Delahunty doesn’t believe this sort of critical thinking is going to emerge while National Standards are stifling primary education. Like Labour and NZ First, the Greens would get rid of National Standards.
I ask what they would replace them with.
Nothing, is her answer. From her experience, teachers say they had enough tools at their disposal before National Standards, giving e-asTTle as an example.
“Sure, if there is anything from National Standards that they’d like to retain, then great,” she says, “But what we want to do is remove the pressure, enforcement and comparison.”
Like many, she also thinks National Standards have a narrowing effect on our curriculum. She believes our system should allow students to be creative and learn at their own pace.
Whenever people make arguments to ditch National Standards, I’m always intrigued to hear their thoughts on how students’ progress will be measured, and teachers held accountable to this progress. But measurement and accountability are not part of the high-trust model for which the Greens are advocating.
Delahunty is also wary of Communities of Learning, particularly of how the CoL appear to be used to push forward initiatives, relying on the assumption that there is someone with the necessary expertise in each CoL. She would rather schools had a say in how the $359 million is spent.
National Standards, Communities of Learning, Risk Index Funding, modern learning environments – there is so much about the current system that the Green Party doesn’t like. We barely touch on Communities of Online Learning and charter schools; these certainly fall into the same basket.
“I think we’ve fallen behind in the last decade,” she says.
While the Green Party doesn’t appear to have all its replacement policies nutted out for all the things they dislike about the current system, it does have some inspiring and positive ideas worthy of consideration and discussion.
The Greens’ school hub initiative, for example, would see schools developed to become community hubs that would include onsite health, welfare and cultural services accessible to local communities. Each school would have a paid facilitator whose job it would be to liaise with the community for everything from social services, local providers, adult education, industry training – all the things that currently distract principals and teachers from teaching and learning.
Delahunty also places great emphasis on addressing children’s learning differences. In 2015 she launched an inquiry into dyslexia, dyspraxia and autism education, which cast the light on systemic barriers preventing students with learning differences from receiving the necessary help.
For one, teacher education students aren’t taught to recognise these learning differences, she says. She also believes the current system focuses disproportionately on managing student behaviours, without properly examining the underlying reasons for those behaviours. Programmes like Reading Recovery are also insufficient to help dyslexic students, in her opinion.
Delahunty believes it’s an area that needs to be seriously addressed. She points to the high proportion of prisoners who are dyslexic, as highlighted by Children’s Commissioner Andrew Becroft.
Another hallmark of the Greens’ education policy is its focus on cultural responsiveness, particularly for Māori students.
“Ninety per cent of Māori are educated in English-medium schools. Assuming everyone comes from an English world view is simply not going to work,” says Delahunty.
She would like to see the research and professional development programme Te Kotahitanga revitalised in an effort to support teachers to improve Māori students’ learning and achievement.
“It’s not just about saying ‘Kia ora’ in the morning.”
She says the party is also working on a plan to make learning Te Reo universal in schools.
She’s realistic about the plan – that it won’t happen overnight and that normalising Te Reo requires an attitudinal shift in our communities.
“It’s bigger than just schools, but they’re a powerful place to start,” she says.
Indeed, the Green Party’s education policies are entwined with their wider social policies. They do not have to make a big leap from housing and welfare initiatives to those concerning kids’ education. The Green Party officially releases its education policy this week and I’m looking forward to seeing some of the innovative ideas around addressing inequality fleshed out in more detail.