“Who is Jacinda-mania?” my seven-year-old daughter asks between mouthfuls of breakfast cereal, reading from the morning Herald. She pronounces Jacinda with a hard ‘c’.
I give a brief run-down of the recent changes at Labour Party HQ.
“She’s pretty,” muses my daughter, looking at Jacinda’s picture, “I would vote for her.”
I launch into a tirade about the importance of making informed decisions on the basis of considered policy and the weight and veracity of political promises. I think I may have lost her at “veracity”.
In my daughter’s defence, “pretty” is fairly innocuous, when you consider how much attention the media has given to Jacinda Ardern’s charisma, charm, youth, and (it pains me to even dignify it with a mention) feelings on motherhood.
It makes me wonder just how much members of the voting public really strive to understand the various policy proposals on the table in making their decision.
With that in mind, I decide to lift the lid on those in front of us, starting with Labour’s Education Manifesto, in an effort to gain a deeper understanding of what might lie ahead for New Zealand education.
Lifting the lid on Labour’s education policies
It’s fairly late on a Friday afternoon, but Chris Hipkins, Labour’s education spokesperson, gives no sign that he’s eager to start his weekend early, and he chats with me at length about the Education Manifesto.
It’s a fairly succinct document organised around five key themes: barrier-free access, quality teaching, quality public education, and 21st century learning all pivot around the major theme of learners at the centre.
It contains many recommendations, some of them tentative, some of them predictable, and some of them pretty bold.
It’s the bold ones I’m keen to focus on. Top of the list is scrapping National Standards.
While I can think of many teachers who would be glad to see the back of National Standards, I think the assessment system has become a comfort blanket for many parents, who can see where their child sits in relation to where they should be. But Hipkins disagrees.
“I think parents are frustrated with National Standards,” he says, “They’re not national; they’re not standard. The truth is we don’t need them.”
Hipkins has an issue with measuring performance and views the standards as “arbitrary hurdles” for students and teachers. He argues that we should be evaluating students’ progress against the levels of progression that are already in the New Zealand Curriculum.
“What the PISA tests show us is that countries that have adopted standardized testing have gone backwards,” he says of the OECD’s international yardstick test, Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), which evaluates education systems worldwide by testing 15-year-olds in key subjects. “Countries that narrow the standard fall down because the PISA tests are broader.”
“We need to teach the curriculum in the broadest possible way.”
Labour has nothing quite so radical planned for secondary school assessment. Hipkins dispels rumours that Labour would look to ditch one of the NCEA years, however he says the party is intent on looking at how to reduce the level of assessment.
“We assess our kids too much,” he says, in reference to the reality that under NCEA many New Zealand secondary students are faced with a high-stakes assessment just about every two weeks.
Another Manifesto showstopper is the promise of three years free post-school education or training. Whether it is a bachelor’s degree or work-based apprenticeship training or adult learning opportunity, New Zealanders will be able to designate their three free years how they see fit. Labour’s “hop on-hop off training” would play nicely into this.
“We are hearing that employers want people to take more modular training programmes as they progress through their career. To be fair, this is already happening, but we’re talking about doing it on a much bigger scale.”
Free education is at the heart of what Labour stands for. I’m always a little skeptical of ‘free’ stuff. How can this free post-school education proposal, in combination with the promise to clamp down on school donations and covert fundraising really be achievable?
I agree schools should be funded adequately. But in the same vein, I feel we get a good deal from our schools and am happy to pay a parental donation to my children’s school. Can we really afford to bypass parents’ pockets?
Hipkins thinks we can. He says with operational educational spending significantly lower than National’s proposed tax cuts of $1.9 billion, it is deliverable.
Maori & Pasifika students
One thing that isn’t deliverable – yet – is rolling out the universal teaching and learning of te reo Maori in schools.
“I would personally love for every child to learn te reo at school,” he says, “But we are light years away from [making te reo universal] in our schools in terms of how we can deliver it.”
The Manifesto includes a stepping stone towards this goal, with initiatives to encourage professional learning for teachers in this area.
It also includes a ‘Pacific education for life’ initiative that involves a community approach to education, in areas with high Pacific populations.
Hipkins says these sorts of intergenerational learning opportunities could be extended beyond Pacific communities, particularly to Maori, involving whānau and local iwi.
Labour says it will introduce a “vigorous process for pre-screening entry” into teaching.
While intent on raising the quality of teaching, Hipkins says he’s not sold on postgrad initial teacher education.
“We need more flexibility. We need to explore different models.”
He is of the opinion that some ITE courses are currently too academic, too theoretical and says there needs to be more focus on practical side.
He points to Teach First as a good example of an alternative model that places strong emphasis on practicum.
Training high quality teachers is one thing – finding them a job is another. Labour wants to introduce guaranteed placements for new teachers for at least the first two years of their career. Hipkins says schools do not always play by the book when it comes to recruiting new teachers, and he wants to nip this in the bud.
“With managed entry into ITE, we can have a system of matching supply and demand,” he says.
He also doesn’t want to see teachers – or any tertiary graduate for that matter – lumbered with a hefty student loan upon completing their studies.
Labour’s voluntary bonding scheme is designed to help with this, allowing graduates to pay off chunks of their loan through working in public sector roles that need to be filled. Hipkins sees this as another way to address the teacher supply issue, particularly for hard-to-fill subjects.
He is a little more cautious in addressing Communities of Learning.
“They are not collaborative,” he says, “CoLs are effectively adding another layer of governance. They’re very managerial – rebalancing is needed.
“The reason there isn’t finer detail about how we would do this is that we believe a wider review of Tomorrow’s Schools is required. We need a blueprint for the next 20-25 years of education strategy.”
Hipkins would love to see cross-party consensus on longer term education issues, rather than upheaval every time there is a changing of the political guard.
He believes one of the major tensions of CoLs is expecting our best teachers to go into other schools and juggle this with their own classrooms.
He says from the feedback he’s received about CoLs, it appears motivated teachers are excited by the idea of it, but the reality is much harder. He worries about them burning out as a result.
Labour is proposing an Education Advisory Service, which will not only oversee all centrally funded teacher professional development, but allow excellent teachers and educational leaders to take secondments to act as mentors for other teachers. Under this service the party will also set-up a College of Educational Leadership.
Again, thinking of the long haul, Labour is prepared to lump a big chunk of money into school property, to ensure every school is equipped for modern learning. While National has invested more into school property than any other previous Government, Labour’s focus is on ensuring equity.
“All the new fast-growing suburbs are getting shiny new classrooms but areas that have remained fairly static, like South Auckland, aren’t.”
Hipkins doesn’t want to be overly prescriptive with new builds, allowing schools to remain future-focused.
And when it comes to equity, Labour’s approach to digital technology also follows suit. The ultimate goal is to give every student access to a device, although the detail is a little hazy at this point.
Hipkins is inspired by the Manaiakalani scheme but recognises that other school communities might have different solutions.
“In some communities parents are able to go out and buy their child a $2000 laptop while in others they might get something from Cash Converters. We need to make things more equitable,” he says.
Those words, “we need to make things more equitable”, could easily serve as Labour’s new catch-phrase, if ‘Let’s do this’ hadn’t snuck in first. As things stand, the Education Manifesto is branded with Labour’s not-so-fresh ‘fresh approach’ mantra – now a hangover from the Little leadership.
National has argued that it is not fresh at all, with National Party Campaign Chair Steven Joyce describing it as “identical to their 2014 one”.
Fresh or not, Labour’s proposed policy for education is interesting. There are many references to “investigating” issues and some of the ‘how to’ and ‘how much’ is lacking from the detail, but overall it poses some challenging ideas about New Zealand education.