How can we fix education in New Zealand?

We’re nearing the end of a huge year for education in New Zealand. TOP would like to express thanks for all the amazing efforts by individual teachers and schools on behalf of our tamariki. As we close 2019 and look towards 2020 and the election, we can reflect on changes that have been made – and those that haven’t, despite teachers’ protestations

We have to acknowledge that overall our education system is still looking grim.  

What are the problems? 

The 2018 PISA report found increasing rates of bullying, a declining sense of belonging in schools, high rates of competition between schools, and increasing levels of noise and disorder in classrooms, as well as a pervasive fear of failure and an ever-widening socio-economic gap affecting educational achievement. Yet New Zealand students across all backgrounds and demographic groups reported feeling supported in their academic and emotional wellbeing by parents and teachers, which means it is the system to blame for these poor results, rather than the profession or the community.    

Furthermore, our educational facilities are inadequate for teaching, with libraries being removed to accommodate students, and classes being taught in foyers and staffrooms.

And despite the teacher payout this year, working conditions for teachers remain largely the same, with:

Moreover, the negative effects of standardised testing of children are well understood by educators, yet primary schools are still required to report mainly on numeracy and literacy. This means other subjects are marginalised

Worst of all is our devastating youth suicide rate. This is due to many factors, including social anxieties, virtual relationships, fears about the future, and over-assessment.

In early childhood education (ECE), an estimated 20–30% of centres detrimentally affect our youngest children, with heightened stress, inconsistent relationships, noise, overcrowding and poor-quality outdoor areas. Some largely blame the corporatisation of the sector for these and other impacts on ECE. Most concerningly, children from vulnerable communities are being left behind, arriving at school developmentally two years behind their peers and unlikely to ever catch up. 

While there are some very caring teachers doing wonderful things for our children, they’re generally achieving them in spite of the current regulatory system, not because of it. This simply isn’t good enough, and something fundamental needs to change. 

What’s being done 

The current Government recently announced a funding packing of at least $50,000 and up to $400,000 per school to spend on infrastructure. This looks good on paper and may buy the votes of some parents who want decent classrooms for their children. But the education sector knows this investment won’t be maximised if schools are required to create noisy, one-size-fits-all classrooms, when teachers aren’t trained to facilitate learning in open environments

The last Government’s cost-saving approach of lumping kids into open learning environments, with teachers facilitating small groups in a more directive style, simply isn’t working. Either we need to be more flexible in the way structural funding is spent, or we need to invest heavily in our teachers’ professional development for this new way of teaching and learning. And we certainly need to align achievement reporting with our philosophy of how and what our children should be learning.

What’s not being done

The Tomorrow’s Schools Report (released earlier in 2019) noted that our education system is  failing the poorest 20% of kids. The taskforce recommended crucial changes to school zoning to improve equality between our schools, e.g. capping the number of out-of-zone learners schools can take, depending on the long-term impacts on other schools in the area. 

However, the Government watered down this recommendation to the regional Ministry of Education offices, which will now be ‘working closely with relevant schools to ensure their views and those of their communities are taken into account as part of the [zoning] process’. So that was the government passing the buck again, really. 

The 10-year ECE strategic plan (published this week) was also a disappointment to many desperate teachers who just want to care for our children. While the plan contains some great ideas around valuing family and community, the current detrimental effects on our children of group size (up to 150 over-twos and up to 75 under-twos within one license), space allocations, and ratios have not been adequately addressed. 

The Ministry received plenty of advice from experts in the field, but chose not to listen to much of it.  For example, the current ‘indoor space allocation equates to about 30 children and five adults in a modest three-bedroom house [...] group size directly affects teacher-child relationships, noise and stress [...] the outdoor allocation equates to the backyard of a ¼- acre section for 100 or more children [...] our minimum temperature standard is the worst in the world for ECE, yet in 2017 winter research, 19 out of 21 centres failed to meet this standard [...]’.  

Yet, the ECE strategic plan does not recognise the urgency of these issues. For example, the new adult-to-child ratios will be ‘developed over the life of this [10 year] plan’ and a ratio of 1:3 for under-twos (down from 1:5) will ‘remain an aspiration in the longer term’. Furthermore, the Government has only committed to develop advice on group sizes, centre design, and wider environmental factors, and improving quality standards in these areas. How much advice does this government need? Certainly, there is no urgent call to improve the current crisis in ECE. TOP wonders how much influence powerful political voices had in the final version of this “strategic” plan?

The National Party discussion document on education is no better. It highlights some key issues in education, but provides simple “solutions” that – frankly – don’t even come close to addressing the challenges we face. As an example, the document acknowledges the crucial importance of the first thousand days in a child’s development and of parental health, and takes a ‘holistic approach to child development that recognises and encourages the vital place of parents throughout a child’s life’. But the proposed solution? Invest in interventional programmes that support parents to read to young children, and create passports that track children’s progress to key physical, emotional, developmental, and educational milestones. More reporting, more bureaucracy, more targeted intervention that arrogantly ignores community needs. 

What would TOP do?

TOP views learning as a lifelong process, rather than a series of outcomes. And we have some different ideas for addressing the educational challenges facing New Zealand. We believe in valuing our teachers, listening to their concerns, and creating policy that is informed by educational, healthcare, neuroscientific, socio-cultural and other experts. 

For starters, the neverending standardised assessment and reporting on our children from before age five to their late teens is ridiculous and needs to change right now! Yes, it’s necessary to understand how our children are developing, but we need to change how we assess them.

As we’ve said before, our current education system is built around “reaching the next level”. We are stuck in a mindset of ranking all children by arbitrary 20th century criteria.  We continually assess, measure, and compare them, rather than helping them all find their strengths. This is particularly the case at high schools, where many students are learning to get through assessments, rather than developing enthusiasm for the learning process. 

By contrast, a system that values the learning process would significantly improve our children’s development. This would involve encouraging enthusiasm for learning through curiosity and exploration, celebrating failure as an effective way to learn, de-personalising and engaging with errors, and adapting skills for different contexts. Such a system would need to invest heavily in teachers with world-leading, multi-disciplinary training and then leave them to get on with their job

As part of this approach, the education sector would reflect critically on why and how we educate our children, and be allowed to pursue a multi-disciplinary, evidence-based, philosophically-underpinned curriculum. Parents (i.e. board members) certainly shouldn’t be responsible for the curriculum of individual schools.

Secondly, we need to tackle the social and emotional challenges our children face, before we can expect them to engage with learning. Neuroscience tells us that if a child is emotionally or physically stressed, the pre-frontal cortex (the part of our brain that does everything your family dog can’t do) struggles to function. From a healthcare perspective, we understand that children are whole beings – their physical, spiritual, familial, and mental health must be nurtured equally for them to learn effectively. If they don’t feel good about themselves as learners, as citizens in their social world, or are not comfortable in their cultural, gendered, and self identities, they will struggle to learn and develop healthily. 

Teachers of all age groups have the potential power to facilitate growth mindsets in our children, but they need significant investment in their working conditions and professional development to have the capacity to do so.

Thirdly – and in TOP’s opinion, most importantly – we need to invest in the vulnerable participants in our education system, especially children living in poverty. Classrooms should be a true cross-section of society. This would ensure that the resources of richer parents are better shared around, that students learn from each other as well as their teachers, and that student role models can influence the self-belief and aspirations of other students. Students have a much better chance of keeping up with their peers if those peers are in the same class. In New Zealand, this would mean reducing school choice. 

We would need to double our current decile funding to reduce disadvantage in our education system. New Zealand already spends more on schools with children from poor backgrounds than schools in affluent communities. However, the benefit of that extra resource is cancelled out by the magnitude of school donations in wealthier neighbourhoods. We need to continue the conversation sparked by the Tomorrow’s Schools review about how to make our education system more equitable.

Overall, there are some excellent grass-roots initiatives taking place in our education system and some good ideas in policy statements, especially around the importance of family and community on a child’s educational path. However, TOP still views National and Labour as tinkerers at the edges of education. It’s time someone spoke the “truth” of the education community to the “power” of politicians. That’s where TOP will step in.


About the author

Dr Naomi Pocock completed a post-disciplinary PhD at The University of Waikato exploring concepts of 'home' within the context of return from long-term travel. Concepts of ‘home’, belonging, identity construction, and social connection are also relevant to child and youth development. Dr Pocock contends that constructing meanings of “home” is a process of negotiation with self, others, and society, which can sometimes be a traumatic experience when returning from long-term travel. She is currently volunteering for TOP to write an ECE policy, help with policy interpretations for TOP members, and write blogs. She believes the implementation of TOP policies would be the most effective way to alleviate the social, economic, and environmental challenges facing New Zealand.  


Showing 2 reactions

  • Naomi Pocock
    commented 2020-02-03 18:27:44 +1300
    Thank you for engaging with our conversation, Duncan. Yes, we will look into the way teachers are being upskilled as part of our wider tertiary review, and with less focus on testing, more time can be spent centrally preparing and sharing best practice resources for teachers to use.
  • duncan cairncross
    commented 2019-12-20 17:24:14 +1300
    I agree with all of that BUT it is still missing the real need
    I’m not a teacher – but as an engineer I have done a lot of “teaching”
    When I was teaching a process or procedure the preparation – direct preparation not just knowledge would be 80% of the effort
    For every hour of teaching I needed at least four hours of preparation

    If I was in charge and had the resources I would have a “school” – or several – with no students – just teachers on both sides of the desks devoted to preparing the lessons for the actual working schools and I would try and rotate all existing teachers through that “school”
    It’s NOT taking away the teachers professional skills – its more like equipping them with the best possible toolkit to apply their skills