Last week, Labour released its final decisions about 'reforming' the Tomorrow's Schools system, and National released a discussion document on education. Both parties have a few good ideas. However, both are still merely tinkering around the edges of education reform, rather than cutting to the core of the problem.
There are two major problems with our education system as it stands: closing the gap in outcomes between rich and poor, and making sure it is fit for purpose in the 21st century.
The Gap Between Rich and Poor
Our most vulnerable communities in New Zealand continue to struggle. Kids from poorer households often turn up to school developmentally 2 years behind their peers and what’s worse, most never catch up. What chance is there for a 17-year-old to go to university if they have the developmental level of a 15-year-old? Only the natural geniuses would get through.
This horrific situation is partly a testament to the poverty in our society, which is mostly a result of the cost of housing. However, education systems in other countries do a better job of helping kids from poor households catch up.
How Can We Close the Gap?
There are two main ways that education systems around the world close the gap between rich and poor – many use a mix of both.
The first way is to make schools look like the rest of society. That ensures that the resources of richer parents are better shared around. More importantly, students learn from each other as well as their teachers. Student role models can impact on the self-belief and aspirations of others, which in turn impacts their life-long learning outcomes. Students have a much better chance of keeping up with their peers if those peers are in the same class. Therefore classrooms that are a true cross section of society mean that all children have a much better chance.
In New Zealand, this would mean reducing school choice. This was the proposal put forward by the Tomorrow’s Schools review led by Bali Haque, but Labour looks to have backed away from this crucial change.
The other way to reduce inequality is to spend much more money on schools with children from poor backgrounds. The last National Government started investigating such a scheme and Labour is continuing this work. We already do this a little bit in New Zealand with the decile system, but the benefit of that extra resource is cancelled out by the school donations schools in wealthier neighbourhoods receive. We would need to double our current decile funding to reduce disadvantage in our education system. Where would this money come from? Higher taxes? Or are we going to take it from richer schools?
National has promised to lower class sizes, which is pretty amazing – it is usually a Labour Party policy. Lower class sizes can improve performance and help close the gap if targeted at children in poorer communities. Sadly National’s policy makes no mention of this crucial proviso.
Future proofing education
Learning how to learn and developing ‘soft skills’ are essential for our future workforce. We need to view learning as a lifelong process, rather than a series of outcomes.
Our current education system is built around 'reaching the next level'. We encourage competition between students and schools through an assessment and reporting model, and a ‘command and control’ approach from central government. Children are assessed from early childhood, throughout primary school, and beyond. Although Labour removed national standards in 2017, teachers are still required to report extensively on literacy and numeracy outcomes.
We are stuck in the mindset of ranking all children by some arbitrary 20th century criteria. We continually assess, measure, and compare children, 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.
Ultimately, the solution here is to reduce summative assessment, which attempts to rank kids objectively. Such an approach in the 21st century is a farce, but both Labour and National seem wedded to it.
To solve these issues across the board, TOP would implement a life-time of learning policy (to be released soon!), which would start with an ethic of ‘care and community’ at the early childhood level. Investing early is crucial.
We would treat teachers as valued professionals who also continue to learn throughout their career and can be trusted to get the job done, without constant tinkering and micromanaging by politicians. Our goal is to make classes representative of society and to roll back summative assessment. Instead of pigeon-holing children, our policy focuses on encouraging them all to reach their potential.
A fairer society
The big problem families in New Zealand face is the cost of housing. We must urgently stabilise the cost of housing and bring it down over time. In addition, TOP would invest in a universal basic income for families with children under three, simplify welfare rules, create a fairer tax system so wage and salary earners aren't solely responsible for funding the economy, and adjust tenancy laws to offer more security to renters.