25 Mar 2023

National's policy aims to school Labour on education decline

From Focus on Politics, 10:00 am on 25 March 2023
Collage of Jan Tinetti, Christopher Luxon, and school children.

Photo: RNZ

"We're going to do maths, reading, writing and science and prioritise those things over everything else" - Christopher Luxon

National's leader Christopher Luxon ditched Parliament for the playground this week, touring schools to sell his party's solution to declining student performance with a back-to-basics focus on literacy and numeracy. 

Teacher unions have criticised the plan, but the party was unlikely to ever get their backing - instead targeting concerned parents and his political opponent, Prime Minister Chris Hipkins. 

With Parliament in recess, National and Labour's leaders took this week to brush up on their campaigning skills with a jaunt back to the classroom

Labour's Chris Hipkins took a trip down memory lane with a visit to his old primary school on Wednesday, where he was grilled by kids eager to find out what naughtiness got him sent to the principal's office all those years ago.

National's Christopher Luxon managed to stop in at four schools throughout the week, but it was him asking the questions - quizzing children on their future aspirations. 

He talked a lot about the decline in New Zealand students' academic achievement - a trend which has frustrated teachers, parents, children and decision-makers alike - and which could put those aspirations at risk.

Read more: 

RNZ's education correspondent John Gerritsen says there are three main measures of the school system's level of achievement - and for all three, the trends are indeed bad. 

As an example, the OECD-based PISA tests 15-year-olds on maths, science, and reading every three years and measures their results against about 79 other countries.

In the last round in 2019, New Zealand ranked 11th equal for reading, 12th for science and 27th for mathematics. Not a terrible result - but the scores have been going down compared to other countries for over a decade. 

The reasons for this decline are disputed, Gerritsen says. 

Recent disruptions like the Canterbury earthquakes and the Covid-19 pandemic are one factor. 

From the government side, the Ministry of Education has been struggling to enforce change, with schools largely running themselves. The Education Review Office has also been warning the practice of streaming is harming overall levels of achievement, a complaint largely been ignored by many schools. 

Some commentators have suggested New Zealand students' high levels of screen-time could also be an influence - but the jury is still out on whether that's good or bad. 

Ask teachers, Gerritsen says, and "they'll say 'we are dealing with more complex social problems, and personal problems' ... there's more anxiety, there's more behavioral issues."

Some teachers are also avoiding more senior primary-school maths teaching jobs because they're not confident in their ability to teach higher-level maths; and some more conservative voices in the sector say too much of the focus is on building skills, rather than knowledge - particularly in core subjects like literacy, numeracy and science. 

It's this last point that National's 'Teaching the Basics Brilliantly' policy targets most clearly. It would:

  • Require that children spend an hour on average per day on reading, writing and maths - similar to the 'Back on track' policy announced in 2021.
  • Make it so children must reach curriculum benchmarks yearly, instead of across three-year 'bands'.
  • Require "standardised, robust" twice-a-year testing of reading, writing and maths from the third year to the end of primary school. 
  • Providing a centralised library of resources for teachers to create lessons from, with more time dedicated to teacher training.
  • Scrap teacher registration fees, instead requiring an exit exam from teacher's college.

The end goal is to hit 80 percent of Year 8 students meeting or exceeding the expected curriculum level in core subjects by 2030. 

By 2033, they want New Zealand back in the top-10 PISA rankings for maths, reading and science.

The Labour government launched its own plan last year, promising more support for teachers and a new system of tests to measure children's abilities. It also pledged more time showing trainee teachers how to teach maths, reading and writing.

The ministry's nearly completed Common Practice Model is also aiming to line up best-practice approaches after the Tomorrow's Schools review found schools were too isolated and self-directed, and there is a broader Curriculum Refresh under way - prioritising maths, English and science - with a view to finalise arts and languages around 2026. 

Education Minister Jan Tinetti says she's happy with the government's approach and its timeline for completing the curriculum work. She argues National's plan could jeopardise that, and is simply a return to the National Standards of the party's last time on the government benches, an approach teachers complained was unworkable. 

National's Education Spokesperson Erica Stanford admits that approach did not work, says this new plan is not the same and would use the e-asTTle tool already being used in some schools across the country. 

She argues National's curriculum work would build on the feedback received in the government's refresh. With the right people in the right room, she suggested it could be achieved in a fortnight - something Tinetti found laughable. 

Education union NZEI's president Mark Potter argues the plan would only increase bureaucracy and teachers' workloads. 

"What we'd like to hear from National is how they're going to address the real-life issues and the evidence behind the real changes. And everyone in the teaching fraternity, every one of the principals, even our specialists are saying there is an underinvestment in the number of people working in the field." 

But National expected this kind of response from the unions - their policy instead is aimed at parents concerned about the state of the education system and how their child will fare in it. 

The policy's other target is, of course, Hipkins. It was launched in deep in Labour territory - Silverstream, Upper Hutt in Hipkins' Remutaka electorate and literally close to home. The whole affair had the feel of an early election campaign - right down to the schoolyard visit afterwards at Silverstream Primary School. 

The subject matter has also forced his government to defend a struggling sector he was in charge of as education minister for five years.

In this week's Focus on Politics Political Reporter Katie Scotcher grades National on its new education policy.

Listen free to Focus on Politics on Apple Podcasts, on  Spotify, on iHeart Radio or wherever you get your podcasts.