22 Mar 2023

National Party plans to rewrite school curriculum if elected

1:03 pm on 22 March 2023
National Party leader Christopher Luxon visits Prebbleton School.

National Party leader Christopher Luxon says the current system left too much room for children to slip through the cracks. Photo: RNZ / Nate McKinnon

The National Party plans to rewrite the curriculum for primary and intermediate schools if it wins at the next election.

In a release, party leader Christopher Luxon claimed a recent NCEA pilot exposed just how far achievement had fallen, "with a staggering two-thirds of students unable to meet the minimum standard in reading, writing and maths".

However, while recent pilot NCEA tests involving Year 10 students had pass rates as low as 34 percent for writing, the figure was higher for maths and reading - 56 percent and 64 percent, respectively.

In addition, the National Monitoring Study of Student Achievement found 35 percent of Year 8 pupils achieving at the expected level in writing, 56 percent in reading and 45 percent in maths.

Luxon believed the current system, in which one curriculum level could span several years, left too much room for children to slip through the cracks.

"Evidence shows children's abilities are often underestimated and therefore the looseness in the New Zealand Curriculum means some Kiwi kids are learning the building blocks of reading, writing and maths later than they should."

The party would make it clear which skills were non-negotiable at each year in reading, writing, maths and science, he said.

"What want to do with the curriculum is rather than it being presented in three-year bands, it's actually very definitive as to what knowledge needs to be taught in any given year."

It would bring New Zealand in line with other western countries, Luxon told Morning Report.

"For example, in England and Australia, you learn addition and subtraction in year 1. In New Zealand, it can be anywhere between years 1 to 5. If you're learning algebra, it's year 5 in England and Australia but in New Zealand, it's anywhere from year 6 to 10."

The government is implementing its Literacy and Communication and Maths Strategy, which aims to bring a greater focus on literacy and numeracy in learning across the curriculum.

But Luxon said his main point of difference was tightening up the year bands.

"You can't just sort of leave it to chance and have it over a multi-year period... We'll certainly look at the refresh curriculum as a starting point."

While the Ministry of Education's website states there will be greater emphasis on the foundational skills in the strategy, it also states: "We don't want a focus on these foundational skills to lead to a narrowing of the curriculum."

"There's a point," Luxon said in response. "But I can tell you right now when I see the average 15-year-old in New Zealand is a year and a half behind where a 15-year-old in New Zealand was 20 years ago with their knowledge based on maths, that's a problem.

"When they are three-quarters of a year behind on reading and writing from our own students 20 years ago that were 15, that's a problem. When we've dropped out of all the top 10 countries on maths, reading, and science, and writing, that's a big problem for New Zealand."

Te Tiriti and mātauranga Māori - elements recently introduced to the curriculum - were important, but the priority for the party was a "solid delivery of reading, writing, maths and science", he said.

Bulk funding and National Standards were "not something we've [the party] been talking about", he said.

He was supportive of charter schools, but not considering performance pay for teachers.

Luxon also acknowledged the pressure on teachers having to constantly work out what to teach and when.

He believed the policy would reduce the workload on teachers.

The party's first part of its education policy will be announced in the Hutt Valley on Thursday.

'We know the results of this approach already'

Principals' Federation president Leanne Otene told Midday Report the party's announcement was nothing new and a reiteration of the National Standards, which they had implemented when they were in power, and had proven not to be successful.

"We already have progressions that break down those three years in our schools for reading, writing, maths and communication."

She agreed there was a need to focus on foundational skills, but said this was not the way to do it.

The party's policy suggested a results-based approach, which did not account for children who were challenged or those who had different circumstances and backgrounds, Otene said.

"We know the results of this approach already; reading and writing achievements in New Zealand children started dropping when National Standards were introduced in 2008. Those 15 year olds he talked about on the AM Breakfast show this morning are the cohort of tamariki that went through National Standards."

Political parties should be focusing on inequities, mental health issues, and addressing the support for high needs children, Otene said.

"We see education as political football at the moment, and it is exhausting. We're not being given time to embed the curriculum, to work on what is a very rich curriculum that, for the last three years, we've been heavily involved in as educators to put in place."

Other parties respond

Prime Minister Chris Hipkins - who was the Education Minister under Jacinda Ardern's administration - said he thought National and Labour could work together on this.

"Of course we agree that there are some basics where we can do better, reading, writing, maths - those are foundation skills every young person should have ... the curriculum rewrite that's under way at the moment where we are still trying to strive for that bipartisan consensus, I think is an opportunity to explore that."

He said this government and those of John Key and Helen Clark had strived to keep the curriculum from becoming a political football.

"I would hate to see us get to the point where parties start to put specific curriculum initiatives up in their manifestos - that hasn't been a feature of our recent New Zealand political history because I think parents, kids, teachers deserve to know we've got a stable curriculum."

Green Party Education Spokesperson Teanau Tuiono said Luxon's statements so far sounded like an announcement of an announcement, and yet another curriculum reset would be an expensive distraction.

"It can run into the millions and millions of dollars and we're in the middle of one already - so this lot here are saying all this kerfuffle about consultants ... but here they are wanting to spend more money on another thing.

"What we should be doing is actually focusing on improving the working and pay conditions of teachers - they were all striking last week, there is a crucial need to actually fund teachers, make sure their pay is good but also to improve those working conditions."

ACT deputy leader Brooke Van Velden said the party welcomed National's commitment to hard measurement of reading, writing and maths - but it would need to focus on actual improvements.

"All that students got under National's last attempt were artificially inflated grades - so NCEA achievement results went up but our actual results in learning fell backwards," she said.

"It's got to be actual educational outcomes and better learning for kids."

On teacher pay, she referred back to ACT's policy of introducing a $250 million fund to be distributed to principals to pay high-performing teachers more.

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