20 Sep 2023

Watch: ACT promises tender process for 'failing' schools, stricter early childhood education

1:07 pm on 20 September 2023

The ACT Party is promising online league tables, restricting funding for ECE providers that fall short of teaching the basics, and letting school boards take over other, failing schools.

The party unveiled its updated education policies at the Centennial Theatre at Auckland Grammar on Wednesday afternoon, saying its approach would stop the Ministry of Education from micromanaging schools.

For schools:

  • Consistent, clear, objective criteria for evaluations by ERO, reprioritised based on attendance and educational progress data
  • A clear and structured intervention process for identifying and intervening in under-performing schools
  • Instead of appointing a statutory manager to schools that fall short, put management out to tender, allowing successful school boards to take over
  • Standardised testing for all schools
  • Online league tables similar to Australia's 'My School'
  • Set minimum science-based criteria for curriculums, but allow multiple curriculum versions to become available
  • Bring in an extra set of mock exams from 2024
  • Replace the current NCEA level 3 with the higher University Entrance requirements
  • Expand employer and tertiary input into NCEA standards

For early childhood education (ECE) providers:

  • Increase unannounced ERO visits
  • Change the B4 School Checks which assess health at age 4 to also check they can read their name, know the alphabet, hold a pencil, pick up a book, identify things that are the same, different and group them, match items in a shape box, communicate thoughts and ideas
  • Centralised collection of that data
  • ECEs that consistently fail on those tests lose their funding

The party also reiterated policies to develop a traffic light system for unjustified absences "publicly available in real time", and promised to "redirect funding from centrally controlled truancy services".

ACT Party leader David Seymour announces education policy in Auckland on 20 September 2023.

ACT Party leader David Seymour makes the announcement in Auckland. Photo: RNZ / Calvin Samuel

Currently, attendance services are a mix of school-run, school-and-iwi-run, and combined services that group several schools in a region together.

In a statement, leader David Seymour said the party's policy would free schools up to operate as they saw fit.

This would keep the ministry focused on "the basics: setting minimum criteria for the curriculum, ensuring all schools participate in standardised testing, providing better information to parents, and ensuring all children are turning up to school".

"The education system makes it almost impossible for parents to track whether their kids are learning and achieving at the level they ought to be at," he said.

"As a result, some students are leaving the compulsory schooling system without the basic literacy and numeracy skills needed to thrive in society.

"Teachers are overloaded trying to put together a coherent curriculum and interpret whether the kids in their classes are on the right track. Employers despair at how poorly prepared new workers are as those kids transition from the schooling system to the workforce."

He said the ministry would be required to approve curriculums based on a series of criteria, including:

  • A science-based approach to meeting cognitive development progressions
  • A structured system that builds on skills and knowledge in core subjects
  • A level of detail providing clear guidance about what teachers can teach and when, and transparency for the public
  • Evidence-based and secular content

In a media stand-up Seymour said curriculum changes would be run as "something comparable to an app store for teachers".

"Where different curriculum writers can provide curricula that teachers can choose off the Ministry of Education's smorgasbord, the Ministry of Education's job will be to make sure that there is enough academic knowledge, that the education system is secular and complies with the principles of the education curriculum."

The party's policy documents said it acknowledged that "going down the road of the United States' 'curriculum wars', where the national curriculum is treated as a highly politicised tool for indoctrination is not a good thing".

"And yet, by nature the national curriculum is such an important component of the education system that New Zealand cannot afford to get it wrong."

Seymour said NCEA had become increasingly meaningless for employers and tertiary institutions, and ACT would ensure the University Entrance qualification - which includes NCEA level 3 and additional literacy and numeracy requirements - would become the NCEA level 3 qualification.

"I think it's important that we give choice to all schools, and so the ACT Party would fund a range of curriculums including the International Baccalaureate, including Cambridge International Examinations, including the NZQA's government offering of NCEA, but each of those qualifications would be equally funded."

He said current PISA rankings showed a 15-year-old today "has half a year less learning in reading, science and maths than a generation ago - and that does not bode well for the future of New Zealand".

ACT believed there was a real problem with the roughly 5 percent of schools put under commission management in the last five years, he said.

"What to do when a school fails - at the moment there's a confusing and complex labyrinth of interventions that the Ministry of Education makes and often the same schools go in and out of commission management year after year.

"I say this as someone who comes from Northland and has tried to run partnership or charter schools in Northland and has seen the challenges that schools particularly in remote parts of the country face.

"Until we allow successful schools to grow and unsuccessful schools to be closed, we are consigning, often, a generation of kids to a poor learning environment."

No basic skills

Seymour had this to say on children starting school: "I hear from parents even here in the Epsom electorate where education standards have traditionally been high, that many students show up without knowing which hand to hold a pencil with because they haven't had the experience.

"Basic abilities such as writing their name, knowing their ABC that primary teachers used to take for granted are not something that they can assume among five-year-olds arriving at school today."

He spoke about the need to reduce regulations on ECE centres.

"We've seen early childhood education centres complain that they have to comply with 303 regulations before they open the door each morning and yet nobody is testing how effective they are at giving kids the basic skills to start primary school."

He says charter schools are "one of the most effective and important socially progressive interventions by government in the last generation and I'm so proud that ACT brought them about".

"It wasn't always an easy sell with the Nats to have charter schools at all. Today I think it's fair to say that National claim charter schools are the best idea they've ever had."

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