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Alwyn Poole: Open letter to Iona Holsted, Secretary of Education

Dear Iona Holsted

Many readers will not recognize your name as Secretary for Education but they should as it is an incredibly important position.

Up until last year all emails coming from your officials had the footer: We shape an education system that delivers equitable and excellent outcomes. Its disappearance is at least an acknowledgement that neither outcome is even close to being achieved.

I process a database each year measuring the outcomes for school leavers from every high school in New Zealand. This week I am using it to write a piece titled, How we keep the lower-class poor and guarantee a low paid, low skill workforce. The comparison between the top ten high schools vs the bottom 42 is truly sobering. It is a bit like Fight Club though isn’t it; we just don’t talk about that stuff.

What's even more sobering is that so little is being done about this. The purpose of this letter is to plead for more action and to ask you and your senior team to get some situational awareness. The latest evidence you have no sense of what's happening to ordinary people across New Zealand was the first few sentences of your weekly Covid Update going to school leaders.

You stated:

“It’s been an historic week domestically and internationally. Both the events at Parliament and in Ukraine are sobering. Both will have long-term effects.

I know these events will have impacted you, your staff, your tamariki and ākonga directly, and they have also been felt throughout Aotearoa.”

Iona, this is abject nonsense and completely myopic. Most schools and families in New Zealand will be aware of both events but barely affected. They haven’t got the time and energy to be. From your office high above Wellington Harbour, you are suffering from the delusion that most upper level bureaucrats/politicians have. That Wellington is New Zealand. It's like asking a young child where the world is and they reply: "It is in New Zealand."

Here are some things that are truly affecting schools and students/families:

- most schools are already rostering home year groups and doing hybrid learning – often very ineffectively. This is caused by a mix of a massive amount of covid cases in some areas, families/teachers being affected by the close contact isolation rules, and genuine teacher shortages caused by the ridiculous mandate. Many children have also become​,​ habitually​,​ completely disengaged from their schooling/education.

- many schools are still trying to find out where a vast number of students who were on their rol​l​s last year have gone.

- schools in Auckland, Waikato and Northland are trying to think of strategies to get students motivated for assessments/exams this year after a 400% increase in students not sitting NCEA exams 2020 to 2021. Schools nationwide are worried about the drop in NCEA achievement overall last year - despite the bonus credits.

- schools are trying to work out how to take students on camp and involve them all in sport. The Minister has said schools must allow unvaxxed kids to do both but all manner of facilities and camp activities still require vaccines passes. It is a mess.

- schools are daily dealing with poverty and many are spending as much time sending out food parcels as they do trying to organise curriculum teaching.

- regardless of covid, full attendance at decile 1 - 3 (poorest) schools is around 36%. As the evidence will show later this week, the high decile schools are progressing in all areas while the neglected low deciles ones are in rapid decline. Where is the inspirational/nationwide programme to get kids back into school? Is it still accurate that 10,500 school-age children in New Zealand are not on any roll (or has that gone up again)?

- schools with an interest in genuine equity are trying to figure out how to get their Maori and Pasifika students, among whom less than 20% currently leave school with UE, up to Asian levels of 69%. Have we given up on that, because so little is now heard about it? Maybe you could do a study into the success of a school like Manakura and disseminate the inspirational information discovered.

- many families are worried about food, employment, paying for uniforms, paying for petrol, looking after kids forced to remain home. Many are living in motels or on the massive social housing wait list. Many have increases in violence in their communities as well as other criminal behaviour. Some families are moving numerous times a year which involves a change of school - if they ever enrolled their child after the last move.

- kids are simply worried about their future. Have you noticed stats showing a 60% increase in self-harm by young people? My guess is that it has nothing to do with the protests in Wellington or war in Ukraine.

- many teachers are exhausted and it is only half way through term one.

Most of this is not reported in media Iona. It doesn’t make the headlines. You have to go out there and find out.

In the last three years employment at the Ministry of Education has gone from approximately 2,900 to 4,000 people. You have some wonderful staff doing huge amounts of work in schools on the front line. I am guessing, even though they are the most useful, they will be on the lower pay scales. What do the rest of your staff do?

I have three suggestions for your senior and middle managers to get some perspective.

1) Please issue an independently formulated survey to every school in New Zealand on the role and performance of the Ministry of Education. Schools have to face the ERO every three years, yet you people have no accountability. If you want to improve, you need to understand the perceived and actual effects of your work.

2) No doubt your senior managers have had to work remotely at times and will have gained a good on-line meeting skill set. Why not have the top 10 in your hierarchy achieve some genuine situational awareness? Each should go to a part of New Zealand more troubled than their Wellington environment and work remotely for 10 weeks. As well as doing their direct Ministry work they can document their experience of the local schools and social milieu. There is no downside and good things would come from it. The level of desperation and need cannot be known from plush Wellington offices and being in the political silo. Again, Wellington is not New Zealand.

3) If you are so concerned with Ukraine please take your top 3,000 bureaucrats and go there to help. Both countries would gain. Ukraine would appreciate it. New Zealand tax-payers would save $300m per annum in your salaries alone and I doubt the school system would miss you at all. I would be happy to start a Give a Little to help with tickets and khakis.

Alwyn Poole,

Innovative Education Consultants

8,085 views44 comments


Apr 19, 2022

Love all the suggestions by Alwyn Poole --- especially the last paragraph.


Donovan Jackson
Donovan Jackson
Mar 16, 2022

Alwyn, I have in the past emailed you with help with mandate problems at school, and both you and Karen were very quick to respond. Helping a nobody is just one aspect of the passion you have for education. I just wish the shiny bums in Wellington could come anywhere close.

In my family, I take primary responsibility for the education of our children. It is not something I am willing to outsource to teachers, particularly as in my experience, it is only the older ones who are any good. The bright young things are all about computers and learning through play. I prefer pencils, erasers, times tables, books and discussions.

Cheers and best wishes for the mountain you are…


Richard Seager
Richard Seager
Mar 09, 2022

Great letter. The takeaway for me is that Maori and Pacifika continue to make up a larger % of the underclass than they should. And Asian the opposite.

Doesn't make for a great multicultural society. And tags the Government and the Iwi with an unwillingness to fix.


Unknown member
Mar 08, 2022

Thank you for that very disturbing commentary. You are correct, as a mere member of the public none of this can be picked up by those of us who have some interest in such an important aspect of NZ life as education but have no inside channels of information.

The situation is a disgrace and adversely affects so many other sectors in the economy including perhaps most important the future calibre of young New ZealandWed.

So we sit on our hands, and turn a blind eye So not only do we appear to be losing ground but nothing is mentioned about it, let alone is being done to address it.

My only suggestion is to give th…

Mar 10, 2022
Replying to

oh how we wish there was someone in Parliament that would stand and deliver some truth/ wants to they are simply there to tow the line.....that's what you get with rubbish MMP - half of them wouldn't know dick about politics but I bet they don't turn down their pay packets.......they are just seat warmers.....



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