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Alwyn Poole: Time for honesty and aspiration in NZ education

OPINION: If you have ever lived near a tidal estuary you will know that when the tide is in it all looks serene and clean. When the tide goes out all manner of rubbish and problems are exposed.

In New Zealand over the last five years (including, but not limited to, the Government’s Covid response) the tide has gone out on the New Zealand education system. I doubt that there is a single, even semi-informed, observer who could claim any more that we have a world-class system.

On Saturday Stuff carried an article headlined: “Principals warn literacy and numeracy changes could 'provoke a crisis'”.

The key message was: “School principals around the country warn new literacy and numeracy standards could ‘provoke a crisis’ and ‘undermine the credibility’ of the NCEA assessment system.

“The pilot of the new standards took place in 200 schools earlier in the year and saw just one-third of students pass the writing assessment. By contrast 64% passed in reading and half of students passed numeracy.”

They are wrong in significant ways. The crisis already exists but has been covered up for a long time. It is now widely known that our education system is a mess and many schools are simply not fit for purpose.

Some key indicators are that:

  • Even our Level 2 NCEA graduates often lack functional numeracy and literacy.

  • We have in excess of 8500 students not enrolled in any school as of July.

  • Our full attendance for Term 2 was less than 40% across all deciles and just 23% for decile 1 students.

  • We have 13% of our students graduating with less than Level 1 NCEA (33% for Māori students in South Auckland).

  • The gaps across socio-economic levels are the worst in the developed world. Our ethnic gaps are also horrendous with Asian students getting University Entrance for leavers at 68%, back to Māori at 19%.

When questioned in Parliament earlier this year, Associate Minister of Education Jan Tinetti stated that term two attendance statistics were the important indicator. The Term 2 statistics were released last week and are much worse than previous years.

Labour keeps stating that this decline started under National. Under National there was a slight downward trend in attendance. Labour drove the school attendance bus off the cliff. Tinetti blames Covid but Asian full participation is above 50%, whereas Māori or Pasifika is at 27% or less. The 2022 Budget included $80 million for attendance. After a select committee investigation, that only eight schools (of 2600) submitted to, a further $44 million was added.

Who will take responsibility? The Ministry of Education, whose email footnote states: “We shape an education system that delivers equitable and excellent outcomes”? NZ’s school attendance is behind all the key countries we compare ourselves with (including 15 percentage points behind Australia).

When principals complain about the new credits for functional literacy and numeracy they need to remember that they can be achieved at any time from Year 10 to Year 13. Are they really saying they can’t help students achieve functional literacy and numeracy in five years? The sitting students will have had 12,000 hours of funded schooling each by then. The complaining schools have also had three years to prepare their programmes for this, and the new standards do not come in until 2024.

Where they are right is that there needs to be major change in both parenting and schooling.

As a nation we need massive education and support for pregnant women/partners regarding care for their children in-utero, including a huge programme to counter foetal alcohol spectrum disorder and other harms. We need it to be imperative that parents are the first (and most important) teachers for ages 0–5, including health, reading, numeracy, movement, music, languages.

We have professionalised pre-school learning, and it has come at great cost.

Then it is time for all parents across NZ to ask the hard questions about school leadership, school quality, teacher quality and to demand a LOT better. Parents fund the schooling and it is their children. They deserve better, but they need to be prepared to help.

Our primary school teaching and learning needs overhauling and a lot of the busy work and downtime needs to go. Primary teacher qualifications in English, Maths and Science need significant upgrading.

The Education Review Office says schools should make attending more “enjoyable” (aka fun). How about – inspirational, aspirational, high quality, demanding?

When the tide is out it is the very best time to make things right.

While part of the Villa Education Trust, Alwyn Poole co-founded three schools in Auckland, and was principal of Mt Hobson Academy for 18 years. This piece was first published at Stuff

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