System in freefall: why NZ children face education tragedy

Published in The Australian (Sydney), 3 August 2022

A little more than half a year after New Zealand Labour came to power in 2017, Education Minister Chris Hipkins held two education summits. There were 1,400 people at the Auckland and Christchurch events, which cost NZ$3.1 million to run.

The stated purpose of these summits was grand: “To lay the foundation for the future of learning in New Zealand.” Or, as Minister Hipkins enjoined participants: “You are here not only because of your passion for education, but because we need your help, your ideas and your enthusiasm as we seek to build the world’s best education system for every New Zealander.”

If you read the materials on the Ministry of Education’s website, you get a flavour of what that meant.

Asked about the most important values for education, participants settled on “Hauora / Wellbeing’, “Creativity” and “Whānaungatanga / Family Community”.

In hindsight, perhaps they should have selected ‘Excellence”, “Academic Knowledge” and “Rigour” instead.

In the four years since the 2018 summits, New Zealand’s education system has deteriorated markedly.

New Zealand students no longer receive an education that prepares them for life. Despite – or, perhaps, because of – the Government’s frantic activities to reform the sector, New Zealand has entered a period of unlearning. Soon, no-one will remember what a good education system even looks like, let alone a world-class one.

The problem starts with fewer students attending school regularly. In the first school term of this year, only 46 per cent of students attended regularly, meaning they were present for at least 90 per cent of the time. Even before the pandemic there was an attendance problem. In 2019, the regular attendance figure was only about 65 per cent.

New Zealand’s recent Covid surge explains some of this year’s decline from bad to worse, but not all. It certainly does not excuse the huge gap between schools in different socio-economic deciles. Children from the most affluent decile had an attendance rate of 58.9 per cent while the rate for students in the least well-off communities was only 25.3 per cent.

Neither does Covid explain why there are now 100,000 students (that is one in twelve) deemed chronically absent, meaning they attend less than 70 per cent of the time. That number is up from 38,000 back in 2017.

When children do not go to school, their chances of learning are slim. Still, it seems that even if they do attend school, they may not learn much.

For many years, New Zealand education ministers of all stripes have kidded themselves about how good the New Zealand education system is. They were, perhaps, mesmerised by the percentages of students receiving their National Certificates of Educational Achievement (NCEA), which kept rising.

The problem is that these certificates are often meaningless. Having such a certificate does not even guarantee basic adult numeracy or literacy skills.

The reason for this is that, although there are reading, writing, and numeracy requirements for NCEA, these skills are never tested properly. Instead, students receive numeracy and literacy credits incidentally, when they get credits in assessments for any subject in which words or numbers feature.

In 2014, an analysis by the Tertiary Education Commission revealed there is a very poor correlation between direct assessments of literacy and numeracy and achieving the literacy and numeracy requirements for NCEA.

In response, the Ministry of Education has developed new literacy and numeracy requirements, which will be tested directly. But when the tests were piloted this year, a third of NZ students failed each of the tests for reading and numeracy, and two thirds failed the writing test.

These poor results will surprise no-one who has traced New Zealand’s performance in education surveys.

Despite ever-improving national NCEA pass rates, the trend in international comparisons has gone the other direction: down.

There are three major international education surveys: The Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS); the Trends in Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS); and the OECD’s Program for International Student Assessment (PISA). In all three, NZ’s performance has tanked over the past decades.

For example, between the 2000 and 2018 PISA studies, New Zealand dropped from 4th place to 27th in mathematics, 7th to 12th in science, and 3rd to 12th in reading. In absolute terms, too, NZ declined, so today’s students are considerably doing worse than students would have done previously.

In PIRLS 2016, New Zealand ranked 26th out of 29 OECD countries. And in TIMMS 2019, New Zealand’s Year 5 students were ranked 40th out of 58 countries.

Irritatingly, NZ’s decline in these assessments happened against a backdrop of increasing per-student spending on education. Whereas NZ used to spend about a quarter less per student than the OECD average on education, it now spends about the OECD average.

If it is not for want of funding that NZ education performs so poorly, there must be other reasons. And that leads us back to the government’s 2018 summits.

Like the governments before it, the current Labour-led administration and its Ministry of Education have shown themselves keen to jump on fashionable bandwagons. Anything that sounds kind, caring, inclusive and modern is in. Anything appearing old-fashioned, rigorous or demanding is out.

In this way, over time, NZ’s education system has been hollowed out. There is no canon of knowledge enshrined in the curriculum. There is a lack of rigorous assessment. New teaching approaches are thrown at the system without proper monitoring or evaluation.

The result is that the successive tiers of education play catch-up, catch up. Secondary schools are teaching what primary schools should have. And tertiary institutions spend an incredible amount of effort making up for the deficits of secondary schooling.

NZ once prided itself in having a world-class education system. It has now become a country in education free fall.

This is a problem for NZ’s economy because you cannot build a highly productive country with poorly qualified people.

For those young New Zealanders going through schools and universities without gaining the education, skills, and knowledge they need to flourish, it is more than a problem. It is a tragedy.

Young New Zealanders have been let down by an education establishment which, over decades, has run a once world-leading education system into the ground.

To resurrect it will take more than fancy summits, nice slogans and clever marketing.