Once world-class, NZ’s education system is now a disaster. How do we fix it?

Published in the New Zealand Herald (Auckland), 9 November 2022

Some crises occur suddenly. Natural disasters, wars, and pandemics can break out almost overnight. The need for action then is immediate, and responses are often quick and comprehensive.

Other crises unfold over decades before there is an appropriate response.

New Zealand’s education system is experiencing such a slow-burning disaster.

There is an overused metaphor – of the frog that fails to realise it is in a simmering pot before it is boiled alive. That does not quite capture what is happening in New Zealand’s schools. It is more like a tadpole born in lukewarm water and dying of old age just as the water dries up.

It is probably the wrong imagery, but you get the drift. Education in New Zealand has been on a long downward slope for decades.

Perhaps the problem with New Zealand’s education system is that it was once world-class. An outstanding reputation sticks long past its use-by date.

When the OECD began testing education systems around the world in 2000, New Zealand was one of the top performers. Our results were above the average of the world’s most developed countries. We came out 3rd for maths and 4th for reading in a group of 41 countries.

New Zealanders used to take it for granted that our schools were at or near the top. So, when the gradual decline started, it took us too long to notice.

By the time the latest PISA results came out, in 2018, the decline had progressed substantially. In science and reading, New Zealand was only marginally above the OECD average. In maths, we are now below. Out of the larger group of 78 participating countries, New Zealand only ranked 27th.

Even that, unfortunately, has not been alarming enough. PISA tests are for Year 11 students, so any deterioration in primary school education takes almost a decade to show up.

New Zealand has experienced a continuous decline in its PISA results over two decades and we don’t know how far we still have to fall before bottoming out.

Meanwhile, we fool ourselves by pretending we are still doing well. Thanks to the ‘flexibility’ of our NCEA assessment system, more and more students graduate with a certificate. Today, roughly 80 percent of our students leave school with NCEA Level 2, up from 60 percent two decades ago.

However, we know these NCEA results are meaningless, and not just because of the simultaneous declines in international tests like PISA. Our own domestic analysis of basic literacy and numeracy should have been enough to wake us from any complacency.

In 2014, the Tertiary Education Commission alerted us to shockingly poor levels of numeracy and literacy among New Zealand’s school leavers. NCEA masked these failings because there has never been dedicated tests for literacy and numeracy. Instead, these skills were certified using other NCEA standards requiring students to read, write and calculate. That was a mistake. The trouble is that these assessments do not set any particular standard for these skills.

This year, when the Education Ministry finally assessed what is really going on, the results were as predictable as they were depressing. Reading tests was passed by just two-thirds of the 15-year-old students participating, and numeracy tests by just over half. Writing was even worse, with only one third passing.

When an education system ‘performs’ at such atrocious levels, it is justified to talk about a crisis. More than that, it is a national disgrace.

It is even more scandalous because the drop in achievement is unequally distributed. To put it bluntly, the poorer your family, the less likely you are to succeed at school.

For example, only two percent of Decile 1 students passed the Ministry’s new writing test, compared to 62 percent of students in Decile 10 schools. The socio-economic gaps for reading and numeracy are smaller but still substantial.

If a wrecking ball had been run through the education system as it was in the 1990s to yield such results, there would have been an outcry. But because the decline has occurred slowly, that outcry has never happened.

Instead, parents concerned for their children’s education have done their best to make up for the decline in the education system.

If teachers no longer check proper spelling and grammar, many parents correct it at home. When cursive handwriting disappeared from the classroom, some parents taught that, too. Those who can afford it finance private tutors, music lessons and visits to the museum. If you are really wealthy, you might send your children to a private school, teaching towards a Cambridge certificate or an International Baccalaureate.

New Zealand parents have noticed that schools are not quite what they used to be. But instead of going on the barricades, those who can do their best to fix the failings of our public education system privately.

Today, we have reached a point at which most parents can no longer make up for the education system’s deficiencies. Many parents do not have the time or the means to do so. Besides, young parents may never have experienced for themselves what a good education is like.

After a decades-long decline, New Zealand’s education system has reached a point at which the solution can only come from tough, decisive actions. Practically everything in the system cries out not just for reform, but for revolution.

We need better teacher training and a better career structure for teachers. We need a deep, knowledge-rich curriculum. We need a better assessment system. We need proper monitoring systems for school performance. We need an overhaul of the education bureaucracy. And we need all of this at once.

If a war had wiped out our entire education system, the task could not be more daunting.

As it turns out though, it was not war that has wrecked our education system but the failed policies of successive governments.

The challenge for the current generation of politicians is to have the courage to admit just how bad our education system has become. And then they need to have the courage to discard what is wrong and start again.

To finish with another frog metaphor: If you want to drain a pond, you should not ask the frogs for permission.

There are too many such frogs in our education system. It is time to ignore them and rebuild the system.

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