Opinion: School level education in New Zealand – in dire need of a “re-set”

primary school classroom

This article is concerned with primary through to secondary school education, which is largely the period of compulsory education In New Zealand.  The other parts of the education “trifecta” are early childhood education and tertiary education (represented by the universities at the top level but containing a myriad of education providers at lower levels.)

Before getting into the school discussion a brief comment on those other parts.

One of the bright moments for education in the recent Budget was the commitment of significant new funding to early childhood education.  I think this was long overdue as a recognition of how important those early years are in getting children started on their education path for life.  Research shows that interests and habits developed in those years have a whole of life influence.  However, that was about the only bright moment for education!

At tertiary level the most significant move by the Government has been to make the first year of University education free by handing out grants in lieu of student loans.  This has attracted significant criticism on the grounds that it will attract young people into University for the wrong reasons and will overload the University system. However, I personally agree with the grant approach – in part because I think the loan system is such a disaster (it enables graduates to accumulate unreasonable levels of debt and is an open invitation to head offshore after graduation to avoid or at least delay paying back the loan.)  The key to making the grant approach effective is to set and rigorously apply high academic standards of entry, so that only our best minds get to University and do so irrespective of their socio-economic backgrounds.

Which brings me to school education which is currently beset with a multitude of problems including teacher shortages, an increasingly hostile class-room environment, an expanding curriculum which is reducing the time available for students to learn core skills, and a tendency to use schools as social service agencies rather than allowing them to stick to their “education knitting”.  At primary school level in particular there is also concern about the lack of male teachers, and there is general agreement that teachers are under-paid given the importance of their influence over the development of our young people.  A cause for concern too is that we seem to be going backwards in educational performance compared with other developed nations. That is just the start of what is probably a long list.

As a reflection of this situation the Government has announced that a fundamental review of education will be undertaken and will potentially lead to the most fundamental change of direction in schooling since the launching of “Tomorrows Schools” by David Lange.  The review may well meet these expectations but implementing it may be another matter.  I well remember when a major review of social services was undertaken during the term of the Lange government and produced a comprehensive report with far reaching recommendations.  The report ran to several volumes.  However, it was considered by the Government to be largely unimplementable from a political point of view.  David Lange’s famous comment at the time was that the report was most useful as a doorstop.   An education review could meet the same fate given the rigid positions taken by the teacher unions on changes affecting teachers, and the Government’s general ideological position on education issues.


primary school classroom


So, what might the review conclude?  I think the first point is that education is a complex area which will need multiple and integrated solutions – not a single solution.  The second point is that notwithstanding the complexity, teachers are arguably the most important element in the education process.  Quality teachers can have a fundamental and positive impact on the children they teach and their subsequent progress in life – conversely poor teachers can have a lasting negative impact.

But solving the teaching dilemma is not just a case of having more teachers – which is seen as a key problem at present.  The aim must be to achieve high quality teaching across the board, and that is not just a numbers issue – there is a strong quality component. The traditional response to that issue is to introduce performance monitoring and pay but I think the measurement of performance is a real challenge in education.  There are a multitude of factors that bear on the learning achievement of students and it is very difficult to isolate and quantify the teacher contribution.  It is nevertheless important that if more money is to be channelled into teacher pay – and it should be – that a significant part of that money goes to the support of well performing and high-quality teachers.

One answer to that dilemma may be to establish a separate career path for teachers with exceptional skills, with entry to this career path dependent on a review of the teacher’s educational ability by a panel of peers. Teachers could self-nominate or be nominated by another teacher or the Principal.  Once accepted on to this path the selected teachers would be required to be an active mentor in the school, particularly for teachers who are just beginning their careers, and to more generally be active in improving the quality of education in the school.   There should also be provision for teachers to step off this career path, if they feel they have “done their dash”.

The fly in the ointment with this idea is that it is unlikely to be acceptable to the teacher unions who have continued to adhere rigidly to the principle of treating all teachers in the same way, when it comes to pay.  There is a real challenge for the Government in finding a set of solutions which lead to significant quality improvement and are acceptable to the unions.


By Bas Walker

This is another of Bas Walker’s posts on GrownUps.  Please look out for his articles, containing his Beachside Ponderings.