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Dr Muriel Newman

Choice Improves Quality

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24 June 06

Choice Improves Quality

A good education is one of the greatest gifts that parents can give to their children: education provides skills that equip people to make their way successfully in an increasingly complex world.

The days when it was easy to earn a good living from manual labour are virtually gone. Instead, technology has replaced man with machines, and globalisation has substituted production lines in China for factories in New Zealand. To improve national productivity qualifications are now more important than ever before.

With education being one of the most expensive areas of government spending, the question that we should all be asking, is how well does our system work for students, and are taxpayers getting value for money?

In answering these questions, we need to remind ourselves that the four levels of education – pre-school, primary school, secondary school and tertiary level – operate quite differently. The preschool and tertiary sectors operate a voucher system whereby parents and students choose from a range of approved providers and the funding follows the child, whereas primary and secondary schools are monopolies run by the government.

The performance of schools in the state sector has long been the subject of concern. Back in 1987, the Lange Labour Government established a taskforce under the leadership of Brian Picot to review the system. The report identified a number of “serious weaknesses”, namely that it was poorly managed, over-centralised, and that schools were unresponsive to the needs of parents and students.

The changes proposed lead to the “Tomorrow’s Schools” initiative and the 1987 Education Act. But while the changes were designed to give schools more autonomy and parents more choice, they were implemented in a half-hearted manner and have now been all but dismantled.

Mark Harrison in his book Education Matters: Government, Markets and New Zealand Schools, puts it this way: “Despite the world wide trend away from central planning and government owning the means of production, the education sector in New Zealand remains predominantly government owned, funded and controlled, and the serious weaknesses identified in the Picot Taskforce persist”.

“In Harms Way”, a 2003 publication by the Maxim Institute analysing the results of four international surveys involving thousands of New Zealand’s primary and secondary school students, found that while the best students perform well, those at the bottom end of the scale perform very poorly: only 19 percent of fifteen year-olds performed well on fixed international benchmarks for reading literacy being ‘capable of completing sophisticated reading tasks’, with the gap between the top 25 percent and bottom 25 percent of achievers in reading literacy being the second largest amongst 32 nations.

In mathematics education, New Zealand ranked last amongst six participating English speaking nations and 20th out of 24 OECD countries, with 31,000 out of 71,000 Year 9 pupils being ‘unable to apply basic mathematical knowledge in straight forward situations’.

Such results show that the New Zealand school system is failing disadvantaged students, who are, of course, the children most in need of a good education. Worse, the zoning laws recently introduced by Labour, is now locking these vulnerable children into failing schools, preventing their parents from being able to move them to alternative schools that are performing better.

Students whose parents can afford to pay for a private education have the power to protect their children from state school failure by choosing an independent school that best meets their needs. But the problem is that relatively few New Zealand families can afford to pay twice (once through their taxes and secondly through private school fees) for their children’s education – and nor should they have to do so.

The reality is that it is government ideology and union power that prevents the same voucher system that operates at pre-school and tertiary level from operating in the primary and secondary sector. The teaching workforce is strongly controlled by the unions who violently oppose any moves – such as bulk funding, national testing, and performance pay – that could free up the system. Further, judging by the extent of political ideology in the curriculum, Labour undoubtedly views education as an important tool for social control and is unlikely to support any moves to free up the system.

However, if we are serious about wanting to improve our education system then we should recognise that countries with schools that perform well in international comparisons operate mechanisms to encourage school choice: they understand that if parents are given a choice of schools for their children to attend, and if schools are given the freedom to satisfy the needs of their students in their pursuit of educational excellence, then everyone wins – the children succeed, their parents are happy, and as the school undergoes that process of continual innovation and progressive improvement that are the hallmarks of successful enterprises, national educational standards continue to rise.

The school systems of both the Netherlands and Sweden – two countries that score well in international comparisons – are good examples: the state monopoly in education in Holland ended in 1917, creating a vibrant private school sector, and Sweden has a thirty year track record of school choice with vouchers now widely available.

This week’s NZCPD guest, student leader Helen Simpson, shares her experience of the Swedish school system, which she enjoyed as a seventeen-year old New Zealand exchange student.

The poll this week asks: Do you think that a voucher system for primary and secondary schools should be introduced?

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