If we are really serious about building a first world economy, then we must ensure that every child – no matter what their background – is given the skills to contribute to their fullest possible extent to our nation’s future.
That is why it is surely a national disgrace that one in five New Zealand children leave school without the most basic reading, writing or maths skills. Since the vast majority of New Zealand children – around 96 percent – attend state schools, it is the government that must be held accountable for this massive failure. After three terms in office, there can be no excuses.
Education has always been the lifeline to a better future. Generations of parents have struggled and sacrificed in order to ensure that their children gained the qualifications needed to secure a job with good career prospects.
My own family was no different. My parents came from an era where children were forced into work from primary school. They watched as kids who were no brighter than they, but had been allowed to stay at school, gained better jobs and higher wages. As a result, my brother and I were the first in our family to achieve any sort of higher qualification. That we both gained doctorate degrees is a tribute to the ambition of our parents, who were determined to see us succeed, as well as to our own resolve not to let them down.
But education has changed dramatically since the days when we were students. Even during the 20 years that I was a teacher, the system has undergone an inexorable transformation. Great people who had traditionally been ‘called’ into teaching from a variety of other career paths are now locked out by the new teacher training requirements. The surrender of the education system to the excesses of radical feminism and political correctness has meant that rather than simply ensuring that girls caught up with boys in the achievement stakes, boys are now regularly left behind, with men having been all but driven out of the profession. And with an army of 4,000 public servants governing the school sector, it is little wonder that teachers these days feel they spend half of their lives filling in unnecessary forms and complying with a mindless bureaucracy instead of teaching.
Dr Kevin Donnelly, Director of Education Strategies and author of the book “Dumbing Down”, is our NZCPR Guest Commentator this week. In his opinion piece “How Effective is New Zealand’s Education System?” Dr Donnelly states:
“It is clear that New Zealand students in mathematics and science are consistently outperformed by students in countries like Japan, Singapore, Hong Kong, Belgium and the Netherlands. Talk to tertiary academics, employers and parents and the consensus is that standards have fallen with many students leaving school unable to write a grammatically correct, lucid essay, complete basic algorithms without a calculator or demonstrate a broad knowledge of New Zealand’s history, social institutions and culture”.
He goes on to explain, “There is an alternative approach to strengthening New Zealand’s education system. Based on research undertaken by two European academics Ludger Woessman and Eric A Hanusheck, the best way to raise standards is to free schools from provider capture by giving them the freedom and autonomy to compete and best respond to the demands of the market place”.
Around the world, progressive governments have understood the huge improvement in standards that result from establishing a competitive marketplace in education, whereby schools compete to lift student achievement. Whether they are run by churches, charities, businesses or special interest groups in the profit or not-for-profit sector, research shows that private sector schools are, on the whole, far more responsive to the needs of students and the demands of parents than government schools. In some countries like Sweden, Denmark and the Netherlands, where there is a well established education marketplace with state and private schools operating in concert and parents free to take their education funding to the school that best meets their children’s needs, political opposition to private schools is virtually non-existent.
That is certainly not the case here. In New Zealand, the whole education sector is now highly politicised, including the curriculum itself. The government’s agenda is being foisted onto the schools, as any cursory examination of the school curriculum will show. “Gender issues” are being pushed onto children as young as five, a strong anti-business bias comes through, and the multitude of arguments in favour of man-made global warming would lead students to believe that there is a crisis and a scientific consensus when we know that is far from the truth.
Political opposition to private sector education – largely spearheaded by the powerful teacher unions – can be intense. Any moves towards greater parental choice in education or increased school autonomy, is strenuously opposed. The argument is usually that greater school choice will only benefit the rich kids, disadvantaging the poor. Nothing could be further from the truth!
In New Zealand, parents who want to send their children to a non-government school are forced to pay a significant financial penalty. That involves paying the cost of private school fees on top of the taxes they pay to finance government schools. In effect, this means that while well-off families can meet the expense of paying ‘double’ school fees, the vast majority of families cannot. Nor can the disadvantaged afford the property values that would enable them live in neighbourhoods with a decent state school.
As a result, New Zealand children who are being failed by their local state school are priced out of any alternatives by government policy: zoning laws that force children to attend their closest school, no matter how bad it is, and funding restrictions that prevent education funding from being used for non-government schools. This is in spite of well-known research that overwhelmingly shows that the educational outcomes for such children would improve if they had free access to independent schools.
Whether we like it or not, in the state school system, teachers and their administrators are forced to serve their political masters – the government. While they invariably do all they can to ensure that students get a good education, they simply do not have the same freedom and autonomy enjoyed by educators in the private sector. There, survival depends on firstly ensuring that students succeed to their highest potential, and secondly, that their parents – who pay the bills – are well-satisfied with their progress. In other words, while the state sector has its focus on the smooth running of the system, the private sector has its focus on student success.
In the United States, the Charter School movement is demonstrating how public schools can make exceptional progress in lifting standards and improving student outcomes, by freeing them up from bureaucratic constraints and introducing some of the disciplines of the marketplace – including performance contracts for student achievement. There are now more than 4,000 charter schools operating in more than 40 states, with many charter school operators now running networks of successful schools. 
The Economist recently examined how Charter Schools were being used by Mayor Michael Bloomberg, to turn around New York’s failing public school system. Graduation rates are now the highest they have been in decades, and with the gap between white and minority students rapidly narrowing, Mayor Bloomberg intends to convert the remaining city schools to charter schools.
Back at home, with around a half of Maori students and a third of Pacific Island students leaving school without even achieving a Level 1 NZCEA qualification, more of the same is not the answer. We should be embracing the successes from overseas and begin trialing them at home. At the very least we should expect that every school leaver has achieved the basics of competency in reading, writing and arithmetic as a result of their spending twelve years at school. Is that too much to ask?
1. Norman La Rocque, Bulk funding is dead: long live bulk funding
2.The Economist, The Great Experiment
3. Roger Kerr, Scoring Our Schools: What Makes for a Good Education