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Dr Muriel Newman

Time to Modernise Education

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We believe that the growing role that government has played in financing and administering schooling has led not only to enormous waste of taxpayers’ money but also to a far poorer educational system than would have developed had voluntary cooperation continued to play a larger role. Milton and Rose Friedman, “Free to Choose”.

It is 193 years since the first school opened its doors in New Zealand. On August 12th, 1816 Thomas Kendall established a missionary school for 33 pupils at Rangihoua in the northern Bay of Islands.[1] Seven years later in 1823 a second missionary school was opened near the Stone Store in Kerikeri, and this time adult students were permitted.

As New Zealand’s settler population increased, education flourished. Those early schools were private enterprises, run largely by the churches. It wasn’t until 1852, when the Constitution Act established the provinces that councils began to assume responsibility for education.[2] By 1867 schools were spread throughout the country, including secondary colleges in the major population centres. There were even plans for a University.

However, in 1877 the Education Act changed the face of schooling in New Zealand, with responsibility for education passing onto central government through the imposition of a national system of “free, compulsory, and secular” education. This move effectively socialised education in New Zealand, with the result that for the last 142 years, the government has effectively been responsible for the funding, regulation, and delivery of primary and secondary education services in this country. The problem is, however – as Milton and Rose Friedman pointed out in their opening quote – that whenever a monopoly provider is protected from competition, the incentives for improving services, increasing quality, lifting productivity, innovating, or minimising costs are either very weak or altogether absent.

The effect of this long-term lack of competition in the compulsory education sector is that educational outcomes are simply not keeping pace with the demands of a modern world. According to the Ministry of Education in their briefing to the incoming government, “The system continues to under-perform for a significant minority of students. Major challenges remain. A significant minority of students struggle to obtain core skills in areas such as literacy and numeracy. Attainment gaps are apparent from a young age, and these gaps often persist as students progress through the school system. New Zealand has a higher proportion of students who achieve at the lower levels of literacy and numeracy than most other countries with high average attainment. Around a third of school leavers fail to obtain NCEA Level 2 qualifications or higher. Leaving school with low or no qualifications narrows the opportunities available to young people and can have serious impacts throughout their lives. It also has serious consequences for New Zealand’s economic and social development.”[3]

The point is that a good education equips students with the knowledge, information, and skills to take full advantage of today’s opportunity society. With most new jobs requiring some advanced education or training, educational achievement is now the prerequisite for a successful future.

Yet in New Zealand, far too many students emerge from twelve years of state education unable to read, write, do basic calculations, or even carry out a proper conversation. Every school day there are an estimated 30,000 to 40,000 drop-outs playing truant. Dislocated and unsupervised, these kids are not only largely responsible for the crime waves within their local communities, but they are also easy game for gangs looking for “prospects”. The failure to engage these youngsters in education that is relevant and compelling is surely one of the gravest failures of state education in New Zealand.

This week’s NZCPR Guest Commentator is Allan Peachey MP, a former secondary school principal and author of “What’s up with our schools”. Allan condemns the ‘bigotry of low expectations’ that pervades far too many New Zealand schools, stating in his article Conspicuously Politically Correct – the bigotry of low expectations: “Too often schools fail because school leaders and teachers have expectations of students that fall below those students’ own levels of self-esteem. What is so hard about forgetting where youngsters come from and aiming for excellence for each of them? What is so hard about setting goals for students and expecting them to reach those goals? Young New Zealanders do not need adults who make excuses for them, or who don’t expect enough of them. They need adults who believe in them, who encourage them to succeed, and who role-model success for them.”

He goes on to state, “Excellence does not occur because a school has a high decile rating, nor is it denied children in low-decile schools. Excellence stems from a state of mind: it has no decile rating; it is not a socio-economic condition. It comes from adults and the messages that adults send to children.”

Allan explains what needs to be done to turn the situation around: “The key lies in establishing the right culture in a new school or in changing the culture of existing schools. Forget about decile ratings; forget about money given out of political expediency and the pitfalls of low expectations. We will start to make real progress when we get politicians who understand that learning will improve only if students are more engaged in it. And that is the biggest complaint that I have about the number of New Zealand schools that are failing many of their students. It is because those students are not sufficiently engaged in learning.” To read the full article, click here

It remains a travesty that the underperformance of state education impacts the hardest on disadvantaged children. Without incentives in the system to require teachers to do whatever is necessary to engage students and ensure they succeed, such children will invariably drift, wasting away the greatest opportunity of their lives. And nor are their parents empowered to make a difference, as school zoning laws (which were introduced by Labour to protect substandard schools) prohibit them from moving their children to a better school. What a nightmare – failing kids in a failing school and parents denied the right to move them to a school where they might succeed. Further, protected by a state system that rejects performance pay, many of the poor teachers in these failing schools have no incentive to either improve their performance or leave. As a result poor teachers remain within a system that shelters their incompetence and perpetuates poor standards, day in and day out, year after year.

This situation could be dramatically turned around with some basic policy changes. Even democratic US President Barak Obama has signalled that he intends to introduce performance pay to reward good teachers and remove bad ones.[4] In addition he will look at extending the school day, as well as expanding the network of charter schools which have proven successful in lifting standards and improving student outcomes – largely through the use of performance contracts for student achievement.[5]

One of the most successful methods of lifting student achievement is a school voucher system. A voucher system enables parents to send their children to the school that best suits their needs – whether public or private – using a standard state funding entitlement. In the USA, between 2007 and 2008 44 states introduced school-choice legislation including vouchers or education tax-credits.[6] In Sweden, a voucher systems has been in place 17 years and in Holland one has been in place for 92 years!

The Swedish system uses a “virtual voucher”. Parents are free to send their children to the school of their choice using a funding entitlement which is equivalent in value to the average cost of educating a child in the local state school. Parents can then use this “voucher” to “buy” a place at the school of their choice. With funding following a child to their school of choice, the government can then support the schools that are the most popular with parents.[7]

In Sweden, the education voucher cannot be topped up – in other words, schools participating in the scheme cannot charge any additional fees – and nor can they “select” students on any other basis than first-come first-served. The private school voucher scheme is supported by the teacher unions and accounts for around 6 percent of students.

The situation in Holland, where some 70 percent of schools are private, is more flexible. There, parents are free to choose their children’s school with the state paying most of the cost. An estimated 86 percent of parents choose the school that their children attend, rather than simply sending them to the nearest school.[8]

As our Ministry of Education noted in their briefing paper to the new government, New Zealand has much work to do in the compulsory school sector to lift educational outcomes for children. As at July 2007, some 760,000 students were enrolled at primary and secondary schools, with 83 percent attending state schools, 13 percent state integrated schools, and 4 percent independent schools. Remarkably, while there are rigid restrictions on school choice for primary and secondary school students and their parents, there are no such restrictions in the early childhood sector nor in the tertiary education sector. There, the funding follows the child to the education provider of choice. Removing this anomaly – as Sweden has done – so that school choice can exist right through the compulsory education sector, would significantly lift student achievement and ensure a far better future for New Zealand as a whole.

I will leave the last words to President Obama, who in a speech about education last month, left no doubt about the vital role that parents play in the education of their children: “No government policy will make any difference unless we also hold ourselves more accountable as parents — because government, no matter how wise or efficient, cannot turn off the TV or put away the video games. Teachers, no matter how dedicated or effective, cannot make sure your child leaves for school on time and does their homework when they get back at night. These are things only a parent can do.

“I say this not only as a father, but also as a son. When I was a child my mother and I lived overseas, and she didn’t have the money to send me to the fancy international school where all the American kids went to school. So what she did was she supplemented my schooling with lessons from a correspondence course. And I can still picture her waking me up at 4:30 a.m., five days a week, to go over some lessons before I went to school. And whenever I’d complain and grumble, she’d patiently repeat to me her most powerful defense. She’d say, ‘This is no picnic for me either, buster.’”

1.NZ History Online, Men of Vice or Virtue?
2.NZ Electronic Text Centre, History of New Zealand. Vol I-III
3. Min Ed, Briefing to the Incoming Government
4.White House, President Obama’s Remarks to the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce
5.Muriel Newman, Education Matters 
6.Heritage Foundation, How Members of the 111th Congress Practice Private School Choice
7.BBC, Swedish parents enjoy school choice
8.Deborah Coddington, Let parents Choose, The Valentine Press, 2003