New Zealand elected a Government that promised to introduce national standards so that every single child could read, write, and do maths when they left school. That is what the country voted for. No matter what the briefings say, no matter what the Opposition may say now, almost one in five children failed. They failed under the previous Government. [My emphasis].
There’s quite a bit here that I want to respond to. Some of it will have to wait for a second post early next week. Here I want to consider the big promise. Every single child to reach acceptable levels of literacy and numeracy. That is huge!
If we take the promise at face value then of course we would all love to see National deliver. But they won’t, because it isn’t possible. Primary education doesn’t produce a perfect result in any country. For all the supposed faults of primary education that National have been banging on about incessantly for years*, the facts are that we have a system that produces average results for below average funding. Consider this recent Ministry of Education summary:
State of Education in New Zealand: 2008
The State of Education series is an annual publication. State of Education in New Zealand: 2008 is the third issue in the series, with most of the data relating to the previous year (2007). …
Reading literacy achievement
In 2005/06, the second cycle of the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) found New Zealand Year 5 students, on average, performed significantly higher than the international PIRLS scale mean. The data also show: .. the performance of many New Zealand Year 5 students was relatively strong compared with their international counterparts in 2005/06. For example, approximately 13 percent of New Zealand students achieved scores 625 or higher (i.e. reached the Advanced International Benchmark). This was the ninth highest proportion internationally and nearly double the international median of seven percent …
The Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) showed that in 2006, New Zealand Year 5 students performed higher on average than 12 of the 36 participating countries. Furthermore, there was significant improvement in the mean score of New Zealand Year 5 students between 1994 and 2006. The range of scores between the highest and lowest-performing groups of students reduced between 1994 and 2006, largely because of the increase in scores of students in the lowest performing group. …
Between 1994 and 2006, the average science performance of New Zealand Year 5 students remained about the same as measured by TIMSS. In 2006 the mean performance of Year 5 students was significantly higher than 13 of 36 participating countries.
That’s a strong win on literacy. We are in a statistically indistinguishable low/middle group on mathematics and science (“However, by the time these students are 15 years old they will be performing, on average, above the international means for mathematics and science”). Significantly, this is achieved despite — Labour should have done so much better here — poor investment in preschool and primary education. A 2009 OECD report finds, according to this summary, that NZ has “limited spending on children 5 and under (less than half the OECD average)” and “annual student spending is below the OECD average at prim[a]ry, secondary and tertiary level”.
In short, our primary education is producing average or better results with below average funding. It is cost effective. Yes there is room for improvement – significant improvement. But (1) if National were serious about improving primary education then they would use methods that are likely to work (increased funding, improved pay and conditions for teachers, more teacher training and support). They wouldn’t run an ideological bandwagon like standards, which far from helping will probably cause great harm. And (2) primary education can never be perfect. Only a lunatic would promise that it can be.
Sadly then, National’s promise cannot be taken at face value. While Tolley may be daft enough to believe it, of course her handlers do not. This is just another example of National’s highly effective two pronged campaign strategy – run negative issues to associate with Labour, and make big empty promises. Run negative issues like emigration to Australia, red tape hampering business, growth in the public sector, or children failing primary school (the aptly named “New Zealand sucks campaign“). Make big empty promises like tax cuts North of $50, closing the gap with Australia, a cycleway to rescue the economy, or having every child succeed at primary level. National never deliver on their promises. They can’t possibly deliver on this one. It is desperately cynical politics. But they’ll keep doing it as long as it keeps working.
[* National are absolutely full of praise for our education system when it suits them: “If you’re moving to New Zealand with children, you’ll want to know they’re going to get a good education here. And they will. New Zealand’s education system is world-class, modern and responsive. It combines proven, traditional principles of education with innovation, creativity and fresh thinking to produce leaders and citizens equipped for the 21st century. From a child’s first day at school, our government-funded schooling system provides a comprehensive curriculum of academic, sporting and skills-based learning options in a positive environment.” Sounds fantastic doesn’t it!]