Science teacher, Olivia Dol, with students at Napier Girls’ High School. Photo: Florence Charvin
Science teacher, Olivia Dol, with students at Napier Girls’ High School. Photo: Florence Charvin

In fact, for the past 15 years, primary and secondary school students’ achievements in maths, science and reading have fallen well behind their international peers, according to the three reports. Yet, in spite of this decline, NCEA pass rates and the money spent on our education system have never been higher. 

The surveys – Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS), Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) and the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) – tracked students’ achievements over several years. They found the performance of our students has declined over recent years, causing our international rankings in reading, maths and science to drop. 

However, not everyone is convinced by the results, as BayBuzz found talking to local principals. While they do provide some cause for concern, education experts and principals say they only tell one part of the story. They say the surveys only offer a narrow, skills-based focus that isn’t representative of students’ achievements, and stress that there’s plenty to celebrate in our school system. 

Measuring up

The trend of our slipping student performance is evident across PIRLS, TIMSS and PISA. These well-respected international surveys have examined New Zealand’s education system from the mid-1990s to 2019, providing snapshots of primary and secondary students’ performance in reading, science and maths every three to five years. They indicate both primary and secondary students’ performance has declined, sometimes markedly, over recent decades. 

PIRLS is conducted every five years and measures trends in reading literacy among middle primary schools. In the latest survey, held in 2016, 41 countries participated. Results showed New Zealand was ranked only 26th out of 29 OECD countries. Our Year 5 average literacy score sits well below many of the countries we usually compare ourselves to, including Australia, Canada, England and the US. 

The TIMSS survey is conducted every four years and measures maths and science among middle primary school students. The latest survey was held in 2019 and showed New Zealand is also lagging behind our OECD peers in Year 5 maths and science. Our maths performance has been below the international average for the entire period, placing us 30th out of 32 countries in 2019. While our science performance peaked in 2003, it has since declined to 29th out of 32 OECD countries.

PISA surveys are conducted every three years and cover reading, maths and science performance of Year 11 students. Around 80 countries take part. Between 2000 and 2018 there was a marked decline in our student achievement across all three subjects, particularly in maths. In 2000, our maths score, 537, was among the highest in the OECD, but by 2018 it had fallen 43 points to 494. Our science and reading scores also fell by 22 and 23 points. 

Curriculum change

New Zealand schooling changed significantly when our national curriculum was revised in 2007. Prior to this it was a very detailed, tightly controlled document that made teaching a “machine-like” process, says New Zealand Principals’ Federation (NZPF) national president, Perry Rush. 

The updated document, in contrast, has high-level goals but leaves the detail up to teachers. For this reason, the document is admired around the world for its innovative, unique approach that gives every school the capacity to localise their curriculum. This has had a positive impact on student engagement by allowing teachers and students to create content through contexts that are meaningful to their own community. “It’s much more engaging for young people; it’s more interesting. It helps young people find those areas of interest and application in their learning,” says Rush. 

However, it has also been detrimental to the national consistency around the teaching of important knowledge that “can’t be left to chance”, he says. “The negative of this approach is that the curriculum can come to mean different things to different people.” He points to this change in approach to the way we teach as a contributing factor to the results we’re seeing now. 

Spending more hasn’t helped

Following the survey findings, The New Zealand Initiative (NZI) released its report, Educational Performance and Funding in New Zealand: Are our children getting the education they deserve? Co-author David Law said the overall results weren’t surprising, but the extent of our performance decline was. “It’s a worrying trend and it’s going to continue unless we think hard about it,” he says. 

The report supports the view that the prevalence of child-centred learning has contributed significantly to the decline. Interestingly though, while our performance has been slipping, NCEA pass rates are rising. The report doesn’t specifically address this issue, but the implication is NCEA isn’t capturing the same skills tested in the surveys, says Law. The report goes further, suggesting NCEA results are masking our decline in performance and contributing to a lack of awareness of the situation. 

Further compounding our poor performance are recent figures showing an alarming number of New Zealand students don’t attend school regularly. Data released by the Ministry of Education in March showed in term one of 2020 only 50.5% of students attended school regularly. While Covid has had an impact, attendance levels were already declining prior to the pandemic and even when regular attendance is at its highest, 30% of students do not regularly attend. If children aren’t in school, their achievement levels will continue to suffer. 

Yet, alongside our slipping performance, per student spending has increased dramatically in New Zealand. Between 2006 and 2019, spending rose by $2,100 a year per primary student and $2,700 a year per secondary student, according to the NZI report. Incredibly, this additional investment has had little impact on our educational achievement. The report found “there is virtually no relationship between per-pupil spending and achievement beyond a certain level of spending, a level which New Zealand has surpassed”. 

Despite the funding increase, the loss of curriculum advisory services and professional leadership that was previously provided to schools have both had a significant, detrimental effect, says Rush. Since these services were disestablished, there has been no mechanism for the Ministry of Education to help schools improve around key areas. 

Without senior thought leadership and the appropriate support to enable teachers to use it effectively, the national curriculum has been poorly understood and managed. Ultimately, students have paid the price. 

Should parents be concerned? 

It seems principals have differing views. 

Hastings Boys’ High School headmaster Robert Sturch says yes. There’s been an evident decrease in maths problem-solving, science and reading skills in most secondary schools over the past 10 years, says Sturch. The school’s performance results mirror the findings, with a decline in entry level data compared to 10 years ago.

Sturch points to a greater need for family support and engagement, as this “has one of the strongest impacts on a child’s learning”. School’s also need to adjust how they engage with students to ensure material is relevant and meaningful, alongside improved teacher training and greater emphasis on effective practice. 

Schooling is about more than just maths, science and reading, however, he says. “It is also about turning out good people, but without good academic problem-solving skills they are going to have barriers to success.” New Zealand still has a world class education system, but we need to go back to basics to address the falling performance, says Sturch.

However, Napier Girls’ High School principal Dawn Ackroyd urges parents not to be alarmed by the survey findings. While they have some validity, they don’t tell the full story, as New Zealand has a more holistic education system than the narrow measures assessed in the surveys, says Ackroyd. 

“As a school we have a responsibility to look at the research but it’s more important to be constantly looking at the students in front of us.” Ackroyd says staff are constantly evaluating students’ performance, identifying their needs and structuring the curriculum to meet these. “We want the best for them, as do their parents.” 

In contrast to the survey findings, Napier Girls’ students continue to perform strongly in reading, maths and science, supported by a “fantastic” curriculum and meaningful NCEA assessments, she says. However, setting up students for future success is about more than achievements, says Ackroyd. “For us it’s the whole person – do they have a good skill set to go out into the world? Are they empathetic? Are they kind? Can they manage change? Can they work as part of a group? Are they good problem solvers? Are they good critical thinkers?”

Rush agrees that the survey findings should be viewed in a measured way. We should worry less about our performance against other countries, given the different contexts and approaches to teaching used, which make it difficult to compare results, he says. Instead, we should focus on our performance against our own historical patterns. “Within our own context we’ve seen a decline, we have to be concerned to ask hard questions about why that is the case.”

Making inroads

It’s clear we need to address declining student performance, but the good news is, we’re already making steps forward. The Government, professional bodies, principals and teachers have acknowledged the issue and conversations are taking place about how we can improve. 

An indication of this is the number of collaborative workshops that have been held this year between the Ministry of Education, NZPF representatives and principals around the country focusing on how to improve the national curriculum and positive outcomes for students. A national road trip is also due to take place in Term Two to engage principals and lead teachers about their ideas for improving the current model.

Perhaps the most significant development is the Government’s commitment to establish a nationally-based curriculum centre to provide leadership and expertise. The purpose of the centre is to support schools to develop and deliver the curriculum in a way that provides national consistency. 

Schools are also altering the way they teach, particularly in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM), to ensure positive outcomes for students. At Napier Girls’, in addition to student-centred and effective assessment practice, teachers bring real life context into the classroom to make learning meaningful. They also encourage students to have high expectations, removing barriers and challenging unconscious bias – e.g., “I’m hopeless at maths”. 

Where do we go from here?

So, if spending more money isn’t the answer, what is? Rush says we need a nationally consistent way of teaching the curriculum, so schools are more connected, and students aren’t missing out on important knowledge. “But we also need to be careful that we don’t swing the pendulum too far, back to a very tight, outcome-based, traditional, top-down type curriculum. Because then we run the risk of damaging that capacity to engage young people in contexts that are meaningful.”

Rush also advocates for more curriculum leadership and support for schools to deliver it effectively. “It has to be a handshake between being clear about what the curriculum requires, but still maintaining some ability to contextualise that curriculum locally.”

It’s important not to underestimate the role of parents in their children’s success, says Ackroyd. By being actively involved, such as reading to children from a young age, parents lay the foundations for their children’s future. Changes in society, including the use of digital devices have had an impact on early literacy and we need to ensure reading is encouraged from a young age, she says. 

Improved teacher training and greater emphasis on effective teaching in maths, English and science would be a good place to start, says Sturch. Ultimately, a return to basics is needed, if we’re going to turn things around. The world of work is changing rapidly due to changes in demographics, globalisation, and advances in technology. Employers are seeking different skills from candidates compared to previous generations. 

The way our education system prepares them for this changing landscape is also evolving, and rightly so. New Zealand’s holistic curriculum remains an exceptional platform for teachers to provide children with a quality education before they go out into the world. In particular, we can feel proud about the way our schools honour the identity of students and include their ideas in learning, within a local context. 

The value of this method is continually demonstrated by the significant impact Kiwis have on the world stage, says Rush. “We believe we can achieve big things and I think that comes from our approach to schooling.”However, while we should continue to be excited about what the New Zealand system offers, it is clear the status quo is not serving our children as well as it should. It’s also clear that additional financial investment is unlikely to have any impact on student performance. Principals, teachers, the Ministry of Education and the wider community need to keep asking the hard questions, to find the areas that require improvement and address these. And what do parents want? 

An empathetic child able to work well with others, or a child who can multiply and divide, read with insight, and understand basic scientific principles … or both? 

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1 Comment

  1. About 3 months ago I ordered an item that wasn’t available locally and was advised that it would cost a lot and would have to from Japan. So I placed my order. I was phoned last week to advise me my order had arrived to I went into the shop to pay for it. I also saw a box of little trinkets on the counter that were $1.50. When my order came to the counter I said I would buy the trinket as well. I was told that I would need to pay $600. I commented that the order must have cost $598.50. No said the salesgirl, it is $450. So why do I need to pay $600? Reply was that 150 and 450 adds up to 600. So I asked the salesgirl to enter 450.00 into the till and 1.50 into the till. She did. So how much should I pay. She was amazed and said that the till said I owed $451.50 and I agreed that is what I’ll pay. She was not happy but put it through to the eftpos and I paid it. As I collected my purchases she said but it really should have been $600 so I suggested that she write it down and take note of the decimal places and I left. She left school at the end of last year and was probably aged about 17.

    No wonder there are so many people attending post secondary literacy and numeracy claases in HB and the rest of the country.

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