[As published in July/August BayBuzz magazine.]

Three Hawke’s Bay principals share their viewpoints on what’s working, what’s not, and their vision for our future education system. 

Ask any teacher about education reforms and it’s likely they’ll shake their head in frustration. And they’re not the only ones. Parents are also concerned about the quality of their children’s education in a country where our educational standards are constantly being renegotiated and restructured to reflect political ideals.

The result is a tension between the school system and the government, while students face the consequences. On the face of it there may be compelling reasons for education reforms, but should our schooling be vulnerable to a changing political context?

Educators are screaming out for less interference, disruption, and change. Yet reforms and targets are getting in the way of teachers’ ability to do their job. Every child deserves an education where their needs are met meaningfully and now more than ever, our education system must produce well-rounded people who can succeed in an ever-evolving world. Our education system is failing our students, so what needs to change?

Changes underway

The Ministry of Education is two years into a six-year programme being rolled out to secondary schools in what is the most significant change to the curriculum in 20 years. The refreshed curriculum is being developed and released in phases, with the first stage taking effect this year.

As part of this, New Zealand history is required to be taught in all high schools, in addition to a number of other curriculum changes that provide a stronger focus on wellbeing, identity, language and culture. Updated learning materials will make it easier for teachers to design and deliver a local curriculum that includes national curriculum content. 

At the same time, changes are also taking place for NCEA. New standards will be introduced in all subjects at NCEA Level 1, as well as new controversial literacy and numeracy tests. Schools will be required to implement the new NCEA Level 1 next year but will not have to start using Level 2 until 2026 and Level 3 until 2027, after the mandatory introduction of these was pushed back a year. The new reading, writing and numeracy tests, which students must pass before they are awarded any NCEA qualification, will be brought in next year. 

The refresh aims to make the New Zealand curriculum “more relevant, easier to use and more explicit about what learners need to understand, know and do,” Minister of Education Jan Tinetti said in a statement. She said educators will be supported throughout the refresh and provided with guidance to help plan and deliver engaging learning experiences. 

The Opposition’s plan

National Party leader Christopher Luxon has highlighted concerns about the standard of our education system and a decline in basic skills, which is a key target of their proposed reforms, unveiled this year. 

National’s plans include a requirement for primary and intermediate schools to teach students at least one hour a day on each of the topics of maths, reading and writing. Children would also be tested on these subjects at least twice a year in a new version of the National Standards. 

Luxon said National would target 80% of Year 8 students achieving at or above the expected curriculum level for their age in reading, writing, maths, and science, and to return NZ to the top 10 of the OECD’s PISA rankings by 2033. PISA is the OECD’s Programme for International Assessment – measuring 15-year-old students’ ability across reading, maths and science. Of the 79 participating countries, New Zealand is currently 11th equal for reading, 12th for science and 27th for maths. 

Luxon says a decline in basic maths, reading and writing are the symptoms of an education system that is failing to prepare children for success in the real world.

“Two-thirds of secondary school students failed to meet the minimum standard in reading, writing and maths, while 98 per cent of decile one Year 10 students failed a basic writing test. This is utterly unacceptable,” he said in a statement. 

To support teachers under the reforms, National has proposed providing additional classroom tools and lesson plans to help teach reading, writing, maths, and science more effectively. 

What the principals say

While there is much to celebrate in New Zealand’s education system, there are also many concerns that need to be urgently addressed for our children to get the education they deserve.

Three Hawke’s Bay principals, across primary, intermediate, and high schools share their viewpoints on what’s working, what’s not, and their vision for our future education system. 

The curriculum refresh, which is already underway, places stronger emphasis on the Treaty of Waitangi, giving students a better understanding of New Zealand history, says principal of Napier Central School, Ross McLeod. This promotes a strong sense of self – helping children relate to others and the world around them – and reinforces the school’s strong value system, says McLeod. “Those values of respect, integrity, what they mean and look like and for young children, that’s an ongoing conversation that we have with them.” Encouraging these things helps kids become confident and connected, “so that when they finish with us they’re ready for those next challenges and opportunities,” he says. 

At Havelock North Intermediate there is also support and genuine excitement about teaching the Treaty of Waitangi and the use of Te Reo Māori under the new refreshed curriculum. “The commonality throughout the refresh of ‘understand, know, do’ offers innovative approaches and new methods for effective teaching practice,” says principal Nigel Messervy. 

Hastings Girls’ High School principal Catherine Bentley is also complimentary of the curriculum refresh, but acknowledges it’s only one aspect, and there is more work to do. “It’s a stunning document but in order for that to breathe life and in order to give effect to that it’s going to take a lot of resourcing and it’s going to take time. It needs to be handled right, it needs to be led right for it to really come to its potential,” she says. 

In spite of several high points, there are a number of concerns for schools, including a drop in students’ performance, poor attendance, and increased use of digital technology. Schools face an increasing number of issues that they are dealing with, says McLeod. “There are a lot of challenges in society. We can only control what happens during our school day.” 

Furthermore, some of the proposed reforms don’t translate into the classroom, say the principals. Setting a one-hour timestamp on individual subjects as National has proposed does not make sense or reflect how education works, says Messervy. Literacy and maths for example, is integrated across most subjects giving students multiple learning opportunities. The curriculum refresh aligns learning with rich contexts, so the processes of learning are as important as the outcome.

Bentley is also critical of National’s proposal to have one hour each of maths, English and science. Educators need to instead be experts at teaching literacy and numeracy, and to capitalise on opportunities to develop that knowledge with students through other avenues, rather than having a single focus. 

Measuring and weighing across schools and reporting their success is also a dangerous approach, says Bentley. League tables take the focus away from what’s best for the individual student and it becomes what’s best for the institution. “What we’ve got to be looking at is the value that we add to individual students. It’s not a broad-brush thing.”

Major changes to what is taught in schools and then how it is assessed for the National Certificate of Educational Achievement qualifications is an ongoing concern to educators and parents. Schools have criticised the changes to NCEA as poorly implemented and have raised concerns about how they will impact student outcomes – so much so that some are choosing to abandon NCEA in favour of alternative qualifications that are globally recognised by top universities.

A political football

However, it is the political context – how education policy is formed and led – that is the biggest concern. Teachers and students face ongoing uncertainty and disruption to our education system due to political influence. Any changes made to the curriculum call for staff to fully understand new requirements and to embed new learning into planning, preparation, and classroom programmes – all of which are time consuming.

For everyone who works in education, it’s unrelenting and exhausting. “As educators we do our best to wear our professional hats and remain politically neutral,” says Messervy. But it can sometimes be challenging, he admits. “At times the political powers-that-be have pushed agendas and scored an own goal. However, those that are responsible have moved on. The effects are long lasting, and this approach lacks professional accountability.” 

Bentley agrees, saying it’s unfair on everyone in the education sector to face changes every time there’s an election. “You’re having to train and retrain people and that’s no way to build a rock-solid education system.” 

Tinetti, a former principal, has called for the Opposition to find common ground on education so the sector doesn’t suffer through reforms that differ from government to government.

Kids chronically absent

Even the highest-quality education system won’t have any impact however, if our classrooms are empty. Poor attendance rates have reached critical levels in this country, with an astounding 100,000 kids habitually absent from school. 

Absenteeism is a complex issue affecting many of our high schools, with no easy fix. Schools that draw from a lower socio-economic group face barriers that are harder to overcome. Some kids don’t show up because they’re not engaged enough at school, for others the cost of a uniform or lunch can be a barrier to school. Covid has put financial pressure on families, forcing some high school students to choose to go out and work to bring in extra money rather than attend school.

Havelock North Intermediate has undertaken a number of measures to support students coming to school. When it’s too cold to walk in winter, they run a school van to pick up students. Through local community organisations, lunches are provided every day to students who need them. When families need specialist support services, they advocate for the children. Effective relationships and trust are a key factor in having students attend regularly, he says.

At Hastings Girls’ High School a strategic team collects attendance data each week, communicates with families, works to “make school irresistible”, and removes barriers to attendance such as uniforms, lunch and transport. “Every day matters,” says Bentley. And they’re seeing results, with a 10% improvement in attendance in Term one this year compared to the same time last year. 

New ways forward

Among the teaching community there’s a strong consensus that education should be independent from politics. The current model leaves teachers and students vulnerable to constant change, based on who’s in government. “Depending on which party is leading the country, the values shift and as an education sector we have to align with those values and I think it has to be away from being party driven,” says Bentley. “It has to be more sustainable and bigger than the flavour of the month party,” adds McLeod. 

Principals advocate having educators, not politicians, leading decisions around the education system. “You’ve got to have experts making the decisions,” says Bentley. “You can’t have Joe Blogs who just happened to stumble their way into parliament deciding that they’re an expert on education.”

A key function of education is providing students with the knowledge and skills they need for an ever-changing workforce. This requires dynamic and innovative approaches. At Hastings Girls’ High School students are not streamed. Instead, the curriculum is arranged around areas of interest and skills, and students choose where they belong from a series of options including, visual arts, the great outdoors, path to podium, design and innovation. Students are taught the curriculum through the lens of their chosen area – an approach that means they are engaged, connected, and surrounded by like-minded kids from the moment they enter the classroom.

The teaching and learning landscape has changed. Covid and Cyclone Gabrielle are just two examples that have impacted our education system and the shifting needs of students. “PISA results do not reflect the true dynamic nature of schools in Aotearoa and the increasingly complex needs of our young people,” says Messervy.

The curriculum refresh is a great starting point, but there is still a lot of work to be done to hone and shape our education system. The basics for one child might be different for another. We need to move forward with a view to understanding what students need, and delivering a balanced and integrated New Zealand curriculum that meets the needs of all children.

New Zealanders continue to punch above our weight in a global context. We possess the required attributes – including our ability to adapt, resilience with change, thinking skills and innovation – to be regarded highly and in turn, sought after across the world,” says Messervy.

If we’re to continue to do so and to keep improving, students and schools deserve the consistency of an independent sector, so our kids get the education they need to succeed. 


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