Education: The new election battleground

Education is shaping up as a major election issue. Photo: Lynn Grieveson

Education often flies under the radar, touching a nerve only with those that work in the sector, or parents who have struggling children. But National and Labour are suddenly duking it out over the issue, bringing it into the election spotlight. Shane Cowlishaw talks to academic experts on the main education issues.

First it was immigration, then health joined the fray as a hot election issue.

Now it's the turn of education, with the Government unveiling a funding boost for the sector and a financial enticement to alleviate Auckland’s teacher shortage.

It has been fertile ground for education this year.

The much-derided decile system was finally scrapped, to be replaced with a yet-to-be-detailed anonymous risk index.

There was some confusion about Labour’s charter schools policy, temporarily confusing a party usually strong in education due to its solid union links.

Then the election carrots began to appear.

In the past week alone they’ve included National's $379 million education package boasting increased digital courses, maths resources, and a promise to offer primary school students the chance to learn a second language.

It was swiftly followed by Labour’s big hit, a fast-forward on their promised three years free tertiary education, plus a boost for the student allowance.

Education is in the news, and here’s some of the main areas you can expect the election campaign to be fought.

National Standards Plus

There’s perhaps no clearer delineation between the education policies of the right and the left than National Standards.

It is a brainchild of the National Party. Labour, the Greens, and NZ First would scrap the system if successful at the election. The Opportunities Party would prefer to reform it.

So what are they?

Introduced in 2010, national standards focus on the “three R’s” – reading, writing, and arithmetic (maths) – setting levels that pupils should be achieving at a certain age during their first eight years at school.

Schools must report back to the Ministry of Education on how many children are below, well below, at, or above, the set levels.

Before their introduction, schools did not have to report any data on childrens' learning to the Ministry of Education.

National, who began developing the system in the nineties, felt there was a lack of accountability to both parents and the taxpayer with the reports lacking in detail.

The Government has now doubled-down on the policy, with plans for a revamp into “National Standards Plus”.

An extra $45m will be used to create an online system that will track children’s progress throughout the year.

It will be accessible by teachers and parents, something that will be an attractive prospect to many voters with school-aged children.

One of the main criticisms of national standards, however, has been their strict focus on the three R’s at the detriment to other areas of learning.

The primary teacher’s union, NZEI, have been quick to criticise the online move and questioned how teachers who were already over-loaded would find the time to input data across a range of subjects in real time.

Associate Professor Alison Gilmore, from Otago University’s College of Education, believes there’s merit in the argument that some subjects have suffered at the expense of the three R’s.

“We have things like social studies, science, the arts, learning languages etc which are all considered important parts of the curriculum, but are increasingly squeezed out," Gilmore said.

“What it’s kind of locking us into, an extension of national standards, is a very heavily assessment-based system,” she said.

There was work underway to improve the monitoring of national standards, while there was a benefit in tracking the progress of every child.

But the system had been imposed on teachers without their input, which had been detrimental, unlike the new curriculum that had been reached collaboratively.

“When National Standards were first implemented and the requirements dictated then there was huge resistance and I think, probably, there are still schools that will refuse to take part or provide national standards data to the Ministry because I don’t think there is a lot of trust between some schools and the Ministry, for a lot of reasons.”

Tertiary education

Adult education is facing a shake-up.

An Amendment Bill making its way through Parliament, aimed at increasing funding flexibility in the tertiary system and strengthening accountability, would grant ministerial power to shift funding as deemed necessary.

The industry and education unions have been furiously fighting the changes, arguing it would privatise the system with private training establishments given equal rights to taxpayer dollars as public institutions.

The fear is international companies will arrive en-masse and set up inferior establishments in the main centres, while funnelling profits offshore.

But the Government is confident no money would be diverted from public institutions and the move is about creating a level playing field.

As well as the Amendment Bill, Tertiary Education Minister Paul Goldsmith is pushing ahead with a wider new tertiary education strategy, to be released next year.

It will focus on meeting the needs of employers, improving performance, encouraging innovation, and creating a more student-centred system.

An early initiative is “micro-credentials”, small courses that focus on specific skills that could be as short as a few weeks. Three programmes are currently being trialled.

While all this work to revamp the system is underway, it’s becoming expensive to study after leaving school.

Labour's student pitch

The cost of living continues to rise, with students in the more expensive cities claiming they are unable to pay for basic costs.

It’s an issue that has now become central to the election, with Labour announcing it will bring forward its planned three years’ free study.

From next year, students who have not studied before will be eligible for one year free, rising to three years by 2024. That's one year earlier than its policy announced in January last year.

The party will also boost the student allowance by $50 a week, at a cost of $275m a year.

Labour’s overall tertiary education package will cost taxpayers $6b over four years.

Professor John O’Neill, director of Massey University’s Institute of Education, was generally supportive of moves to modernise the industry such as the introduction of micro-courses.

Universities were also looking at the area and there was a global move to provide more flexibility in study options for students.

But he was less complementary about the Education Amendment Bill, a radical suggestion that could have a detrimental impact on the quality of tertiary education.

“I can see the Government’s argument about cost and competition. I can’t see it on quality. The most laughable element is the Government saying this is an issue of quality.”

A teacher shortage

A lack of teachers, especially in Auckland, has long been in the headlines.

Earlier this year, reports reached fever pitch with claims schools were struggling to fill vacancies days before the school year started.

The PPTA said shortages were at their highest since 2008, describing it as a “crisis point”.

It's a narrative that has continued throughout the year, tied together with the rising cost of living in New Zealand’s biggest city.

For months the Government denied there was a problem, pointing to money it was already providing to train teachers. Education Minister Nikki Kaye said there were more than 100,000 teachers across school and early childhood education, a number that was reasonable to support the system.

Then this week National announced a teacher bonus scheme already in place for low-decile schools would be extended to all schools in the Auckland region. New teachers will be eligible for $10,000 after three years on the job.

It was a backtrack from the Government, after Kaye told media in July that she was not looking at paying teachers in expensive areas more.

Labour’s own plan to address the shortage includes $40m for measures such as extra bonded grants for areas such as science, maths, te reo Maori, and “specific locations”.

A glut turns into a drought

Dr Fiona Ell, of Auckland University, said the narrative had flipped in the past ten years.

Following the financial crisis in 2007 there was a glut of teachers that peaked in 2010.

But since then numbers had begun to fall and churn had increased, with many new graduates leaving the job after a few years.

The introduction of national standards and an increased workload has helped make the job unattractive to many young people, she said.

“No-one wants teachers to be unaccountable. Accountability is important, but the shift towards increased paperwork, accountability, assessment and so on has made what was always a very demanding job into sort of demanding, and at the margin, sort of unpleasant," Ell said.

“We just say teachers are poor quality, we need to do something about it and I think young people see that and go 'no thanks, I’ll go somewhere where I’m appreciated'.”

Wages had also failed to keep pace and new teachers were definitely worse-off now than their counterparts 30 years ago.

Giving all Auckland teachers a bonus was a start, but there needed to be an extra sweetener for teachers to work at lower-decile schools in the city.

Ultimately, however, the main way to fix the problem was money.

“This is going to sound trite and a bit ridiculous, but what’s going to make a difference is frankly paying teachers more. If we paid teachers better we would get different people turning up. We would get more people turning up and they would stay for longer because it would be worth it.”

Early Childhood Education

Almost everyone you ask in the sector tasked with looking after our youngest children says things are particularly tough.

Just like health, education is an area where there is never enough money no matter the dollar figure, but the crisis warnings have been getting louder.

Calls for more money from ECE bosses are not new, with an industry-commissioned study in 2016 reaching the conclusion that $260m a year had been sliced off from subsidies and failing to adjust for inflation.

In this year’s Budget, the Government announced $386m of funding, but was criticised for focusing on increasing participation rates, while ignoring a boost to the per-child funding rate.

Sue Cherrington, associate dean at Victoria University’s School of Education, believes there’s no doubt the sector is in financial difficulties.

“It’s struggling. I think teachers and probably an awful lot of managers are under enormous stress. It’s very difficult to maintain high quality when you’ve got such funding pressures.

She says the biggest challenge facing whatever political parties that form the next government is improving quality.

More money is needed to do that, she says, after drastic cuts in 2010.

Since then there has been an increase, but that was because of a rise in the number of children attending and the number of hours each child was attending, rather than in the per child rate.

The pressure was also being felt acutely by small providers, who often had to be assimilated into larger chains to survive.

Cherrington said reintroducing the goal of 100 percent qualified teachers was important, as more and more research suggested this played an important part in the development of young children.

“In that sandpit where children are exploring ideas around water flow and gravity, there’s a lot of significant maths and science concepts that are explored in the early years in a very practical and concrete way," Cherrington said.

“If you haven’t got teachers that can recogonise what’s going on then you’re missing out on a lot of learning opportunities.”

Other political parties have pledged to boost the sector.

Labour will reinstate extra funding for centres that employ 100 percent qualified and registered teachers, while all centres will have to reach an 80 percent level by the end of its first term.

Both the Greens and NZ First would also re-establish the 100 percent qualified target and improve child-teacher ratios.

Digital first

Modernising the classroom and ensuring students learn essential skills to cope in a changing workplace is an important topic in education circles.

With technology companies struggling to find homegrown graduates with the right skills and net immigration at record high levels, there is a strong focus on how to provide New Zealand children with the right environment.

Education Minister Nikki Kaye is a strong proponent of boosting digital learning and has announced a raft of new measures in the area, picking up where her predecessor Hekia Parata left off.

Earlier this year she announced digital technology would be formally adopted as part of the curriculum with $40m to be largely spent on training teachers to deliver the subject.

It will see pupils from years one to 10 taking part in digital education in two main areas – “designing and developing digital outcomes” and “computational thinking”.

Content will include skills such as computer programming and will be available from January next year and fully adopted from 2020.

A new $6m digital technology equity fund is also about to launch, becoming open for proposals from providers in September, that will cater for up to 12,500 students each year, many who will be from disadvantaged backgrounds.

'A disappointing add-on'

Another $48m has recently been announced for “new digital learning opportunities” for Year 12 and 13, with digital academies offering 1000 students specialised, IT-focused learning.

Megan Clune, an Auckland University teaching fellow who has also been a primary teacher and assistant principal, said she was not convinced by the Government’s digital technologies cirriculum plan.

Particularly from a primary perspective, it made no sense to set computational thinking aside separately as it already fit nicely into mathematics.

There is a risk that by separating it from other areas that it could become a check-list of achievement standards, she says.

A better option would be to overhaul the curriculum and create an integrated model so that computational thinking was placed everywhere.

“What’s really disappointing is its just an add-on and it shouldn’t be, it deserves a higher place than that,” Clune said.

Amping up the digital arm of our education system seems to be one of the few areas parties agree on.

As for the other parties, Labour’s education manifesto includes a commitment to providing teachers with digital training and spending $107m ensuring every student has access to a device such as a laptop or tablet.

NZ First’s education policy mentions boosting digital resourcing for children with learning disabilities such as dyslexia along with $2m to provide digital literacy training for older New Zealanders.