Key on National Standards: 'Ignorance takes us nowhere'

23:43, Sep 23 2012
John Key
JOHN KEY: "Shouldn't we be celebrating that we're actually talking about the performance of our youngsters?"

Prime Minister John Key has welcomed the publishing of National Standards data as a "very positive" step.

Stuff published results from more than 1000 schools nationwide at the weekend.

Despite criticism that releasing the information would create unfair comparisons and assumptions, Key welcomed the move.

"For three days our newspapers have been full of debate about what's happening in our classrooms, what the level of performance or under-performance is, and what some of the causes are."

It was already known that girls out-performed boys and poor children did worse than their richer peers.

But without measuring and monitoring something, you couldn't fix it, Key said.

"Shouldn't we be celebrating that we're actually talking about the performance of our youngsters? We are changing the conversation," he told TVNZ's Breakfast programme.

"We're saying that 30 per cent of young New Zealanders are not attaining the level that we would want them to attain in terms of reading, writing and maths."

National Standards were intended to tell parents the progress their child had made, he said.

The release was a "very positive thing" and spelled out why the standards were important.

"Ignorance takes us nowhere," Key said.

Principals Federation president Paul Drummond opposed National Standards, but he hoped the evidence of the gulf between rich and poor students would prompt action from the Government.

"This highlights the fact that is we want to improve and lift achievement and learning in our schools across all things, then we have to make a really genuine effort to improve equity."


Principals' Federation president Paul Drummond was at a conference in Melbourne, along with 700 New Zealand principals, when the National Standards information was published.

Principals at the conference had been saddened by the publication but interested enough to look at it, he said.

Some errors had been found, and principals looking at their school alongside some other schools found themselves doubting some of the information and its accuracy.

National Standards were teacher judgments using assessment tools and criteria. They were not very precise and the system was pretty immature in terms of the teacher judgments.

"The main concerning thing for us is that it's only around reading, writing and maths, and it can't possibly reflect the performance and achievement of New Zealand children," Drummond said.

National Standards had been described as aspirational, with some of the tools used to make judgments norm referenced, so it was highly unlikely all children could ever meet the standards.

Putting National Standards into the public domain was "really risky", because then it was not about children's learning but about school success.

It was already known that Maori and Pasifika children were disproportionately failing to achieve, Drummond said.

"That's where we should be putting our resources. Not on more description of where the problem is."


Fairfax Media group digital editor Sinead Boucher said Fairfax had been clear the National Standards should not be the be-all and end-all for parents making judgments about schools.

Considerable effort had been made to include other information, for example providing links to schools' most recent Education Review Office reports and to school websites, she said.

The School Report tool was  not the only aspect of the project.

"Our reporters around the country have done very thorough reporting of this issue, using the data where appropriate to draw out general themes, but also taking time to visit more than 30 schools and do case studies on what is happening on the ground."

As the parent of a primary school child she had found the information interesting and useful, but she also said parents used a wider set of information to assess whether their children were receiving a good education and were happy at school.

Reporters working on the project had made clear there were flaws in the internally assessed National Standards system.

But setting that aside, the data as a whole had been interesting and informative,  Boucher said.

For example, the National Standards showed girls generally performing better than boys. Any debate that encouraged parents and teachers and the wider community to think about what was happening in schools was a good thing.

"We do think parents have a right to know this information and don't see any gain at all in schools trying to keep it secret," Boucher said.

She had been surprised at the high level of emotion around the project. Principals and teachers had sent emails personally criticising those working on the project.

In one email, the decision to publish the National Standards was likened to the publication of topless pictures of the Duchess of Cambridge. That was a patently absurd comparison which had not helped the debate, Boucher said.

All schools had been asked for their National Standards performance, and as more schools provided their information it would be added to the database which now covered 1000 schools.