Tailing a better education system

Last updated 13:00 05/11/2012

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Perhaps there is the usual complacency at play, but New Zealanders have long tended to see our education system as among the best in the world. In truth, for the majority of pupils, it is.

Overall, New Zealand ranks seventh-best of 65 countries on the Programme for International Student Achievement (Pisa). That has an A-minus - good, could do better - whiff to it.

The improvement potential comes in the system's Achilles heel - or rather, its long and troublesome tail. That is, the gap between most students and a group of learning under-achievers. Without wanting to fan the fires of bigotry, New Zealand European pupils are second on the Pisa scale, Maori 34th and Pacific Islanders 44th. That equity gap, and what it represents, has long been acknowledged.

An argument in the past week over whether New Zealand educators are up to the mark or not, following comments from Education Ministry boss Lesley Longstone, has been hijacked by politicians, teachers and others with their own agendas to push. All very predictable.

For context, the ministry, driven by its political masters, is pushing sweeping ideological change: national standards, partially private charter school "trials", even talk of increased class sizes. The usual pushback is coming from the teacher unions, which claim the current focus on world rankings is simply scene-setting for the introduction of controversial initiatives.

Rather than arguing and agonising about where New Zealand systems and standards might fit most appropriately on a global setting, or the merits and wisdom of Ms Longstone's contribution to an age-old debate, surely the key discussion should be around fixing that which is broken.

If ethnicity-based underachievement is all that is holding this country back from unqualified success on a global setting, then that is where the ministry and government focus should lie.

There is little point asking those with a rigidly set ideological compass whether charter schools, league tables, national standards and other key thrusts in education will help close the equity gap or, more likely, widen it. However, surely there is sufficient evidence from other countries of the efficacy or otherwise of these approaches.

It is clear that poverty is a significant driver of educational "failure". However, New Zealand is not the only country with pockets of poverty, dysfunctional families and national fiscal pressures, and yet this learning gap is bigger than elsewhere. Why?

Our problems are multi-faceted. Teachers are not social workers but do often fulfil many of their functions - perhaps to the detriment of others in the class. Meanwhile, whatever Ms Longstone says, let's give due credit for what our schools do achieve.

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Despite a raft of new policies being imposed by successive governments - and the pace of change has quickened in the past four years - and the constant battles many schools face to make ends meet, they are still delivering an education that is truly world class to the great majority of their pupils. That merits a gold star - but there will be plenty more dished out to whoever gives the underachievement "tail" a trim.

- © Fairfax NZ News

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