OPINION: Prime Minister John Key, in his first big speech of the year, yesterday chose to focus on a subject that has traditionally been a political minefield and one on which the Government has come a cropper in the past. In choosing to unveil some radical new measures, and substantial new spending, with the aim of raising standards and bringing about what he called "a step change in achievement" in schools, Key also went into territory that Labour has regarded itself as having an ascendancy.
But first reaction from teachers, professional bodies and the teacher unions welcoming the proposals - something that must be unique for a National Party policy - indicates that they will likely be accepted and may be smoothly put into practice. They appear to be a serious-minded attempt to to bring about better performance from teachers and schools, one of the most important issues for the performance of the economy and the long-term good of society generally.
As Key said, the education system on average performs well. There is, however, a large and persistent gap between the achievement of the best pupils and the worst. As many as 25 per cent of pupils leave school with no qualifications at all, almost inevitably condemned to low- wage jobs and poverty for the rest of their lives. In addition, the standard of achievement in some areas has been slipping. In mathematics, for instance, where in 2000 New Zealand was fourth in a recognised comparison of the top 20 or so rich-world countries, now it is 23rd.
It is now widely recognised that school achievement is more strongly related to good teaching than to almost any other factor, including, within certain limits, class sizes. Recent studies have also been able to measure the effect of good teaching on the outcomes for pupils' lives. A good teacher, the studies have shown, makes a measurable impact on pupils' incomes (according to one American study up to $250,000 over a lifetime) and also produces better, happier citizens.
Recognising this, the changes announced yesterday aim to improve teaching with significant financial incentives and opportunities for the best principals to supervise more schools and improve their results, and for the best teachers to stay longer in the classroom, rather than move on to management, and to pass their skills to their colleagues. Collaboration across schools so the best practices get spread more widely will be encouraged.
One of the reforms will provide for up to 20 so-called "change principals" to earn an additional $50,000 a year for up to five years running schools that are struggling. This idea of trying to attract the best people to such schools to try to turn them around is obviously far better than allowing them to hobble along producing poor results and sometimes eventually falling over and having to be rescued anyway.
Failing schools are expensive. Underperforming or failing pupils cost society more. The Government's proposals offer a good shot at lifting schools' and pupils' performance.
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