Our education system is in decline, but nobody wants to fix it

Damien Grant: “I’d become resigned that his education facility was little more than state-funded day care with minimal actual learning beyond socialisation and cultural studies”. (File photo)
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Damien Grant: “I’d become resigned that his education facility was little more than state-funded day care with minimal actual learning beyond socialisation and cultural studies”. (File photo)

OPINION: Homework – what a joy. Last week, the long-suffering wife advised me it was finally time that I supervised the urchin in his homework. Fine, I grumbled with little grace.

The week’s task was subtraction. I had to run myself through a quick practice and was surprised that the skills I’d learnt back in the days Jack Marshall was prime minister had survived several wine lakes passing through my consciousness in the ensuing decades.

My initial reaction was delight. Not only did the little rascal show some aptitude in the appointed assignment, but I was pleased that the local state school he attends was handing out homework.

I’d become resigned to the idea his education facility was little more than state-funded day care with minimal actual learning beyond socialisation and cultural studies.

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Well, no. When I expressed my happiness on this matter to Mrs Grant she rolled her eyes in that dismissive and exasperated manner of wives who have not married well.

The homework, it transpired, was issued by the private after-school establishment we’d enrolled him into. I should have known this. It was my idea after all and the outfit’s logo was right there, at the top of the page.

There is evidence beyond this anecdotal example that our education system is in decline.

The New Zealand Initiative, a Wellington think-tank, devotes considerable resources to the challenges facing today’s children. In a report published in March by Dr David Law and Joel Hernandez, the Initiative gave our education system a report card.

It makes for disappointing reading. Our kids are falling further behind their peers in comparative nations such as Australia, Canada and England and there is a definitive downward trend in both relative and absolute academic achievement.

This isn’t necessarily a function of money. Under successive governments spending on primary and secondary education has been rising but remains stubbornly below most comparable OECD nations.

However, the Initiative points to OECD analysis that demonstrates spending and academic results are weakly correlated once you get beyond a certain point. A clutch of nations such as Peru and Brazil have poor education outcomes associated with very low spending. Everyone else, from Russia to Luxembourg, has very similar results despite a wide divergence in how much they spend per pupil.

So, if it isn’t about the money, what is it?

Damien Grant: “Under successive governments spending on primary and secondary education has been rising but remains stubbornly below most comparative OECD nations”.
Richard Tindiller/RNZ
Damien Grant: “Under successive governments spending on primary and secondary education has been rising but remains stubbornly below most comparative OECD nations”.

The Initiative draws on one of their publications from last year: New Zealand’s Education Delusion; How Bad Ideas Ruined a Once World-Leading School System, written by Briar Lipson. Lipson is a researcher at the Initiative as well as being a former teacher and education entrepreneur in her native England.

Lipson’s thesis, if I may distill a complex idea into a sentence, is that the move to child-centered learning has been a mistake. She writes:

“By appealing to the inarguable idea that children should be at the centre of decisions about their learning, children-centred orthodoxy has undermined subject knowledge … consequently, educational standards have plummeted. Despite a 32 per cent real rise in per-pupil spending since 2001, students have gone from world-leading to decidedly average.”

She advocates a return to standardised national assessments and teacher-led education.

Damien Grant says that Labour is committed to an education system driven by the teacher unions and National is run by people whose kids attend private schools. (File photo)
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Damien Grant says that Labour is committed to an education system driven by the teacher unions and National is run by people whose kids attend private schools. (File photo)

She might be correct. I have no idea. I didn’t even know where the homework my own kid was doing came from, so don’t look to me for guidance on how we should correct the declining levels of education.

However, what is clear is that the current model is broken. Worse, there is no urgency or even acknowledgement by those in charge that they are presiding over the gradual decline in the education outcomes for this nation’s most precious resource: our tamariki.

The Ministry of education’s declared purpose states: “We shape an education system that delivers equitable and excellent outcomes.” This is perhaps true; what isn’t clear is for whom they are delivering; the students or the 3500 departmental staff and 74,000 teachers whose livelihoods depend on the status quo.

If you read their annual report; the answer is clear. There are graphs and details on everything from teacher satisfaction and their ethnic background but near silence on the falling level of education attainment of students.

There was an acknowledgement that the level of attainment of NCEA has declined but this was followed up with the statement: “We reviewed the NCEA to create a more accessible and simplified qualification”, by which I assume they dumbed it down even further to gloss over the falling standards.

We have a centralised bureaucracy trying to cater for roughly 800,000 kids. One of the few lessons we should have learnt over the last 200 years is that centralised bureaucracies do not work.

What does work is individuals being given the autonomy and authority to decide how to best serve local needs. We are going in the other direction, with the decentralized Tomorrow’s Schools being run by boards of trustees slowly having their authority eroded by the Education and Training Act 2020 and the proposed new Education Service Agency.

Even allowing for central funding of education, there are many alternative models for how schools are run. Charter schools, voucher systems, bulk funding and state funding of private schools all offer different options for local students and their parents seeking the best for their children. Competition between different systems and schools gives options for parents and rewards success.

This isn’t what is on offer. Either you are wealthy enough to send your children to a private school, or you enrol them into the degenerating leviathan that is state education. Inequality and intergenerational poverty is the inevitable result of failing to adequately educate poor children.

It does not matter who is in charge. Labour is committed to an education system driven by the teacher unions and National is run by people whose kids attend private schools.

What is remarkable is how uniformly content most parents are at the sustained abandonment of their offspring’s education, which means there are no votes and no political advantage in fixing the problem.

* Damien Grant is a business owner based in Auckland. He writes from a libertarian perspective and is a member of the Taxpayers’ Union but not of any political party.