Education is heading in a new direction next year under the National, Act and New Zealand First coalition Government.

Each party has different policies the Government has committed to implementing, from bringing back charter schools to regulating student assessment and rewriting the country’s recently introduced histories content.

May Road School principal Lynda Stuart had strong views on the issues at hand.

“To be perfectly blatantly honest with you I think politicians need to think about the resourcing for education and how they provide the resourcing for education and actually leave the decision making for what happens in our schools and early childhood, for that matter, to those who are working at the grassroots alongside the children, alongside the communities and their families,” she told 1News.

Stuart said it’s common for education policy in New Zealand to swing in different directions based on who’s running the country, but she said principals, teachers and learning assistants in schools are the ones who “really know what makes a difference for children and their learning.”

“There is no one magic bullet that is going to work for all children and I think we make huge mistakes when we think that there is,” she said.

The Government has started the process to disestablish Te Pūkenga, the national agency set up by the previous Government which merged 25 polytechs and industry training organisations in 2020 in a bid to improve finance and performance issues at some organisations.

In the new year, schools must teach primary and intermediate students reading, writing and maths for an hour a day in each subject. A ban on students using cell phones will be required of schools by Term 2, 2024.

Government sets targets

Education Minister Erica Stanford’s set an “aspirational” target for 80% of children to meet curriculum expectations before they start high school by 2030.

“The responsibility that I feel as a parent to make sure that my children achieve at school, tiger mum, don’t you worry, I feel that now for every single child in this country.

“It is a huge responsibility, also a huge privilege, there is a lot of work to do but I tell you what – we’re up for it,” she said.

She said the changes that will be implemented to achieve the target include using teaching practices based on cognitive research of how students learn and regular assessment so children “don’t fall through those cracks.”

A ministerial advisory group’s been set up to review the primary English and maths and statistics curriculum that was reviewed and rewritten by the previous Government but is yet to be implemented.

“We’re not throwing out all the work that’s been done on the curriculum because teachers and educators down the country have put thousands of hours of work into the curriculum refresh so far.

“We are taking the amazing work that’ s been done and we’re making sure that it is fit for purpose, that we have a knowledge-based curriculum that clearly outlines what must be taught in what order and then of course how we teach that as well so making sure that it is fit for purpose,” Stanford said.

Bouncing back from Covid

The education minister said the results from the latest Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) run by the intergovernmental Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) drove home for her the enormity of the task of lifting achievement.

The results showed most countries experienced unprecedented drops in maths and reading achievement with a PISA report stating Covid-19 disruption had a “shock effect” on learning in these subjects.

New Zealand recorded its worst results, but was placed above the OECD averages in maths, reading and science.

“When you take a look at our learners 20 years ago, they’re up to a year or year and a half behind where they were then so we have a huge task,” Stanford said.

“We owe it to our kids and our future kids to make sure they can go on to live the life that they want with an excellent qualification,” she said.

When asked if she felt the changes would add to the workload and stress teachers feel, Stanford said she knows staff are burned out and she’s trying to avoid putting additional pressure and stress on them.

“I know that they’ve done an incredible job through Covid and since, so if we can make sure we’re not putting too much burden on them, that is the key.

“I think with all of the changes we’re making it’s actually about supporting our teachers with that great curriculum, with evidence-based pedagogy (teaching practice) and giving them the tools that they need to be able to assess along the way,” Stanford said.

Stanford acknowledged the “huge” need for more learning support in all mediums of education.

“We’re going to be taking a look at, as I describe it, the back-end waste in education. How do we switch that to include frontline need and that includes learning support so we will be doing some work.”

“We need to make sure we’re providing the right level of support and it does require a bit of a rethink about how we do things and so we’ll be taking advice on that,” she said.

May Road School principal Lynda Stuart said educators and families were hoping 2023 would be a more settled year after three years of Covid disruption, but that went out the window at the end of January when extreme rainfall flooded Auckland. The next month Cyclone Gabrielle hit, affecting many parts of the North Island, particularly Hawke’s Bay and the Gisborne Tairāwhiti regions. Both events led to school closures.

“I would have to say in my view, and I’ve been in education for a wee while now, it’s probably been the hardest year I can remember,” she said.

May Road School principal Lynda Stuart.

She said the Auckland flood tested the resilience of people who were already struggling after Covid-19.

“I think the low light of it was actually seeing people in those struggles.

“The highlight as a school was being able to wrap around people and support them through that and at end of day come out stronger through those relationships.”

Stuart said improving student achievement after the significant, ongoing disruption schools have faced will take time.

“There’s some things that we see around reading or writing or maths that we know we’ve got to work on those but there’s also some things around social interactions, even some family supports that are needed,” she said.

This year also saw strike action from teachers protesting for improved working conditions and pay from March to June.

The secondary teachers’ union Post Primary Teachers’ Association’s industrial action included rolling strike action which saw students in different year groups sent home on different days. High school students missed up to a week of school.

Eventually, independent reviewers provided a circuit breaker in the form of a recommendation for 14.5% pay rises for secondary teachers over the collective agreement three-year term. The Government then made this pay offer to high school teachers and staff accepted in August. The pay rise was passed on to qualified primary and kindergarten teachers as part of the unified pay scale.

By the end of next year, more than 60% of secondary teachers will earn $103,000 salaries.

So far, the increase in salary potential hasn’t seen recruitment improve, according to the sector.

“I think what that tells us is a story around the support that’s needed for teachers at the moment, particularly I’m speaking about primary teaching,” Stuart said.

“There’s a lot of work to be done for principals to do the job they passionately want to do (too).”