Education: what the big parties offer

Analysis: Major parties’ education policies are cautious and unsurprising, but that’s what their voters will want this election. Laura Walters takes a look at what Labour and National have promised

Those hoping for inspiring education policies from the major parties will be disappointed by the promises Labour and National made this week.

But Labour’s 'steady as she goes' approach, and National’s focus on individual choice, will appeal to their bases - and a very broad range of middle New Zealand parents - this Covid election.

After a term of widespread reform from the Labour-led Government, Education Minister Chris Hipkins has moved onto a slower approach, with a focus on the two areas hardest hit by Covid: early childhood education and care (ECEC) and vocational training to help people retrain and get back into work.

These two areas also fall directly into Labour’s wheelhouse of pay and jobs.

Meanwhile, the National Party’s education policy remains Labour-lite in many ways, including the continued pledge to increase teacher numbers and reduce class sizes.

But with Judith Collins at the helm, there is an emphasis on the parts of the package that give more individual choice through the re-introduction of charter schools, Nikki Kaye’s long-championed second-language policy, and the rollback of the Government’s zoning scheme.

The centrepiece of Labour’s election policy announcement is a $600 million commitment to pay parity for ECEC teachers.

Hipkins has previously voiced his commitment to pay parity. But this puts a stake in the ground, with committed money and a timeline (four years).

The sector’s struggles have been well-covered in recent months, thanks to Covid-19 highlighting the disparities and poor conditions endured by ECEC staff.

Following a boost for the lowest paid teachers on July 1, Labour says if re-elected, it will ensure all 17,000 teachers working in education and care centres achieve pay parity with kindergarten and primary teachers.

This policy announcement was met with support from the union and sector organisations. 

NZEI Te Riu Roa president Liam Rutherford labelled it a “huge win”.

“And it’s all because teachers and their communities came together collectively to campaign for change.”

But both Rutherford and Te Rito Maioha head Kathy Wolfe said the issue is urgent, and if Labour is re-elected, it needs to work to get to parity as soon as possible.

The Green Party has also committed to pay parity. But National’s focus is on diverting funding for 100 percent qualified teachers towards improving the adult-child ratio for under-twos - there was no policy regarding parity.

This policy builds on a term of teacher pay boosts - something Hipkins highlighted in his announcement:

“Labour recognises that one of the most important assets in education is our teachers,” he said, before going on to talk about record teacher pay rises in primary and secondary, and the extra 2000 teachers who came into the sector over the past term.

“We want every child no matter who they are or where they come from to have the opportunity to fulfil their potential and live life to the fullest.”

A good chunk of Labour’s policy announcement looked back at the Government’s education record over the past three years.

As the incumbent, Hipkins has the advantage of pointing to recent wins to remind people he can deliver.

This approach also fits with Labour’s ‘Let’s Keep Moving’ approach of continuing to build on, bed in, or recommit to, policy from the past term, rather than tackle new overhauls.

Labour also promised to roll out its school lunches programme to a quarter of all school-aged children. This would bring the numbers from 8000 students to 200,000 students in 2021, targeting the students in schools with the highest disadvantage. It's costed at $200m.

As expected, the party also emphasised jobs and training. 

If elected, Hipkins says he will keep the first year fees-free for university students, but will not go any further to extend fees-free to subsequent years. (This policy already covers two years of trades training.)

Instead, funding will be redirected to trades training and apprenticeships, as well as continuing to roll out the vocational education reform from last term - something National has said it will reverse, if elected.

The one significant change the Labour Party has promised is an overhaul of the blunt decile funding system.

Both Labour and National have long agreed the school decile system needs to go, and both have advocated for a more targeted Equity Index, (though National now uses a different name, since this one was adopted by Labour as official policy).

If re-elected, Hipkins has committed to replace the decile funding system over four years, at a cost of $320m. The new index would measure the social backgrounds of all students in all schools, and increase the resources going to some of the country’s most disadvantaged schools.

“This is a huge step towards addressing the inequities in our public education system,” he said.

Once it’s fully implemented it's expected to cost an additional $75m per year, across schooling and early learning.

All up, Labour’s education policy is costed at $1.7 billion.

“Our vision is for New Zealand to be the best place in the world to be a child, and a world class education system is a vital part of that,” Hipkins said.

"Covid-19 has exposed and magnified the existing inequities in our system. 

“Our plan for education builds on the gains we have made in our first term in government to improve the wellbeing and lift the achievement levels of all students.”

“A National Government will prioritise lifting achievement for all New Zealand children, no matter their background.”

Meanwhile, National has stuck to many of the promises set out in a policy discussion document at the end of last year.

Some could be considered Labour-lite, such as the reduction in class sizes, achieved through training more teachers and changing the teacher-student ratios.

And both parties take a similar line when it comes to their ultimate education mission.

In his education policy announcement speech, Hipkins said: “We want every child no matter who they are or where they come from to have the opportunity to fulfil their potential and live life to the fullest.”

While Collins started her announcement with a very similar sentiment: “A National Government will prioritise lifting achievement for all New Zealand children, no matter their background.”

It's not surprising the two parties have some common policy ground given many of these promises were created by former education spokesperson Nikki Kaye, who consulted more closely with teachers, educators and unions, than her predecessors.

The parallels in the two parties’ centrist education policies were further highlighted by a New Zealand First press release, where Winston Peters and Tracey Martin listed the policies they believed National had lifted from the coalition’s work programme.

One of the centrepieces of the National policy was an increased focus on funding for learning support and resources for students with additional needs.

While the funding commitment is valid given the historic under-funding of learning support in schools, Martin criticised National’s $160m annual fund for additional support for behavioral and learning as a “re-announcement of what I have already announced”.

National also promised a $480m boost in learning support, to help students with additional learning, behavioural and physical needs. (Labour and New Zealand First were both focusing on the rollout of the second tranche of learning support co-ordinators, with no new funding promised.)

Meanwhile, Martin also noted the similarities between National’s $3000 per baby ECEC policy promise and the coalition’s ‘Best Start’ payments. And she said the proposed ‘Before School Check’ and digital passports were also policies announced under the coalition Government.

Collins said, if elected, National would invest in the future of New Zealand children, and commit to increase spending in education every year, including increasing operational funding for schools and early childhood education services.

“We want all children to go on to achieve great things. With the right education we can overcome the challenges some children face purely because of the situation they were born into."

National's $1.9b policy package also included $4.8b to fix school infrastructure and build additional classrooms. 

This compares with Labour’s unchanged school infrastructure policy: Continue to upgrade 180 existing schools and build new schools and classrooms for 100,000 students from the $1.2b, 10-year fund, which was announced in Budget 2019. They have already injected $400m for immediate maintenance needs.

National's education policy has a clear focus on individual choice, after a term of Labour reforms. However, the two education packages share a lot of common ground. Photo: Lynn Grieveson

While there were a lot of similar points in the two parties’ education packages, National’s plan deviated in its clear focus on individual choice.

The party confirmed its commitment to reinstate charter schools, with a plan to establish 25 new partnership schools by 2023.

This would include some focused on high-priority learners such as Māori and Pasifika, and children with additional learning needs.

While charter schools did not prove successful last time around, National has continued to favour this approach, rather than focusing on addressing these equity issues within the state system.

This policy has received a mixed response, but educators are largely opposed to the reinstatement of partnership schools.

New Zealand Principals' Federation president Perry Rush told RNZ National's policy had a "back to the future mantra".

National also once again put the spotlight on its policy that would see primary and secondary students learn a second language of their choice (as opposed to a focus on te reo Māori). Again, a policy in-line with its emphasis on allowing parents to choose. While some parents will embrace this choice, Māori educators say they're disappointed te reo would have to compete for funding under a National government.

National says it’s also committed to scrapping the last Government’s centralised zoning scheme, and giving the power back to school boards.

“National knows how important it is for children to leave school with firm foundations in core areas, but also for parents to feel empowered to make the choices that will best suit their child’s needs," education spokesperson Nicola Willis said.

Both parties' policies might lack flair or transformation, but that’s not a bad thing as the country grapples with the Covid fallout, and intensely scrutinises spending.

It seems the major parties are aiming for the centre in the hope of appealing to the masses.

While National's promise to reinstate charter schools and roll back vocational education reforms would mean big changes to current system, the fact the parties share a decent amount of common ground is a good thing when it comes to education policy; it ensures continuity even when governments change. 

Regardless of their similarities and differences, both parties know education isn't where the vote will be won or lost this Covid election, so it's business as usual.

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