Government

Education: the good, the bad, and the ‘crisitunity’

ANALYSIS: The past three years in education might feel like endless reviews, but a lot has happened. Laura Walters takes a look back at the highs, the lows, and the Covid ‘crisitunities’.

To say it’s been a busy three years in education would be a massive understatement. This term has seen the biggest education system review in 30 years, vocational sector reform, prolonged industrial action, and a teacher shortage crisis - there’s been no lack of drama.

But there have also been positive changes that have made a real, tangible difference to staff, students and families, like historic pay settlements, food in schools, and the scrapping of school donations.

A lot has happened since the Government removed National Standards and closed charter schools. These were big, contentious issues during the 2017 campaign and the coalition’s first 100 days, now they barely register as part of the education debate.

Coming up to the election, where education - particularly jobs and skills training - will be a hot topic of conversation, the two main parties are drawing their battle lines.

But before the fight begins, and the waters get muddied by campaign politics, here is a look back at the good, the bad, and the ‘crisitunities’ created by a global pandemic.

The good ...

Education is a highly politicised area, and this usually leads to disagreement between sector and government, and between political parties. But everyone who spoke to Newsroom for this piece pointed to a genuine collaborative spirit as being a highlight.

It might sound wishy-washy, but Education Minister Chris Hipkins says for the sake of longevity, he’s tried hard to work constructively with those in the sector, and with National.

The more that can be done to form consensus on the big issues - even when there’s contention at the margins - the better it is for the education system and for students, he says.

National’s education spokesperson - and newly minted deputy leader - Nikki Kaye also commends this approach, saying she’s proud National “haven’t been Opposition for oppositions’ sake”.

The benefits of working together was clear in the outcome of the NCEA review. 

Briar Lipson, from the pro-free-market think tank The New Zealand Initiative, says the review process was painful but the outcome was something everyone could get behind - a more accessible and simplified qualification, with an increased focus on literacy and numeracy.

This sentiment is shared by the Government, the Opposition and the unions.

“Schools say they are showing up to school more frequently, so less absentee-ism, concentrating better, fewer behavioural problems. All of that will have a positive long-term impact."

The Tomorrow’s Schools review was more publicly contentious, with heated town hall meetings, and a group of schools launching a co-ordinated campaign against the significant reforms proposed in the first report. The plan to create regional ‘hubs’ that would take over much of the responsibilities currently held by boards, was met with disdain from the right.

But in the spirit of building consensus, the taskforce, the Government, the Opposition, the sector and the unions came together to re-work the final recommendations. 

These reforms will take years to implement, so in order for the successful outcomes to be realised, there needs to be a good level of buy-in across the board.

Of course, it would be an impossible task to get cross-party agreement on every major reform package. This was demonstrated during the scrap over vocational sector reform - more on that later.

But it can’t all be reviews, once-in-a-generation reforms, and long-term infrastructure programmes. The Government knew it needed a balance of things that would make an immediate, tangible difference.

Hipkins says he’s proud he was able to roll out the Food in Schools programme faster than expected.

“Schools say [students in low-decile schools] are showing up to school more frequently, so less absentee-ism, concentrating better, fewer behavioural problems. All of that will have a positive long-term impact.”

The scrapping of donations, through a $150 per head payment to decile one to seven schools now has 90 percent uptake. This policy was sold as a cost-cutting policy for parents - something families will want to continue to see in a post-Covid world.

“This is a group of crucial education workers, predominantly women, who have been undervalued for decades based on their gender."

Unsurprisingly, the sector expected a lot from the Labour Party when it came to pay settlements and many feel like the Government delivered when it came to low-pay workers.

NZEI president Liam Rutherford says the biggest recent wins weren’t for teachers, they were the pay equity settlement for teacher aides, and the move towards pay parity for early childhood education teachers.

“This is a group of crucial education workers, predominantly women, who have been undervalued for decades based on their gender,” Rutherford says.

Of course, more funding is needed for ECE teachers to achieve pay parity, and the rise for some low-paid staff in the education workforce has created discrepancies with others, such as administrators. 

There is more work to do to lift pay and conditions for low-paid workers, and it’s hard to know what the public appetite will be for further pay-rises in the wake of Covid.

The bad ...

While some pay settlements have been labelled a win across the board, the prolonged primary and secondary teacher pay disputes don’t fall into that camp.

The education mega-strike was a cumulation of previous poor pay settlements, a mounting teacher shortage crisis and increasing demands being lumped on schools and teachers, particularly due to students with more complex needs.

“That was not something that Labour had factored into our thinking."

Hipkins says the Government wasn’t expecting such drawn-out and heated industrial action and was frustrated other policy promises had to be delayed so more money could go towards the settlement. In the end the Government paid out almost $1.5 billion over four years.

“That was not something that Labour had factored into our thinking,” Hipkins says.

One of his biggest disappointments this term was that while the overall value of the pay offer went up, the benefits for those at the bottom of the salary scale diminished during the process, due to the weight of the number of teachers who sat at the top of the payscale.

Despite the tensions created by the industrial action, teacher unions say the Accord that came out of the negotiations has given the ministry, the Government and the unions a constructive space to work together.

It was set up to address the mounting teacher workload and lack of high-quality, qualified teachers, but has created a vehicle for other collaborative work.

These issues remain unresolved, and were highlighted in a recent NZCER survey that found 72 percent of schools thought too much was being asked of them. So expect teacher supply and workload to be a core feature of next year’s collective agreement negotiations.

“At the moment, the schools our system ‘learns’ from and follows are too often those [which are] best at PR, but PR is no guarantee of good outcomes. This has to change.”

While none of Hipkins, Kaye and the unions mentioned it as a lowlight, issues around slipping educational achievement, equity issues, and bullying continue to plague the system.

The latest PISA report - the international gold-standard in educational achievement, attitudes and wellbeing across the OECD, has solidified these concerning trends.

The NZ Initiative’s Lipson  says educational achievement is a key issue facing education in New Zealand.

New Zealand needs to reconcile itself with some kind of standardised testing, so the ministry and educators can identify what works and learn from it, she says.

“At the moment, the schools our system ‘learns’ from and follows are too often those [which are] best at PR, but PR is no guarantee of good outcomes. This has to change.”

Neither Labour nor National back the old model of National Standards, but Kaye believes some kind of centralised data is needed to identify schools that need the most support, in order to lift achievement.

Hipkins’ policies favour a more holistic child-centred approach, rather than testing educational achievement. This is reflected through a range of strategies created for different groups of learners, such as Māori learners, Pasifika learners, early learners and those in need of learning support.

Regardless of the approach, it’s clear those in charge are yet to find a solution to the gaping hole between the country’s highest and lowest learners.

The 'crisitunity' ...

It’s impossible to look towards the future without using a Covid-19 lens, and this especially true for education.

Covid created a raft of issues, but in doing so presents opportunities to do things differently - a phenomenon some are referring to as a ‘crisitunity’.

The digital divide was highlighted when students had to learn remotely. But now schools and students are better equipped, and it’s opened the door for more flexible, online learning options.

The inconsistencies around pay, conditions and job stability in the early childhood education sector have also surfaced. But again, some see it as an opportunity to take a good look at what’s broken in the system and overhaul it.

Covid-19 also brought schools and the ministry closer together. Wellington-based bureaucrats were forced to be hands on, and responsive. Some principals say it’s the most helpful the ministry has ever been, and they hope that remains the case.

“One of the things that frustrates me about education is that everyone wants instant gratification, in this modern, 24/7, instant communication world. Education doesn’t work that way."

Then there’s the messy vocational sector reform.

Hipkins says he’s proud of the decision to fix the sector, once and for all. And he sees the new system as being an advantage going into an economic downturn that’s going to be all about retraining and jobs.

But National is so opposed to the changes, Kaye has committed to undoing these reforms within their first 100 days, if she’s in government.

With estimates of up to 50,000 people being out of work thanks to Covid, National says industry is best placed to organise vocational training.

Regardless of who is in the hot seat come September 20, a refreshed vocational education sector can only be a good thing in a post-Covid world.

Looking forward to September, and who will win education, Hipkins is confident. He says he's proud of the work Labour has done in education, saying New Zealand trusts them on social issues.

Meanwhile, Kaye has gotten National to adopt a more nuanced education policy.  And she's worked hard to win over teachers, rather than just focusing on parents.

And while education and training will factor into how many Kiwis cast their vote, people don't vote on single issues. 

The left, the right and the libertarians have a range of differing opinions on everything from vocational reform to charter schools, but they all appear to agree on one thing: they want more of what they want, and they want it now.

“One of the things that frustrates me about education is that everyone wants instant gratification, in this modern, 24/7, instant communication world. Education doesn’t work that way,” Hipkins says.

For him, a second-term would mean getting to work on implementing the raft of strategies created over the past three years.

“Whatever happens post-election, one thing is for sure, the profession and the government need  a common interest, a way of working together and trust in each other… that’s all you can really hope for.”

Kaye says a major criticism she hears from the sector is one of “broken promises”. Labour talked a big pre-election campaign, and despite a very lengthy record sheet of strategies and reviews, many don’t believe they’ve delivered enough in three years.

NZEI’s Rutherford thinks the Government is going in the right direction.

“We just need them to go further and faster. That will be the message we send during the election campaign.”

But PPTA head Jack Boyle says there’s only one way to get these results everyone seems so desperate for after the election.

“Whatever happens post-election, one thing is for sure, the profession and the government need a common interest, a way of working together and trust in each other… that’s all you can really hope for.”

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