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National Party leader Christopher Luxon announces education policy

Mar 23, 2023

National's leader Christopher Luxon has unveiled the details of their plan to improve literacy and numeracy in the primary school curriculum.

On Thursday afternoon, Luxon said the party would set a target of 80 percent of students at or above the expected curriculum level for their age by 2030, with New Zealand top 10 in the world on PISA rankings for maths, reading and science by 2033.

He said his party would chart a "positive course for New Zealand that's not about left or right, but about going forwards instead of backwards and it's about delivering results and outcomes" with its Teaching the Basics Brilliantly plan.

The policy would involve children spending an hour on average per day on reading, writing and maths - similar to the 'Back on track' policy announced in 2021.

It would shift the curriculum from two-to-three-year 'bands' of requirements to year-specific.

The plan would also involve "standardised, robust" twice-a-year testing of reading, writing and maths ability from Year 3 to Year 8, with detailed reports for parents.

He said the testing proposed was "quite different from National Standards".

"What we're doing here is we're making sure that we are focused on each and every individualised child, and understand their progress against a really well defined curriculum by each and every year group.

"We're not that interested in pass or fail against a standardised test ... if they need some catch up we can get the resources to them really quickly."

Teacher registration fees would also be scrapped.

A centralised library of resources for teachers to create lessons from would be created, while the party would also introduce an exit exam for primary and intermediate teaching graduates covering expertise in reading, writing, maths and science instruction, and require current teachers to do professional development in "teaching the basics".

Luxon said he saw the effect of a lack of available resources for teachers with his wife Amanda, who was a teacher.

"She spent endless evenings and weekends preparing the lesson plans, when in fact having a central repository as we see in many other countries that a teacher can go to there as a starting point, get 70, 80 percent of what they kind of want to do, add their localised content on top and their own perspective on top of it to tailor it to their kids. That's a great way for them to do it."

It would mean they would not have to spend "endless time doing stuff you don't need to be doing", he said.

In Finland, there was simple software that could provide generic lesson plans that could then be tailored, he said.

The hour of maths, reading and writing in primary schools he expected could be started by the beginning of the 2024 school year, with the teaching resources and assessment tool in place by 2025.

He told reporters the scrapping of teacher registration fees was expected to cost $10 million, but the rest of the plan could be completed within the government's existing budget.

"The actual redesign of the maths, the reading, the writing curriculum, making sure we actually get the assessment tools in place - we can do that within core budgets and the core work of the ministry."

Achievement had declined over the past 30 years or so across multiple governments, he said, and remote learning during Covid-19 exposed parents to the school system's lack of focus on the basics.

"A recent pilot of an NCEA reading, writing and maths assessment revealed that two-thirds of secondary school students failed to reach the minimum level that the OECD says is absolutely necessary to succeed in further learning, life, and work.

"And worse, the school system's ineffectiveness is most pronounced in low-income areas, with just 2 percent of Decile One high school students able to pass a basic writing test, and just 10 percent able to pass maths. But all school levels are going backwards."

While recent pilot NCEA tests involving Year 10 students had pass rates as low as 34 percent for writing, the figure was higher for maths and reading - 56 percent and 64 percent, respectively.

He said the Otago University-run National Monitoring Study of Student Achievement had found 35 percent of Year 8 pupils achieving at the expected level in writing, 56 percent in reading and 45 percent in maths.

Teachers, pupils and school were not responsible for educational decline, Luxon said, putting it down to a "lack of courageous political leadership, failure to value what we once had, and insufficient direction from the national curriculum".

He also blamed what he said was a willingness to be led by ideology rather than evidence, and a lack of accountability.

He said banding of the curriculum across three years, which meant New Zealand children could start learning addition and subtraction any time between Year 2 and Year 5, compared to England and Australia where children start learning it at Year 1.

He pointed to a study by the Royal Society, which he said found nearly half of Year 4 student teachers felt only moderately confident in teaching maths, so were scheduling less class time on it.

The plan would help with high truancy rates, he suggested.

"The evidence shows that if you're failing in Year 8 - that last year of intermediate school - you're going to struggle through high school and perhaps you'll simply give up and stop going.

"I want an end to children giving up on school because it gives them no sense of belonging, no sense of purpose or no sense of satisfaction, and I want an end to good teachers quitting out of exhaustion and frustration, because the system isn't helping them or their pupils get ahead."

National would be unveiling more education policies over the coming months, Luxon said.

"We will not accept mediocrity in the school system. The social costs and the economic costs for New Zealand are simply too high for failure."

Luxon yesterday signalled the direction of the policy, saying the rewrite of the curriculum would help determine which skills were non-negotiable at each year of primary and intermediate in reading, writing, maths and science.

Labour leader Chris Hipkins believed the two parties could work together to reach bipartisan consensus on a solution to improve foundation skills for children, while the Greens called it an expensive distraction and ACT said it would need to focus on actual improvements rather than artificially inflated grades.

The policy drew backlash from some educators; one of whom said it was a reiteration of the National Standards, which they did not believe to be successful, and another said they were not convinced by a lock-step approach.

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