Prime Minister Christopher Luxon and Education Minister Erica Stanford at yesterday's announcement about a return to a knowledge based school curriculum

Education Minister Erica Standford yesterday unveiled a fundamental reform of the way our school pupils are taught.

She would not exactly say so, but she is all but dismantling the so-called “inquiry” “feel good” method of teaching, which has ruled in our classrooms since a major review of the New Zealand curriculum in 2007.

That curriculum is to be replaced with a return to a more traditional method of teaching, which will require teachers to impart knowledge to their students rather than facilitating the students’ finding the knowledge themselves.

With that comes a review of open-plan classrooms, which Stanford suggested were not working.

Overall, she is proposing a back-to-basics approach to education, which will go down well with conservative and centre-right lobby groups like the Maxim Institute or the New Zealand Initiative and very probably with grass-roots National Party members.

But it is clear that change is desperately needed because what is being done now in our schools is not working.

Stanford said the Ministry of Education had advised her on becoming Minister that the current education system was not producing either excellent or equitable outcomes.

Fewer students were gaining NCEA.

OECD Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) scores were dropping.

Recent literacy and numeracy results for years ten and 11 showed that about 40% of students failed to meet basic reading, writing and maths requirements. 

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“But PISA also tells us that New Zealand records a very strong relationship between socio-economic background and educational performance, more so than the countries we compare ourselves to,” she said.

“Your means should not determine your destiny.”

Stanford is widely regarded as one of National’s most liberal MPs and only last month refused to engage on whether or not the University of Auckland should have Maori-only areas, saying that the problem was not with the Māori space at Auckland University but the fact that there were not enough Māori to fill it.

Yesterday, she put a strong emphasis on social equity in education.

“The education system must ensure that all children have the opportunity to experience success and confidence in their abilities, no matter what their family circumstance,” she said.

“We are undertaking fundamental change in the system and will have an unrelenting focus on lifting achievement so that all Kiwi kids are equipped with the knowledge, the skills and the competencies they need to lead fulfilling lives and contribute to a vibrant 21st-century society.”

She set out the priorities for her reforms.

  • Clearer curriculum: Establishing a knowledge-rich curriculum grounded in the science of learning.
  • Better approach to literacy and numeracy: Implementing evidence-based instruction in early literacy and mathematics.
  • Smarter assessment and reporting: Implementing consistent modes of monitoring student progress and achievement.
  • Improved teacher training: Developing the workforce of the future, including leadership development pathways.
  • Stronger learning support: Targeting effective learning support interventions for students with additional needs.
  • Greater use of data: Using data and evidence to drive consistent improvement in achievement.

The fundamental change she talks about is changing the 2007 New Zealand curriculum.

That devolved many aspects of curriculum setting to individual schools, but there were overriding objectives.

Schools were required to abide by a set of values.They were:

  • excellence by aiming high and by persevering in the face of difficulties;
  • innovation, inquiry, and curiosity by thinking critically, creatively, and reflectively;
  • diversity, as found in our different cultures, languages, and heritages;
  • equity through fairness and social justice; community and participation for the common good;
  • ecological sustainability, which includes care for the environment;
  • Integrity, which involves being honest, responsible, and accountable and acting ethically; and to respect themselves, others, and human rights.

The curriculum said the values on the list enjoyed  widespread support “because it is by holding these values and acting on them that we are able to live together and thrive.’

However, how each school implemented those values was up to it.

“The specific ways in which these values find expression in an individual school will be guided by dialogue between the school and its community,” the curriculum said.

“They should be evident in the school’s philosophy, structures, curriculum, classrooms, and relationships.

“When the school community has developed strongly held and clearly articulated values, those values are likely to be expressed in everyday actions and interactions within the school.”

In a recent Maxim Institute podcast, Dr Melissa Derby, a senior lecturer at the University of Waikato’s School of Education and an expert on early literacy, said we had moved from a knowledge-rich education system to a competencies feelings, feel good child-centred system where each child would construct their own knowledge.

“It doesn’t matter where the child is in terms of achievement,” she said.

“It matters that they feel good about where they are, even if that is failing abysmally. 

“Most of us would think reading and writing comes to mind when we hear the term literacy.

“We are now reading documents saying that literacy includes dance. It includes bridal henna It includes reading the environment. It includes reading carvings, all in the name, I imagine, of inclusion.

“But what I see when you look at the role that literacy plays in terms of reading and writing and having really good reading and writing skills and the skills and opportunities and doors that those sorts of things open, it’s not inclusive at all.

“Taking this culturally relative approach to literacy is closing doors for far too many children.”

It is arguments like this that Stanford is directly addressing with her changes.

“This is a fundamental shift away from our current curriculum, which can be described as high-level, vague, lacking in specificity, detail, and content knowledge, and requiring schools and teachers to create the curriculum themselves,” Prime Minister Christopher Luxon said yesterday.

“Not only has this highly devolved curriculum approach led to a decline in standards, but the Education Review Office (ERO)  have also found in their recent report that teachers themselves want more specificity in the curriculum.

“We will be introducing a curriculum that is informed by the science of learning, knowledge-rich, and develops the skills and competencies our kids need.

“All students will be taught literacy and mathematics in an explicit, systematic, well-structured way that decades of cognitive research tells us best supports them. “

Stanford said the new curriculum would have a focus that was knowledge-rich, structured and explicit every single year about what must be taught and when.

“We expect there will be explicit teaching in a structured manner, especially in those early years, because what parents want to know is that their kids are going to school and getting their heads filled with knowledge so that they can go on to acquire the skills and competencies they need,” she said.

“So in those early years especially, it’s so important to have structured, explicit teaching of knowledge.”

With this, there would seem to be an end to the open-plan classroom experiment.

“One of the things we’re going to be looking into is the evidence behind open-plan learning,” she said.

“Some schools do it very well with doors that they can close off; others with open, very, very open plan, what we call sort of barnyard classrooms.

“It doesn’t seem to be that there’s any evidence to suggest that that works. So it is a piece of work that we will have to undertake.”

The risk for National undertaking any education reforms is that there will be backlash from the teacher unions.

Stanford said she had been working closely with teachers, education professionals, parents, principals, and specialist staff, all of whom were on the front lines of education.

She even included her mobile phone number at the bottom of every reply she sent to a teacher who had contacted her office.

“Their stories and experiences have shaped and confirmed the priorities of this government for education, priorities that have been developed based on research and evidence and student outcome data,” she said.

Stanford was one of National’s hardest working MPs in Opposition as she bored into Labour over its Covid MIQ policies and the impact they were having on migration, and the failings of the Accredited Employer Work Visa scheme.

She is also currently undertaking a major immigration review in her capacity as Immigration Minister.

She is said to have been a Simon Bridges supporter when he contested Luxon’s bid for National Party leadership. Still, regardless,  Luxon moved her from position 26 in the caucus to the front bench when he won the leadership.

She is now ranked sixth in the Cabinet and is often regarded within the National Party as a future leader.

Her moves yesterday will not have harmed her chances.