NZ Herald: Back to school and back to basics

Originally published by the NZ Herald 06/02/2024

Having been brought up in Sweden’s structured education system with its largely co-ed, public schools during the ’90s, coupled with the fact that both my parents are teachers, education has always been a passion of mine. Now, with two children in primary and middle school and a 2 year old still to go, my family is intimately vested in our evolving educational landscape. 

Therefore, I was thrilled to see the implementation of a pivotal policy change by the new government, ensuring there is a dedicated hour each day to core subjects such as reading, writing, and mathematics. 

This change has received widespread support from numerous parents I’ve spoken with, fostering a sense of optimism that such a straightforward measure could mark the beginning of tackling the deeper, systemic issues within our education system.

As an example, our daughters’ school introduced a revamped timetable for each year group, showcasing their commitment to these educational reforms. These changes go beyond mere administrative adjustments, laying the groundwork for a more coherent, engaging, and enriching learning journey for our students.

While some may argue that dedicated learning time has always been set aside, I’m convinced that a transparent and structured approach is crucial for consistent educational outcomes. After all, transparency can only serve to enhance our efforts. 

Because the prevailing sentiment seems to be that our educational system requires significant reform. Although it’s not a scientific method, I conducted an informal Instagram poll asking, “Do you feel let down by the education system?”. I was alarmed to discover that 71% of participants responded affirmatively, with numerous respondents sharing detailed accounts of their children’s recent experiences within the system.

It’s quite telling that many have resorted to enrolling their children in tutoring sessions or opted for private schooling, despite the significant financial strain it places on their budgets. This situation creates a deeper issue, as there are also families who believe their children require this support, but find them financially out of reach, only increasing the divide. And this isn’t just an issue isolated to Auckland; it’s a sentiment echoed across the country. 

Anecdotal feedback raises concerns about varied teaching styles, the lack of support for neurodiverse children, the lack of structured education and disruptions caused by frequent teacher absences, particularly due to Covid, leading to a reliance on substitute teachers. 

This has not only interrupted students’ educational paths but also compromised the quality of learning. Such challenges underscore the urgent need for a stronger, more reliable educational framework.

To resolve this problem, our new government has signalled a shift towards structured literacy, placing emphasis on a curriculum that is rich in knowledge, aligning with international benchmarks, and is founded on the science of learning. 

The focus is on establishing a clear, year-on-year sequence of learning that enables pupils to master the essential knowledge and skills required for success. This approach aims to ensure uniform access to core content knowledge across New Zealand, irrespective of a pupil’s school or regional location. 

In practical terms, this ensures that a student studying algebra in Auckland during the first term, who then relocates to Tauranga for the second term, won’t have to repeat the same coursework they completed previously. This approach reflects sound common sense.

In addition, the government’s decision to restrict mobile phone use in schools is an important step towards minimising distractions and promoting a more focused learning environment. 

This policy not only addresses the immediate issue of classroom disruptions but also tackles broader concerns related to digital wellbeing, such as screen time management and cyberbullying. It’s a clear indication that the government is focused on moving towards an educational model where technology serves as an aid to learning, rather than a barrier.

These initiatives exemplify the boldness needed for lasting transformation and indicate significant progress ahead. I now feel positive about the commitment to tackling the intricate issues within our education system, hopefully laying the groundwork for broader solutions. However, this is just the beginning of the journey.

One concerning statistic that demands urgent attention from the government is that almost half of our students are not attending school regularly. It’s imperative to understand the profound, long-term consequences of this issue: a child who misses one school day every two weeks will have lost an entire year of education by the age of 15. 

This alarming trend highlights a critical failure within our current educational system, one that requires immediate action not just from the government but also involves a collaborative effort from parents and society at large. 

Because we must remember that the responsibility to nurture a conducive learning environment extends beyond the school gates and into the fabric of our communities and homes. Children often refrain from attending school if they feel alienated, unsupported, or if they perceive themselves as failing. 

Addressing and improving this troubling inherited attendance rate must undoubtedly be a priority for the new Education Minister, signifying a move towards a system that not only educates but also empowers our youth. 

We also need to learn from our global counterparts, such as Finland, who has demonstrated that valuing the teaching profession, through a strategic educational approach, can greatly enhance student outcomes. 

Finland’s model, centred around a stringent selection and training regimen for teachers, shows a commitment to excellence in education, which is also reflected in the compensation for teachers, acknowledging the critical importance and value of their profession in shaping future generations. 

However, the journey of educational reform is a collective endeavour, not just the duty of policymakers and educators but involving us all—parents, guardians, and the wider community. Together, we are tasked with nurturing and supporting our children’s educational paths, ensuring they are prepared and informed for the future.

So as we embark on a new educational year, let’s join forces to champion excellence through a ‘back to basics’ approach, ensuring that our educators and children alike, embrace the government’s new policy of an hour a day dedicated to reading, writing, and maths. 

Let’s do the basics brilliantly.