What to do about New Zealand’s underachieving children

Some 14% of New Zealand’s children do not achieve as well in reading, maths and science as the rest. At NCEA level 2, 20% do not complete  the qualification. Whilst those statistics still put New Zealand well ahead of most OECD countries, it does not mean that teaching professionals in New Zealand are not concerned about them. Researchers and teaching professionals are constantly seeking out initiatives to address underachievement.

It is well recognised that there are complex contributing factors to the underachievement rates of New Zealanders.  These include the growing child poverty rates, the increase in behavioural management issues, the high level of income inequality, genetics, and the fact that according to normal intelligence distribution, not every child has the capability to achieve at above average levels and finally, the availability of learning support programmes in schools.

Some of these factors reside outside of the school’s ability to have much influence.  It is not possible, for example for the teaching profession to have a substantial influence over the country’s pay inequalities or the fact that a growing number of children are living in poverty. Nor is it possible for teachers to have influence over the natural distribution of innate ability.  Where they do have influence is in developing learning support initiatives for those children who struggle with learning and they have always done this with great enthusiasm. The one barrier to even greater implementation of learning support programmes is funding.  

One of the most famous New Zealand grown learning support programmes is in the area of reading - the ‘Reading Recovery’ programme.  This outstanding initiative was developed by Dame Marie Clay and as news of its special capability to lift reading levels spread throughout the world, it was enthusiastically adopted by many different countries. It is an early intervention programme which requires specially trained teachers. And it gets results. According to the latest Ministry of Education Annual monitoring of reading recoveryreport, based on the 2009 data, 14% of six-year olds attending state and state-integrated schools entered reading recovery in 2009 and 58% of those children had successfully discontinued their series of lessons by the end of the year. A further 24% were making good progress and would continue with the intervention to the end of 2010 whilst 10% would require more specialist help. Clearly this programme has a high rate of success for children struggling with reading.  Unfortunately not all children who could benefit from this intervention get access to the programme. Only 66.3% of schools have access representing 76% of six year olds and some areas with higher numbers of Maori and Pasifika children such as Auckland, Northland and Gisborne, have amongst the lowest levels of access. The implication here is that training more reading recovery teachers to be available especially to schools with low access to the reading recovery programme would make a difference.

The high proportion of Maori and Pasifika children occupying the tail of underachievement in New Zealand has been a concern for a long time. A number of programmes have been developed to address specifically low decile schools which have a high proportion of Maori and Pasifika children.  These include whole of school programmes such as ‘First Chance’ which has shown to be successful if the right professional development is offered to all of the school’s teachers. The KaHikitia strategy with its underlying theme of ‘Maori learning to succeed as Maori’ is another approach which has proved successful. Maori teachers in particular who have applied the principles of the strategy find that Maori children feel a greater sense of belonging in their school community when they make connections and build relationships with key school personnel and other children. Once they have a sense of identification with their school, they tend to learn more readily and achieve better. There is no doubt that if teachers in mainstream schools could understand and apply those same principles in their schools, Maori students in the mainstream would also achieve better results. Funding of professional development for the implementation of KaHikitia would be necessary to make a difference to Maori achievement in the mainstream. It makes sense to apply funding in this area since over 90% of all Maori children are in mainstream schools.

The third area of concern is the proportion of behaviour management problems in schools.  The ‘Positive Behaviour for Learning (PB4L)’ initiative is a good example of the sector’s response to this growing problem. There are more parents struggling with their children’s behaviour issues and schools face more children exhibiting classroom management issues every day. PB4L is an intervention programme which helps both parents and teachers to deal with children’s inappropriate behaviour and can also be effective. 

There are many more learning interventions which have proven successful not least amongst which is the breadth of the New Zealand Curriculum itself.  Some children have difficulty with reading writing and maths because they cannot immediately recognise the relevance of these subjects.  Through other curriculum areas such as science, sport, drama or the arts they can be drawn to find the relevance which for them was missing and thus become motivated to apply effort in these important subjects. 

It is not a lack of initiative on the part of teaching professionals, but rather a lack of funding to fully implement learning support initiatives and appropriate strategies that means we retain a level of underachievement in New Zealand.   

  One of the reasons that New Zealand scores so well compared to others is that  

In the last weekend of August NZPF is hosting a summit of its regional association presidents and education sector heads. The purpose of the summit is to address the question ‘What is the role of the public school in New Zealand today?’

When I was elected President of NZPF last year, I indicated that it was time to launch a public debate on the role of the public school in New Zealand.I continue to hold that view. Much has happened in the compulsory sector in the last three years and we are beginning to see some directional changes. Alongside these changes we observe research findings which inform us about the kinds of skills children of the future will need in order to build a prosperous and equitable 21st century society. Not always do we see an immediate connection between the directional changes and what our researchers are telling us. 

System changes that have already occurred include a much stronger focus on assessment and data and belief that we can address the tail of underachievement through the introduction of National Standards; changes to the structure and administration of our RTLB service; changes to ORS funding and to ‘success for all’ special education services; creeping centralisation; the notion of clustering schools; confusion between the importance of maintaining the standard NCEA assessment system and allowing the introduction of the Cambridge exam system into secondary schools and the government’s support for public private partnerships in the education sector. 

Sector leaders, including principals, have their own views on whether or not these changes represent a positive shift in direction for the sector and the summit will provide the opportunity to debate thesechanges. In addition, there are other issues to take into account. The continuing unacceptable underachievement statistics for Maori children has been a concern for a long time and continues to be so; the importance of maintaining and strengthening the ideal of self-managed schools; the prominence for school leaders of the New Zealand Curriculum, pedagogy and practice and the importance of high quality initial teacher training.  These are all important concerns and have direct influence on whether we maintain our high world rankings in educational achievement or not.

A number of highly regarded speakers have been invited to address the summit on these various areas of relevance and ample opportunities will be afforded the attendees to debate and reflect on the issues raised. It is hoped that by the end of the day the summit will come to an agreed set of guiding principles that they believe should underpin educational provision.


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