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Don Brash Speech - Excellence in Education

Don Brash
National Party Leader

13 April 2005

Excellence in Education

Thank you for your interest in our plans for achieving excellence in education.

Before I start, may I acknowledge the work of the Hon Bill English, who has done an outstanding job in exposing the incompetence and lack of accountability we have seen from this Labour Government in Education, and whose work is reflected in the content of this speech. New Zealand’s parents and pupils can breathe a huge sigh of relief knowing that he will be our next Minister of Education.

I entered Parliament after a long career in both public and private sectors on a mission.

That mission is to reverse the slide in our fortunes and in our aspirations, a slide which in the past year has seen 20,000 New Zealanders leave the land of their birth, a total of 114,000 in the past five years of the Labour Government.

We will not reverse that exodus overnight. But reverse it we must if we are to have any hope of again becoming the kind of country our most able people want to call home.

Today, I intend to focus on the role our education system can play in bringing about the change I aspire to. Without a world-class education system, we simply cannot close the growing gap between incomes in New Zealand and those in Australia and other countries to which New Zealanders can easily move.

Without a world-class education system, we cannot build the culture of aspiration, achievement and excellence we must create if we are to create a country our children will want to work and live in.

A world-class education system is essential if we are serious about ensuring that every young New Zealander, whatever their race or social background, is able to achieve their full potential.

It has been said that a decent education is the greatest gift a community can give its children.

Far too many children in New Zealand are not getting this gift.

The debacle of NCEA is just the latest example of the tragedy, threatening to betray a whole generation of our children.

We can and must do better.

What results are we getting?

Let’s step back from statements of objectives, and focus on what we know about the outcomes our education system produces now.

While we have many outstanding schools and teachers, and plenty of outstanding students, we also have an extreme degree of inequality in our education system.

International surveys have shown that the gap between New Zealand’s least able students and our most able students is much higher than in other OECD countries.[1]

Worse, New Zealand studies show that the disparity between low and high achievers actually increases the longer a cohort stays at school. In practice, this means that far too many people are coming out of 11, 12 or 13 years of schooling without even the rudiments of literacy or numeracy.[2]

It is well documented that the worst levels of literacy and numeracy are found among Maori and Pacific Island children. Adult literacy surveys show that less than a third of Pacific Island New Zealanders have sufficient literacy to cope with the demands of everyday life in a modern society.

This is a tragedy unfolding before our eyes and I am staggered at our complacency in the face of it.

The proportion of young Maori and Pacific Island children in the population is expected to grow over the next 20 years. Improving literacy and numeracy skills is thus a matter of urgency, not just for those individuals directly affected, but for the country as a whole.[3]

There is far too much political correctness about failure in our schools.

There are too many inspired teachers frustrated by the lack of tools to do their job effectively. Too many teachers have left the profession, or moved overseas because of this.

There are too many parents frustrated by the limited schooling choices available to their children.

It’s time we faced up to the chronic deficiencies in our current approach.

Schools should be able to realize the potential of every child. That, after all, was the original vision of those who set up public education.

Great teachers, great schools

How do we ensure that pupils achieve to the best of their ability?

We too often focus on the wrong things. We serve our children best if we remember that schools are about teaching and teachers.

As Allan Peachey, the Head of Rangitoto College (and National Party candidate for Tamaki at the next election) reminds us in his provocative new book, What’s Up With Our Schools, “teacher quality is the single most important factor influencing student achievement.”

Most of us can remember at least one teacher who inspired us in some way to reach a little higher and further than we might otherwise have done. Many young people have their lives turned around by dedicated and inspirational teachers –they are literally saved by those teachers. It is one of the reasons why teaching is potentially one of the most satisfying of professions.

Outstanding teachers, and outstanding principals, make outstanding schools. And we need more of all of them.

Amongst other things, that will require that we dramatically upgrade the desirability of teaching as a profession, and rethink our approach to teacher education.

If I have the privilege of leading the next government of this country, it is my ambition to see teaching become a profession of choice for our best and brightest young people.

And as someone who believes in the operation of markets, I don’t find it too difficult to understand that such an ambition will require that we have the ability to pay good teachers more. And when you look at the bureaucratic waste in the system, there is plenty of capacity to do that.

But we all know that it is not simply about money.

Rather, it is about our ability to create a career environment which allows excellent teachers to flourish, which provides them with a working environment appropriate to a professional group, and which rewards them appropriately.

How can we expect to attract our best and brightest into teaching when teachers are so frightened of violence in the classroom that last year delegates at the PPTA conference called for panic-buttons in every classroom? What sort of professional environment is that?

Disruptive pupils have to be moved out of mainstream classrooms, for the benefit of other pupils and for the benefit of the teachers working in that environment. That will require greater support for alternative education options for such students.

Once in the classroom, are all teachers equal?

We all know that, as in every sphere of life, people perform at different levels, put in different degrees of effort, and in most places get rewarded accordingly.

But in teaching the pay structure is so tightly structured around a trade-union collective that there is very limited flexibility to enable the good and outstanding teachers to be adequately rewarded.

National will strongly encourage moves to add flexibility to employment contracts, so that the principal and the school board have greater ability to reward performance.

Outstanding academic results require outstanding teaching.

All of those after-hours sports and cultural activities don’t just happen.

When at-risk young people get their lives back together, it will usually be because of the extraordinary efforts of a teacher helping them.

Teachers put in tremendous efforts to make all these things happen.

And any good principal knows who makes them happen.

I believe we must respect and remunerate teachers as professionals, but this means that teachers have to act and organise as professionals.

I hope to lead a government in which good teachers are truly valued; where they are paid more and supported in their career development by principals and boards; and in return for being treated and valued as professionals, the cloth cap trade union antics of the PPTA and NZEI will truly become a relic of the past.


I want to turn now to some of the structural issues in our education sector. Where does decision-making appropriately lie? In Wellington, or in the schools and communities around this country?

For the Labour Party, the answer is always Wellington.

In every area of the state sector, this Labour Government has hugely expanded the bureaucracy. It is the one common thread through everything this Government does: whether it is health, the environment, policing or education, it is the bureaucracy that has grown, with proportionately less getting through to the front line.

Under Labour, the number of education bureaucrats has increased at almost three times the rate of growth in teacher numbers.

Spending on centralized education services has increased at roughly ten times the rate of increase in school operations grants.

Between 1999 and 2004, the Government more than doubled the Ministry of Education's departmental budget. Over 1200 new education bureaucrats have been hired in the past five years.

I am dismayed to hear of principals and teachers being overwhelmed by form-filling and box-ticking at the behest of the Ministry of Education. The average New Zealand secondary school spends 35 days a year filling out 150 different forms, something even the bureaucrats in Wellington admit is a high burden of compliance.

National will slash the education bureaucracy and use the funds thus freed up to improve the funding of schools. Principals and school boards will make the decisions about how best to use this funding, not bureaucrats.


Let me turn to assessment issues. One thing we know from the unfolding NCEA debacle is that the direction we are headed in is not only not working, it is turning into a disaster of epic proportions.

The shambolic implementation of the NCEA at all levels, and most recently at Scholarship level, is one of the most spectacular failures of this Government, matching the unfolding financial disaster of its tertiary education policy.

And that raises some crucial questions.

Who is responsible for the current mess?

The names to remember are Trevor Mallard and David Benson-Pope.

And they have been aided and abetted every step of the way by Helen Clark.

This trio has caused the collapse of confidence in the national qualification system, a system which allows the mediocre to pass while outstanding students fail.

This trio has allowed our pupils to become the guinea pigs in a badly implemented experiment. If it were not for the extraordinary efforts of teachers trying to make NCEA work, the whole exercise would have been an even greater shambles.

There is now overwhelming evidence of inconsistent, invalid and unfair results in the NCEA at all levels. Employers have warned that they cannot make sense of students’ records of learning and are sceptical about what the results really mean. Parents and pupils are in the same position.

Teachers have warned that assessment loads are too heavy, results inconsistent, and moderation practices not up to scratch.[4]

I am in no doubt that the politically popular stance would be to promise to scrap NCEA. But I am not interested in playing political ping pong with the lives of young people. I don’t care that National initiated policy work on the NCEA, or that Labour has overseen its chaotic introduction. Too many young people’s lives are being placed in jeopardy.

National will as a matter of urgency undertake a complete overhaul of the NCEA. It is not a matter of fine-tuning or tinkering. The whole approach is in many respects deeply flawed. We must make dramatic changes to ensure the huge investment we have all made is rendered effective.

As John Morris, Principal of Auckland Grammar has said recently, we must accept that a pure standards-based system cannot work in all subjects. It is appropriate in many vocationally-oriented subjects, but is simply inadequate in traditional academic subjects.

In undertaking the overhaul which is needed, we will take the advice of experts, teachers, principals, tertiary representatives and employer representatives.

Their brief will be wide-ranging but will include the following bottom lines:

- NCEA standards must be assessed in a way that produces consistent and comparable results from one year to the next and from one school to the next.

- Inadequate and toothless moderation practices must be changed.

- Failure must be reported. If we don't report failed standards, then we can't begin to work out why failure occurred and how it can be fixed.

- We must dump Scholarship in its current form and replace it with a high-stakes external exam, akin to the previous Bursary exam, where students are ranked and graded.

- The amount of assessment in NCEA must be reduced so teachers can focus on teaching.

The system as it has developed has become a conspiracy to ensure that you cannot compare students or schools. If you have exams, as we do, why don’t you get marks?

If you have marks then you know what the standards really are and what your child’s achievement actually means.

Parents want to know how their child is doing, and how the school is performing. They have every right to know.

How can we lift standards?

Improving our basic literacy and numeracy standards should be a national mission. Every illiterate school leaver is an indictment on our education system.

National will set national standards in numeracy and literacy, so that no child arrives at high school unable to read and write, or unable to understand basic arithmetical functions.

We must provide parents with an alternative path for their children if the child is not achieving basic literacy and numeracy.

Parents are entitled to ask me this: what is the next National Government going to do if my child is falling behind?

I am announcing today that National commits to those parents whose children are, by the age of seven, failing to achieve the national standards we will establish that they will be provided with “reading vouchers” to enable their child to catch up.

These vouchers will entitle parents to an additional programme of government-funded remedial teaching for their child. They will provide choices for those parents whose children are not meeting age-related national reading standards. Parents will be able to use their voucher to access remedial-tuition for their child at any participating school or any accredited provider.

We will also introduce a similar “maths voucher”scheme, to run in parallel with the reading voucher.

So the commitment is this: if your local school, or classroom teacher, is failing your child, we will provide you with another option.

These vouchers are an interim measure to deal with an immediate crisis.

It will take many years to lift achievement for every child. That is why parents must have an escape route for their child if he or she is not being adequately taught.

Freeing our schools to perform

How might we free our schools to perform better? At present, the school funding system is a bureaucratic shambles, which has turned school principals into form-filling fund-raisers instead of educational leaders.

The Ministry of Education runs dozens of different funding pools and programmes, and hundreds of contracts covering many hundreds of millions of dollars.

Resources for schools also come from parents and the community, who together are currently contributing around $500 million annually.

In my view, it is school boards and principals who are most closely attuned to the needs of their school communities, and as such they should be afforded the most authority over what happens in their schools.

National will cut through the bureaucracy and simplify the funding for schools so the professionals who run them can get on with being educators.

National will move to a single grant for schools covering both salaries and operational costs.

A key component of the Tomorrow’s Schools innovation was a more flexible approach to school funding, leaving the principal and board with the ability to work out arrangements which best met their particular needs.

Until Labour ended what was called bulk funding –which they did against the wishes of local school boards – over 40% of pupils in New Zealand were educated in schools funded this way. Every school principal and board chairman I have spoken to who experienced bulk funding would cheerfully sign up for it again, given the chance.

A single funding grant is precisely the way that tertiary institutions and most early childhood centres are already funded. They get per pupil funding, and organize themselves accordingly.[5]

National’s objective is to support strong educational leadership and competent teaching in well-supported schools.

I am convinced by the suggestion of Allan Peachey that we should recognize that New Zealand already has a number of outstanding schools, schools which are world-class by any standards. And they span the entire decile range.

Schools which have established a reputation for excellence should be given total independence of governance by allowing them to have the ownership of the property they use vested in their trustees on behalf of the community.[6] We might call them Trust Schools.

Trust Schools would thus have complete control over their finances. They would have the right to borrow and expand, in principle taking over responsibility for weaker schools nearby. They would be freed from the constraints of a national wage scale and the restrictions of a national wage contract.

Trust Schools would allow to happen quickly what currently happens only slowly – our best schools could expand. They would be owned by their communities in the form of an educational trust. They would still be publicly owned, but in a decentralized rather than a centralized manner. We would give control back to local communities.

These schools will set the benchmark to which other schools aspire.

Expanding Choice for Parents

To make our education system more responsive and more dynamic, we have to provide parents with more choice.

The most obvious barrier to choice at primary and secondary schools is the lack of places of the sort parents want – created by school zoning, the cap on integrated school rolls, and the financial squeeze on independent schools.

Under Labour, zoning has been used to prop up schools that parents wouldn’t otherwise use and it has resulted in a kind of “selection by mortgage”, whereby many schools are only open to those who can afford housing in the relevant area.[7] Indeed, one of the great ironies of our supposedly egalitarian education system is that only the rich get to choose where their children go to school – they can afford to buy into the zones of the most popular state schools, or send their children to independent schools.

As a first step towards choice, we will put an end to Labour’s rigid zoning restrictions. We realize that in some cases schools will want or need to restrict their roll intake, but we do not accept that that roll intake should be restricted by geography. Equally, we will ensure that all pupils can attend their local school.

I realize that for the removal of zoning to create real choice, the best schools – the schools that parents really want their children to attend – must be empowered to expand. At present, the Government will not permit schools to expand until all the empty classrooms in neighboring, less popular, schools have been filled. But parents do not send their children to school simply to fill the Government’s classrooms, and nor should they.

The next National Government will commit to a reasonable level of additional capital costs to expand schools experiencing strong demand for places. This way, more people will have the opportunity to attend the schools that are leading the way.

It will add some dynamism to a system which is far too static.

I also expect that any Education Minister operating under my watch will use his powers to increase choice at every turn. That may include allowing successful schools to take over the management of less successful schools and it will most certainly include the approval of more special character schools.

Labour is further restricting parental choice by only allowing integrated schools to expand where there is population growth and no impact on state school rolls. National supports the expansion of integrated schools for the simple reason that it is an option that parents and children want.

I am not myself Roman Catholic, but if non-Catholic parents want to send their children to Catholic schools, perhaps because they respect the values inculcated in such schools, and the schools want to accept additional non-Catholic pupils, it is surely outrageous that the Government stops parents from exercising that choice.

National will also reverse this Government’s attempts to squash the independent school sector by forcing them to charge parents higher and higher fees. Labour has capped the total amount of funding that independent schools in this country can receive. Every year, the number of parents who want to send their child to an independent school increases, meaning that every year the per-child subsidy is reduced.

But of course it is no “subsidy” at all. Those parents have paid their taxes. Parents who send their children to independent schools are in fact subsidising the schooling of other families’ children.

In our first year in office, National will restore support to private schools to the same real value per student as it was in 1999, with a view to further lifting the contribution in our first term as we consider the financial condition of state schools.[8]

There is too much simple-minded ideology about the presumed virtues of state monopoly education. State monopoly education is wildly out of line with international practice.[9]

A school is a school: buildings, equipment and teachers, organized around a culture of learning and aspiration.

Whether the school is state-run, run by a community-owned trust, or is an integrated or independent private school should not matter one bit. Parents will decide which suits their children the best.

As policy-makers, we should be focused on expanding the choices parents have in making one of the most important decisions they will make – how to educate their children.


Education is not the preserve of the Labour Party, the education bureaucracy and the teacher unions; it is the enterprise of every New Zealander concerned for our future.

Who is in the best position to know what school your children should attend? Who should determine what values should be imparted to them? Who cares for them most? You or the government? I believe parents know best.

The education policies I have outlined today provide a way for parents and communities to wrest control back from centralized bureaucracies. We must empower good schools, good principals and good teachers to use their professional skills to provide our children an outstanding education.

National is determined to see every child achieve.

- We will fundamentally overhaul the NCEA and reintroduce demanding scholarship exams where students are given meaningful grades.

- We will end the conspiracy to hide information about the performance of pupils and schools.

- We will cut back assessment so there is more time for teachers to teach and for students to learn.

- We will introduce national literacy and numeracy standards and accountability mechanisms for ensuring schools meet them.

- To ensure no child is left behind, we will provide reading and maths vouchers to give parents the resources to ensure their child catches up.

- We will dramatically reduce the education bureaucracy and decentralise school management, and use the savings to improve the funding of schools.

- We will free-up our outstanding state schools and allow them to expand.

- We will support the expansion of integrated schools where there is a demand for them.

- We will improve parents’ choices about where they send their children to school by ending rigid zoning restrictions, and lifting the state’s contribution to independent schools.

This is our commitment to parents and to New Zealand’s future generations: an education system that opens up opportunity, that empowers parents, and that provides a path to a better future for all our children.


[1] Last year, results were issued from the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) 2003. This found that: New Zealand’s distribution of performance (i.e. the gap between the highest and lowest achievers) on the combined reading scale was above the OECD average; amongst countries with a similar average performance in mathematics, New Zealand had a wider distribution of results; New Zealand’s overall performance in this latest survey dropped us from the highest performing group of countries to amongst the second-highest performing group of countries.

[2] The most recent Progress in International Reading Literacy Survey (PIRLS), released in April 2003, showed New Zealand 13th in place in terms of overall reading comprehension, near the bottom of English- speaking countries, and behind Lithuania, Bulgaria and the Czech Republic. It identified New Zealand as having one of the highest disparities in achievement.

[3] The proportion of primary school aged children (5 to 12 year olds) who are Maori is expected to increase from 24% in 2001 to 28% in 2021. The proportion of secondary school aged children (13 to 17 year olds) who are Maori is expected to increase from 21% in 2001 to 24% in 2021. (Ministry of Education, Hui Taumata 2005, Maori in early Childhood Education and Schools)

[4] “Teachers talk about NCEA: Research Report on Focus Groups with Secondary Teachers,” Judie Alison, NZPPTA, March 2005. Even teachers who are generally supportive of the concept of NCEA are not confident about the moderation of internal and external standards. The report states that ‘The external moderation system, which is the quality assurance process for the internally assessed components of the qualification, lacks credibility with the vast majority of teachers”. It concludes that “There were huge concerns about the quality and reliability of external assessment.”

[5] The new early childhood funding system works as a voucher system. Early childhood centres receive hourly per-child funding rates that vary depending on the qualification status of the teachers present.

[6] The British Labour Government is showing a lot more imagination than we are seeing from Labour in New Zealand, and already moving in this direction for secondary schools.

[7] A recent study showed that home buyers paid a premium of $20,000 to own a home in the Burnside High School zone in Christchurch, $70,000 in the Christchurch Boys’High School zone and over $130,000 in the Christchurch Girls’ High School zone. McClay, Scott and Harrison (2003) The Impact of School Zoning on Residential House Prices in Christchurch, paper presented at 2003 meetings of the NZ Association of Economists, pp19-21.

[8] In the Netherlands, there has been equal government funding of privately run and public schools since 1917. In Belgium, the vast majority of privately run schools have funding equivalent to public authority schools. In Denmark, private schools receive government funding equal to about 80-85% of their expenditure. In Australia, independent schools receive about 36% of their revenue from the government, with funding ranging from 14% to 70% of State government schools.

[9] According to the latest results from the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) study, in 2003, on average 13% of 15 year olds were enrolled in privately managed but predominantly publicly financed schools. In the Netherlands, that figure was 78%, in Ireland 58%, and in Korea 36%. In New Zealand, the OECD notes that 0% of 15 year olds were enrolled in privately managed but predominantly publicly financed schools, though 4% of students are enrolled in independent schools (most of the funding for which, of course, comes from school fees).

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