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Bill English: Launch of National’s Schools Policy

Hon Bill English National Party Education Spokesman

A Parents’ Curriculum

Launch of National’s Schools Policy- Address to Auckland Primary Principals’ Association

You have seen the billboards. National’s top priority is children - not the system, not the unions, not the salaries, not the peaceful life of keeping all the interest groups happy while schools drift into a warm fog of mediocrity.

And there is a choice for voters. Either Labour decides how your child is educated, or you decide. Either they decide what values and principles you want them to learn, or you decide.

National’s top priority will be numeracy and literacy. International evidence shows that the gap between our best achievers and our worst achievers is wider than anywhere in the developed world.

Even the political parties agree that about 25% New Zealand students leave school without the skills needed to be competent citizens. That is about 12,000 young people each year.

There is some good work going on in schools now - based on policy going back to Nick Smith and Lockwood Smith some of which was taken up and continued by Labour. I want to preserve the gains that have been made and attack the gaps with urgency.

National’s Priorities:

• Literacy and numeracy

• Set national standards

• Reading and numeracy vouchers

Some schools are doing an excellent job of lifting the achievement and aspirations of pupils, including lowest decile primary schools with the most challenging pupils. These schools succeed because they have clear goals for their students, simple systems, smart teachers and because they refuse to accept that children can’t learn.

Schools are obliged by legislation to set targets and report against them now. I will take the same approach. National will standardise a limited number of targets to ensure every school knows what the nation is aiming for.

I welcome debate on the definition of national standards.

I also welcome debate on how the results are reported to parents. Parents like simple ways of understanding their child’s progress, or where their school sits in relation to similar schools.

National will provide reading and maths vouchers to parents of children who do not meet national standards by the age of seven:

• $600 - 700 value

• Extra tuition

• Parent entitlement

• Redeem with accredited reading teacher

• Targeted on very low achievement

The reading voucher is highly targeted after reading recovery. It’s aimed to help schools with their most challenging students. Teachers and parents struggle with these children, so let’s help them.

National will overhaul the NCEA:

• Competitive ranking exam for scholarship

• Fair and consistent assessment

• Report failure

• Reduce bureaucracy so teachers can teach

Every student who is competent deserves a school qualification respected by the community. As we speak, 130,000 young New Zealanders are doing NCEA. Labour is letting them down – their qualification is not respected.

Labour believes the problem is that parents, teachers and employers are too stupid to understand NCEA. When Labour was told the assessment was unfair for students, they said it was alright because they expected variations.

Their arrogance and their stubborn refusal to accept there are significant problems with NCEA are the biggest problems with NCEA. It cannot now be fixed without changing the government.

National will not go down the road of paying for more and more time for teachers out of the classroom so they can make NCEA work. Teachers want to teach students and we will simplify NCEA so they can do more of it, not less.

I am particularly concerned about the experienced teachers who tell me standards are eroding because of the confusion. Teachers know how to fix NCEA but no-one is listening. We will work with them. You know it’s serious when the PPTA and the National Party agree.

Increasing parental choice:

• Allow more integrated schools

• Relax rigid zoning laws

• Restore subsidy to independent schools

We disagree with the PPTA and Labour over their attitude to parents. I’m old fashioned. National will be a government that thinks parents matter parents, not caregivers. Parents have the fundamental moral and legal responsibility for their children.

Parents have an inalienable right to make decisions about their children’s education. Labour is trying its hardest to take away that right, strongly supported by the teacher unions.

We don’t send our children to school to fill the Government’s classrooms. Our children should not be trapped in one school or the victims of every passing fad.

There are a few hopeless parents but there are many more who are helpless. They know their child’s education is going wrong but they can’t do anything about it. They need to know the teachers are competent. They need information about their children’s progress. They need choice.


• Redirect funds from bureaucracy to schools

• All schools bulk funded

Parents and communities put their money where their mouth is when it comes to schools. Each year schools raise about half a billion dollars from the community to run schools. The government puts in another billion for operational costs.

National will also give schools control over more of the money spent on schools.

In the last Budget the increase for 2700 schools was $20 million. The increase for the Ministry of Education was $24 million. So the bureaucrats got more than all the schools in New Zealand put together. Funding for schools will be National’s top priority.

Spending on the Ministry of education has ballooned. So has the amount of funding spent in schools controlled by the Ministry. Curriculum Support and Professional Development now account for over $220 million per year. Schools tell me they could make better decisions on spending some of that money.

I will work with you to decide how much should be kept in central control and how much should be redirected to schools.

No one is in a better position to help a children’s learning than the teacher in the classroom and the principal of the school. Direct resourcing gives professional teachers the capacity to decide how to get the best results.

So National will move all schools to bulk funding. We will ensure no school is worse off. We don’t guarantee more money. We do want better value for money.

The unions will oppose bulk funding. They are already running a scare campaign threatening divisiveness and protest. They call Labour’s system “salaries first”. We stand for children first. The new National Government will have a mandate to implement bulk funding, and the unions should get used to it.

As you know, though, administrative change doesn’t make as much difference as quality learning in the classroom.

The description of what our children are meant to learn is in the curriculum.

The current curriculum is too long-winded and complicated. A teacher who tried to comply with the whole curriculum would spend most of the day ticking boxes. Fortunately, most teachers get on and teach instead.

But even a competent hard-working teacher can’t teach it all.

Politicians and the wider community keep jamming more and more in to the curriculum. How often have you heard this: “The answer is more education”.

Schools can only do so much. Teachers cannot be experts on everything. Schools cannot be expected to teach children everything they need to know to be a citizen – after all, children at school only six hours a day.

And today teachers have to deal with so many social issues among students. Dozens of difficult, time consuming challenges walk through the school gate every morning.

We should stop pretending that teachers can teach much of the curriculum at all when they are up to their ears with social behavioral problems.

When it comes to education “less is more”. Great teachers aren’t once-over-lightly. They teach less and do it better.

National wants to give schools a chance to do what they are there to do.

National will stop adding more to the school curriculum.

Instead we want to see the curriculum stripped down and simplified. There should be clear accountability for a small range of clear objectives.

And there should be less paperwork for the rest, so teachers can be creative and enthusiastic.

We will be clear with schools and teachers about what they must achieve, and we trust them more about how they achieve it.

I also want to see the curriculum expressed in plain language.

Education jargon hides mediocrity and fuzzy thinking. And it hides political agendas which would be unacceptable to parents if they were openly stated.

Long processes of consultation and consensus have resulted in a language that can mean anything or nothing. It’s designed to brush over contradictions and exclude nothing.

Parents don’t take much notice. They have learned over the years not to trust what they don’t understand.

Good teachers describe what they are doing simply, and good principals can explain their mission to parents in clear language.

One reason many Boards of Trustees prefer to focus on buildings and fundraising instead of learning is because they are overwhelmed by the jargon and endless meaningless guff.

It doesn’t have to be this way. People can get excited about education when they understand the goal and can see progress towards it.

In staff-rooms around the country I hear teachers excited about effective ways to teach numeracy and reading, so simple that any parent could understand what the teacher is trying to achieve.

Parents can’t engage if they don’t know what you are talking about.

So National will produce a Plain Language Curriculum.

Labour’s review won’t succeed. It will take three years and cost millions to rewrite a handful of documents.

So far the review has produced five essence statements:

• Thinking

• Making meaning

• Relating to others

• Managing self

• Participating and belonging

Now we can’t really argue with these. “Thinking” is pretty general – what’s the alternative? Not thinking? And what does “managing self” mean. ? Is there an assistant manager?

Here is my plain language alternative. It took me 10 minutes.

• Learn to read and write

• Learn to count and calculate

• Learn problem solving

• Learn creativity

• Learn personal responsibility and respect for others

Of course this list is debatable. But it’s what I see happening in classrooms and it’s what parents can understand. It’s much more useful because people know what they mean.

A Plain Language Curriculum means everyone can understand what schools are trying to teach. Just how they teach it is for the professionals, the teachers in the classroom.

I want a smaller, clearer curriculum. I want to take the pressure off schools to be everything to everyone. I want teachers to be able to teach less, but teach better. And I want plain language so parents can understand.

If the education sector believes the incoming National Government will be a challenge to schools, they are right.

We will treat education with urgency because a year is a long time in a young person's life.

We will be focused because it is easy to be distracted by fads.

We will demand honesty because to make excuses is to betray the trust of our children.

Ladies and gentlemen, I ask you to join the next National Government on a national mission - to honour the promise of this nation to its young.


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