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Speech: Shearer - A Lifetime of Opportunities

Education: a Lifetime of Opportunities



New Zealand has a Great Education System

A few years ago, I was leading a team of people in West Africa supporting a new government after its election. Around a meal one day the topic of what school we attended came up.

As we went around the table, it turned out that all my team had been to elite schools from around the world.

One had attended Eton, another Harrow and others had gone to a number of exclusive US schools.

They asked me, ‘David, where did you go to school?’ Papatoetoe High School I replied.

‘Oh’, they said politely, ‘what sort of school was that?’

I told them that it’s a public school in south Auckland and it provided me with a great education.

I sat back, the odd one out, and realised that the teachers and school I attended had not only got me here, but rather satisfyingly, I was their boss.

Kiwis working and living off-shore constantly talk about coming back to New Zealand because it’s a great place to bring up kids. And that means going to the schools which gave them their chance in life – their ability to foot it with the best in the world.

When we put ourselves alongside Australia, the UK, the US, our schools blow the others away. In those countries many parents need to send their kids to private schools to get a decent education.

In Western Australia, for example, over a third of the kids go to private schools.

I’m proud that here, we don’t need to.

On international comparisons, we sit consistently in the top 10 in reading and science.

So we should be proud of our education system.

Labour is the Education Party

Labour has always been the Party of education. It embodies our values of opportunity and fairness that underpin a prosperous and united country. As a parent, my kids attend public schools. I began my working life as a teacher not too far from here at Massey High School.

So, I get it.

I get how important a great public school system is for this country.

I want New Zealand to be a place we can all be proud of.

A place where the best and brightest want to live and work.

A place where people know they can get ahead.

Education lies at the very heart of achieving that.

We owe our success to an enlightened vision for education set out years ago.

Coming out of the depression and in the Second World War, the first Labour government still managed to find the money to raise the school leaving age and lift the educational opportunities for our kids.

Peter Fraser set out an aspiration in 1938 that is as relevant today as it was back then.

“The Government’s objective, broadly expressed, is that all persons, whatever their ability, rich or poor, whether they live in town or country, have a right as citizens to a free education of the kind for which they are best fitted and to the fullest extent of their powers”.

New Zealanders knew then and they know now that a great education is a shot at a good and full life.

No-one doubted that it was the foundation for a fairer, happier, more successful New Zealand.

I benefitted from that education system – as did many of you – and it’s what I want for the next generation.

That commitment, through ongoing investment and innovation, has given us one the best education systems in the world.

National – Old Ideas

But today that’s under threat.

National is systematically undermining the very values that make our education system great . They are peddling tired ideas that don’t work, copied from countries that rank far below us.

I didn’t see anyone win gold at the Olympics by looking over their shoulder for a lesson from the guy in last place.

That’s why I give you my absolute guarantee the Labour government I lead will not increase class sizes.

Parents said ‘no’ to larger classes. Unbelievably, John Key still believes it’s a good idea, he just thinks he didn’t sell it well enough.

We won’t agree to National’s plan to set up Charter Schools – funded with taxpayer dollars – whether they’re run by Brian Tamaki the Maharishi yogi, or whoever.

Under that plan, teachers won’t need to be qualified and schools won’t need to teach to the curriculum.

But they will be able to make a profit.

They are a gimmick and a political stitch up with the ACT Party.

Our Challenges

Right across New Zealand, people tell me they are growing more worried about where our education system is headed.

We can do better for everyone. And, I won’t settle for anything less than the best.

But to get there, we also need to recognize that some kids do not get the opportunity they deserve.

Close to 1 in 5 kids leave school before getting NCEA.

84,000 young people are currently not in work or education. That’s a waste of our young talent.

But it’s also a ticking time bomb – played out in poorer health statistics, joblessness and crime running into the future.

We need to take Fraser’s vision for education and match it with the best research and listen to the ideas of our talented professionals.

Not a bunch of cheap slogans and gimmicks.

But what will put us at the very top internationally.


Let’s start by appreciating what a good school looks like.

I want to tell you about a school in my electorate.

It takes in a large number of migrant children every year.

When these kids start school most of them have an English comprehension age at the level of a 3 year old.

By the time they finish Year 6, they leave where they should be for their age. In six years, that school has lifted their reading age by eight years. That school is doing a great job. They are exceeding expectations for their kids.

Yet that school, its teachers and its kids are stamped as failures because for most of their time at school their children’s results fall below the National Standard.

In other more affluent schools the kids easily meet the standard, but could progress further than they are.

National has spent the past 4 years trying to tell you that if we only measure the problem, things will get better.

Well it won’t. As the saying goes, ‘you can weigh the pig as often as you like, but it’s not going to get any fatter.’

And, as with the school in my electorate, it won’t even tell you what a good school looks like.

I believe schools do need to be accountable to their parents. As a parent, I want to know my local school is a good one.

I want to know the teachers are the best they can be and that they will report to me in plain English about how my kids are progressing – and what is being done to help if they are behind.

I want to know how they are doing, right across the curriculum from English to science and everything in between.

I want the Education Review Office – ERO – beefed up to look into the health of schools and report on them in clear easily understandable language.

I want to see a school report card. And, if the school is falling short in any area, I want to know what is being done to remedy that.

I want to see ERO – staffed with senior teachers and former principals – able to get alongside schools under-performing and lift them back to health.

But let me tell you what I don’t want. I don’t need to know whether my school is better than the one across town on the basis of a bunch of shonky figures that even John Key says are ‘ropey’.

What I don’t want to see is millions being spent on a complex moderation system and teachers incentivised to rort their test scores to make their class or school look better for a league table.

But what I do want is our teachers spending their time interacting, finding better ways to teach, passing on good practice and making their classes relevant for a 21st century.

A Vision for the Future of Education

Just last week ERO came out with a report that said students at some schools “have simply been forgotten amongst the daily business of ‘delivering’ education”.

That’s not right. Kids have to be at the centre.

My commitment to all New Zealanders is that under Labour, the world’s best education will be available at your local school. I won’t settle for anything less than the best.

Every kid in New Zealand will have the same opportunity – the best education from their first day at school to their first day in the job.

Our education system must work, from a quality early childhood education, that we know is so important, through primary and secondary school. And then on to what follows whether it be an apprenticeship, university training or workplace learning.

It must set us up for a life-time of learning and enable us to adapt to a fast changing world. Over the coming months I’ll be releasing a range of ideas for discussion.

I want to hear from you. I want to hear ideas from parents, teachers, principals and our kids. I want you involved in shaping the future of our system.

But today I want to start that conversation by outlining some ideas that will make a practical difference.

Poverty and Education – Food in Schools

Unfortunately, when it comes to education all kids do not start at the same place.

New Zealand is now more unequal than it has ever been. That’s a disgrace and eradicating the causes of poverty will be a priority of the next Labour government.

But there is a generation of young New Zealanders who can’t afford to wait.

Rising child poverty is a reality. We now have 270,000 children in poverty – 40 per cent of them come from the homes of working families.

If kids turn up to school not having eaten breakfast, without shoes, or sick because their house is cold and damp, it’s obvious they won’t get the best start.

I hear people argue that this is the responsibility of parents.

We can debate that endlessly but it won’t change this reality: tomorrow morning kids will still turn up to school hungry.

And a hungry kid is a distracted kid who can disrupt an entire classroom. I’m not prepared to sit on the sidelines and hope this problem goes away. We need to offer these kids a chance, not an excuse.

Labour will be more hands-on, partnering with communities and voluntary organizations to put free food in all decile 1 to 3 schools that want and need it.

Currently we have successful programmes that put fruit in schools and we’re seeing benefits from that. For 30 years we had milk in schools. This is achievable.

There are a number of models out there and we’ll find the best.

KidsCan, for example, is doing great work in 223 schools around the country helping more than 46,000 kids with food, shoes and other basic items. Another 211 schools are on their waiting list.

For those who say the country can’t afford this, I have a clear message for them: we can’t afford not to.

The costs of kids falling out of school and into the dole queue, or worse, the court room, are far greater.

Kids learn best if they are ready to start the day, and if they have a great teacher in front of the class.

Teacher Quality

On that all of the research is unanimous: the single biggest factor in the success of a child is the quality of the teacher.

I bet all of you can name the teacher that shaped your life the most. For me it was Pam Peters who taught me 5th Form Geography.

She had a talent for lifting bumbling adolescents beyond our expectations and then pushing us further.

What she did for me is what thousands of enormously talented people continue to do in schools across the country.

I don’t believe we value teachers enough. We’re lucky that most of our teachers are dedicated, talented and professional.

We need the highest quality teachers.

We need to ensure they stay in the profession and stay in the classroom.

We need to see them pass on their talent to other teachers, to mentor and encourage best practice across a school.

So I want to look at ways we can make that happen. I’ll be coming back with some specific ideas about this later.

Reading Recovery and Numeracy Intervention

Despite the high standard of our education system we still have too many people who do not achieve.

Unfortunately, there are too many Maori and Pasifika kids in this group.

We know that if children aren’t reading by age 8, then the way things work now is that their education skips ahead to the next stage.

Those students fall behind, often never to catch up again.

Teachers then try to manage those kids when what they need is an intensive recovery intervention.

All schools should have access to reading recovery. That’s a bottom line. Sadly often the schools that can’t afford it are the ones that need it the most. 7 Reading recovery has an 80% success rate. It’s the gold standard. Devised by Marie Clay it’s been exported all over the world. Yet it’s not universally available here.

So the starting point should be to extend Reading Recovery to every school in the country.

That’s not the case now.

We also need to devise a similar maths recovery intervention. It is not acceptable that a child can go through school without basic numeracy skills – without an intensive intervention.


One of the biggest challenges we face is bridging the gap between the classroom and the workforce.

The Principal Youth Court Judge, Andrew Becroft was right when he said that kids that drop out of school don’t magically disappear, instead many of them become society’s problem.

In today’s world a kid without skills faces a low-wage, uncertain future.

But leaving school should not be a cliff top from which we ask our kids to jump and hope they make it to the other side. We need to build pathways out of school and into new education and training opportunities.

There is a lot of focus on going to university. That is important – a highly educated society is what drives the health and prosperity of our nation. But the reality is 70 per cent of our school leavers don’t go to university. Our polytechnics and training institutions should be reaching into schools to guide students in different directions. It should be a seamless transition between school and the next step, not a sharp abrupt one.

There are some great models around. The tertiary high school at Manukau Institute of Technology is one that achieves remarkable results with kids branded as failures.

The trouble is most teenagers don’t start thinking about what they want to do with their lives until they’re just about to leave school or are standing outside the school gate.

That’s too late.

The time to start thinking about where they might end up is at the very start of secondary school.

I want to see kids getting early advice about the path that interests them, leadership training, life skills, civics that follows their time at secondary school.

We diminish the value of our schools if our kids falter at the end.

We need to take some bold steps. I will outline some of our thinking in the weeks ahead.

But we do need to be open to doing things differently.

Our kids should have the best chance from their first day at school to their first day in the job.


I have a strong sense of where I want to take New Zealand, and what we need to do to get there.

Our education system is at the heart of that.

As I said, I started my working life as a teacher.

I confess that education is in my DNA. My Dad was a school principal, my mother was a teacher aide and my wife was trained in reading recovery.

There are ways to lift our education system and I will make it happen.

We start by valuing what we have. Listening to those who know.

Education is an investment in our future. It is not a cost. And in the Labour Party we take that to heart.

I know we can be the absolute best in the world.

We can give our children the best possible start.

And equip New Zealand with the best talent it needs to prosper in a 21st century world.

Let me repeat, the world’s best education will be available at your local school.

We’ll keep alive the vision of Peter Fraser.

Opportunity for all, no matter where you’re from, to achieve your potential. Not just the privileged few.

Education has transformed New Zealand before, and under Labour it will transform New Zealand again.

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