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Teaching The Basics Brilliantly

Kia ora koutou, thank you all for coming and let me acknowledge:

  • Nicola Willis, my good friend and our fabulous Deputy Leader.
  • Chris Bishop, the boy who represents everything great about the Hutt.
  • Erica Stanford, our passionate Education spokesperson.
  • Emma Chatterton, our candidate for Remutaka who has worked closely with Erica on the development of our education policy.
  • Mayor Wayne Guppy.
  • Mark Skelly, Patrick McKibbin and the team from the Hutt Valley Chamber of Commerce.
  • Gibson Sheat for sponsoring today.

It is a pleasure to be here again at the Hutt Valley Chamber of Commerce. And having just spent seven days stuck inside my apartment, I can’t stress enough as an extrovert just how good it is to be here actually talking to real people.

But thank you for changing your diaries to accommodate me.

I’ve come to politics because I think New Zealand is simply the best country on planet Earth and has unlimited potential. I believe, more than ever, that if we make the right decisions, New Zealand has a great future. We can do better, we can be more prosperous, and more ambitious. I don’t want to settle for drift and mediocrity and I don’t believe other New Zealanders want it either.

But, as I meet New Zealanders all over the country, they’re telling me that they are frustrated and worried.

Conditions off-shore including the war in Ukraine, climate change fears and upheaval in the banking world are creating a backdrop of anxiety.

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Added to that, here at home, the worsening economy and the bloated government that can’t deliver are bad enough, but it’s the cost-of-living crisis that is deeply biting many households.

Labour has no economic strategy except to spend more money.

It’s now spending $1 billion more each week. That’s an increase of nearly $23,000 per household each year of public spending, than National was spending in 2017.

Grant Robertson is collecting $43 billion more in tax each year - that’s $17,000 more tax per household coming into the Government’s coffers - partly because Labour refuses to inflation-adjust tax thresholds so more people can keep more of what they earn.

I have to tell you, it is a very special skill to spend more, to hire 14,000 more bureaucrats, and yet incredibly deliver worse outcomes. You wouldn’t do it with your businesses, but Labour is doing it, and has been for nearly six years.

Let’s be clear – New Zealand needs a serious turnaround because we are totally going in the wrong direction. We are not solving our most serious problems and we are not realising all that endless potential we have.

I don’t accept the status quo. I don’t accept that the highest inflation in 32 years and rapidly rising interest rates is the best we can do.

I don’t accept that 54 per cent of kids regularly not attending school is okay.

I don’t accept that the worst waiting times in hospital emergency departments are acceptable while the Government builds a new health bureaucracy.

I don’t accept that violent crime being up by 33 per cent, a 56 per cent increase in gang membership and a ram-raid every 10 hours is the new normal, or that a fourfold increase in kids living in cars is acceptable.

A National Government I lead will know what it’s doing, where it’s going, what matters and what must be done to help New Zealanders get ahead.

We will chart a positive course for New Zealand that’s not about Left or Right, but about going forwards instead of backwards and is about delivering results and outcomes so that all New Zealanders can improve their daily lives and get ahead.

In government, National will have five priorities:

One – National will curb the rising cost of living.

We have a five-point plan to fight the drivers of inflation.

And we’ll support Kiwis doing it tough.

As an example, our Family Boost policy means families earning up to $180,000 will be eligible for up to a $75 a week or $3,900 per year rebate on their childcare costs. And importantly we’ll pay for it by slashing Labour’s wasteful spending on consultants.

Two – National will lift incomes for all.

The first rung of lifting incomes – especially for those doing it tough – is to move people off welfare and into work.

Businesses are crying out for workers, yet under Labour there are 50,000 more people on a Jobseeker benefit than there were when National left office.

Our Welfare that Works policy will help young people find a job. But if you don’t play ball, you’ll face benefit sanctions. Under National, personal responsibility will be back.

We’ll also lift incomes by enabling businesses to flourish. The more successful New Zealand’s businesses are, the better the salaries and opportunities they can offer.

Three – National will deliver resilient infrastructure for the future.

Labour has not delivered a single major transport project from start to finish in almost six years in Government.

Four – National will restore law and order.

We will give Police more powers to stop gangs gathering in public, make it harder for gang members to access firearms and ban gang patches in public places.

And we’ll introduce Youth Military Academies, for serious, repeat youth offenders.

Five – National will provide better health and education services.

New Zealand can be world-leading and there is no subject on which I’m more passionate, or that motivates me more, than education. That’s what I want to talk about today.

Just this week I was in a primary school and saw five-year-olds completely absorbed in forming letters and their sense of concentration, engagement and satisfaction was palpable.

I saw in them some of myself at the same age - the dawning of possibility, the striving to do well, and the excitement of all that could be learned.

At high school, I developed a lifelong love of history, and was also encouraged by my economics teacher to continue with commerce at the University of Canterbury. But before any of that was possible I, like probably all of you here, had a good grounding in the basics at primary school.

It’s not a stretch to say that the life I’ve had, and that my family has had, can be traced back to support and encouragement from my parents and my grandad, and from being taught the basics well by some outstanding teachers in the New Zealand state school system.

I am forever grateful for that start, and I am determined that every New Zealand child should have the chance to improve their circumstances, whatever their starting point.

A National Government that I lead will aim for every child to get a brilliant education in the state school system, so when they leave, they have the opportunity to lead the life they want.

But our starting point is three decades of declining student achievement, across all parts of society.

There’s no doubt that there are high-achieving students, teachers and schools throughout New Zealand.

But could the Minister of Education look every parent in the eye and guarantee their child will receive a world-leading education, wherever they live? She could not.

I think as parents or potential employers in this room, you’ll likely have a sense of the malaise in the education system but may be shocked by just how bad it is.

A recent pilot of an NCEA reading, writing and maths assessment revealed that two-thirds of secondary school students failed to reach the minimum level the OECD says is necessary to succeed in further learning, life, and work. Two-thirds.

Worse, the school system's ineffectiveness is most pronounced in low-income areas, with just two per cent of Decile One high school students able to pass a basic writing test, and just 10 per cent passing maths.

But all school levels are going backwards, with too many kids failing or not achieving their potential, or not being extended.

Yet back in the year 2000, New Zealand was in the top 10 countries for maths, reading and science, according to the OECD’s PISA rankings.

Now we’re outside the top 10 in all three. In maths we have dropped from 4th to 27th.

I think many parents got a sense of what’s happening when, during Covid, they saw their kids’ lessons. Remote learning exposed the school system and the lack of focus on the basics.

The results in education today are more than disappointing. They are more than frustrating. They are unacceptable and a government that I lead will make it a priority to turn them around.

15-year-olds in New Zealand today perform worse in science and reading tests than 15-year-olds did 20 years ago. In fact, the average 15-year-old today is nine months behind where the average 15-year-old was two decades ago for science and reading. In maths, they are one and a half years behind.

Now let’s add another layer. School attendance. Almost 100,000 kids are chronically absent from school – that’s regularly missing three days out of 10. That’s 30 per cent of your education – or almost four years of your 13 years of schooling.

The Minister of Education should be kept awake at night by statistics like these, because the problem is not just the kids failing, but the system failing.

All of us who are parents naturally hope our children will have more opportunities than we did.

But how can that hope be realistic - kids starting school today are entering an education system that is delivering worse results than when their parents went to school?

The Ministry of Education’s recent suggestion to combat failure was to make the tests easier – by using simpler words, fewer questions and allowing Spellcheck.

That is not National’s solution. There is a serious systemic failure in schooling and we will reverse it.

I talked earlier about lifting incomes. If New Zealand is to have internationally competitive incomes and living standards, we need a world-class education system that starts with teaching the basics brilliantly.

We don’t have that now. New Zealand has been running a failed experiment in which the importance of knowledge and skills have been diminished and replaced by concepts like “competencies”.

Instinctively, and through evidence, we know that it’s by improving children’s literacy and numeracy, in line with expectations each school year, that will allow them to progress well through primary school and arrive at secondary school ready for extension.

However, only 45 per cent of Year 8 kids are at the level they should be in maths and only 35 per cent are at curriculum level in writing – and Education Minister Jan Tinetti admitted in Parliament last week that after nearly six years of a Labour Government, there’s been no improvement in Year 8’s results.

The evidence shows that if you’re failing in Year 8, you’ll struggle through high school and perhaps you’ll simply stop going.

I want an end to children giving up on school because it gives them no sense of belonging, purpose or satisfaction.

I want an end to good teachers quitting out of exhaustion and frustration, because the system isn’t helping them or their pupils.

So National will be unveiling policies over the coming months that lay out our plans for getting kids back in school and back on track and supporting the teaching workforce to excel.

I have said many times that I am ambitious for New Zealand.

Today I am announcing that we will be aiming high in education. We will not accept mediocrity in the school system.

The social cost and the economic cost of failure are simply too high.

So, I am pleased to tell you that a National Government will target 80 per cent of Year 8 students being at or above the expected curriculum level for their age in reading, writing, maths, and science by 2030.

Further, we’ll aim to return New Zealand students to the top 10 in the world in maths, reading and science, measured by the international PISA rankings, by 2033.

And here’s how we’re going to do it.

Teaching the Basics Brilliantly

Children, teachers and schools are not personally responsible for New Zealand’s achievement decline.

A lack of courageous political leadership, failure to value what we once had, and insufficient direction from the national curriculum, have all played a role.

So too have a willingness to be led by ideas and ideology rather than evidence and science, and a complete lack of system accountability.

The good news is that these can be turned around by a government that focuses on what matters, that believes knowledge should be at the core of education and that is willing to fix a system that is broken.

That why I’m pleased to be announcing our “Teaching the Basics Brilliantly” plan, the first part of National’s overall education policy.

Our plan to help children complete their schooling with the education they need to pursue the life they want, has four parts

An Hour A Day, On Average

First, we’ll require all primary and intermediate schools to provide at least an hour of reading, an hour of writing and an hour of maths, on average, every day.

Children need the time to acquire knowledge, practice skills and master the basics so they stay with them for life.

The Royal Society, which reviewed how New Zealand teaches maths, concluded it should be mandatory to spend one hour learning maths each day.

And the Education Review Office said in 2018 that declining rates of achievement in reading must be reversed so students are prepared for the demands of the secondary curriculum.

I have said many times that a National Government will not continue to do things that don’t work – delivering improved outcomes is all that matters.

Change is required and under National, it’ll begin with teaching the basics brilliantly.

Just to be clear when I talk about an hour a day of reading, writing and maths, I’m not talking about an hour a day of children sitting still doing spelling tests or repetitive maths exercises.

Our teachers are committed, innovative and creative professionals who know their own classes and will teach in the way that works best for our children.

But they’re not always given the tools to succeed.

A recent study by the Royal Society said nearly half of all Year 4 teachers reported feeling only “moderately confident” in teaching maths.

Disturbingly, some teachers are deliberately scheduling less class time to teach maths as a result.

For those teachers who are not currently spending an hour each on maths, reading and writing, that will be a requirement under National.

The Curriculum, Year By Year

The second part of our policy is to re-write the curriculum to clearly state what must be taught each year in reading, writing, maths and science to every year group.

New Zealand’s school curriculum is far too loose. It does not give teachers clear guidance about what to teach, when. Instead of being divided by years, it is grouped in "bands" spanning two to three school years.

Let me tell you what this means in practice.

Kids in England and Australia start learning addition and subtraction at Year 1. New Zealand children can start learning addition and subtraction any time between Year 2 and Year 5.

Here’s another example: Whereas New Zealand children can start learning algebra anytime in the years between Year 6 and Year 10, English kids start at Year 6, and Australians start algebra at Year 5.

The curriculum’s woolliness means teachers are spending their weekends and evenings trying to figure out what they are supposed to be teaching. They should not have to do that. It should be clear.

So, National will get rid of the three-year bands, replacing them with explicit expectations of achievement and knowledge dissemination for each year group.

We’ll check kids have learned what the curriculum says they should have learned, and we’ll keep parents informed about where their kids are up to.

Research commissioned by the Ministry of Education in 2021 found that teachers’ expectations of pupils can be too low.

The research said there is evidence that kids are capable of more than most teachers expect of them. Further, it found teachers tend to expect less of Māori and Pacific pupils.

That’s why the curriculum re-write will be clear about what is taught each year.

New Zealand needs to be more ambitious for all its kids. Let’s lift our sights because it’s not okay that children are held back or are not extended because their abilities are underestimated.

And it's not okay that Kiwi kids start learning basic skills later than their international peers.

Children learn at different speeds – and that means we need to monitor their progress carefully and measure their achievement so that we know exactly when they need more support or extension.

Labour has undertaken a so-called “curriculum refresh”. It does not go far enough or deep enough to address existing problems. National will do what needs to be done to fix the system.

Assessments

Currently we have no assurance that schools objectively know the learning progress of every child. It is astonishing that in our school system, the first national test for numeracy and literacy is not until NCEA. Until then, we are flying almost completely blind.

So, the third part of our policy is that we’ll require standardised robust assessment at least twice a year in reading, writing and maths from Year 3 to Year 8, to check on each child’s progress. Detailed results will be reported to parents.

This will provide something we don’t have at the moment – a reliable, national picture of how New Zealand children are progressing at primary and intermediate school.

It will also provide data to principals, teachers, and parents about how their kids are doing.

By reporting the results of assessment clearly and transparently to parents, parents have a better chance of being involved in their child’s learning. The stronger the relationship between parents and schools, the more likely children will do well.

Teacher Training

Finally, we’ll ensure teachers and teacher trainees spend more time learning how to teach the basics and we’ll provide them with more classroom tools to help them teach reading, writing and maths brilliantly.

Recently, Distinguished Professor Gaven Martin, who chaired the Royal Society panel on maths teaching, said that New Zealand had amongst the poorest prepared teachers in the world.

I quote him, “Principals know the system is broken, teachers know the system is broken, and the Ministry knows the system is broken. But we are in a sort of stasis, because it’s an incredibility difficult situation to address.”

We’re talking about a systemic teacher training failure, that’s not only in maths.

Children and teachers should not be paying the price for the failure of a system they had no hand in devising.

National says this is too important not to fix.

National will therefore refocus initial teacher training so that all new teachers are themselves confident in the subjects they are teaching. That will be a requirement for registration.

For existing teachers, National will change professional development priorities to focus on teaching the basics. National believes every pupil deserves a teacher who is confident in teaching the basics brilliantly.

In other countries, like Finland, teachers can access a wide variety of resources to create lessons, but that doesn’t exist for New Zealand’s teachers.

National will deliver a central resource bank of high-quality teaching resources that support the curriculum.

Finally, National will scrap teacher registration fees. New Zealand needs more teachers, New Zealand needs great teachers and National doesn’t believe our teachers should have to pay to teach.

Before I finish, I want to talk directly to teachers and parents.

First, to teachers: Soon after I became Leader of the National Party, I visited primary and secondary schools in Christchurch where principals and teachers told me how it is in schools today. And I’ve visited a lot more schools since.

And I can tell you we have great teachers that are incredibly passionate and driven to teach their kids well.

In addition to teaching, you have become the frontline response to complex social, educational, housing and wellbeing challenges. You’re counsellors dealing with unprecedented anxiety among pupils. You’re social workers dealing with vulnerable families. You’re upholding court orders about which kid goes to which parent, when. You’re coping with an influx of learners with additional learning and behavioural needs.

I want you to do what you do best, which is to teach in engaging ways so that children learn. National does not want you spending your weekends re-inventing the curriculum and devising teaching materials.

National is not asking you to do more. National wants to support you because what children learn in your class this year, and what they learn next year, and right through school, will play a big role in determining their life outcomes. It’s that important.

And to parents, I say that I am ambitious for your children. I want them to have the very best start at primary school. With a good grounding in the basics, they can go to secondary school with confidence and, when they leave school, have all sorts of opportunities.

National will change teaching so that your child and every child learns the basics well, and has the opportunity to be extended if they are ahead, or caught up if they are behind.

National will make sure you find out more about what your kids are learning at every year level, and how they are progressing so you can stay engaged.

Ladies and gentlemen, school achievement has declined under successive governments, but I’m telling you that a National Government I lead will stop that decline.

Under National, the malaise of mediocrity and the culture of excuses will end.

More than that, we’ll aim to make the education system world-class. It was once, and it can be again.

We’ll have a government that wants it to happen, the teachers who can make it happen, and the children who need it to happen.

National’s plan will benefit the whole country, but the real winners will be the kids who one day have the chance to realise their potential and lead the life they want because, regardless of where they came from, or where they lived, their teachers taught the basics brilliantly.

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