Challenges that transcend political barriers need attention

Peter Dunne (Getty Images)

Peter Dunne
Wellington, September 29, 2022

Now that New Zealand has started to move on from the unrelenting emphasis of the last two and a half years on dealing with the pandemic, the focus is beginning to return to other important aspects of national life.

We are all familiar with the mounting cost of living and the impact it is having on household budgets. We will all have our views about how much of this is due to the recognisable international factors that the government is blaming, saying it has no real control over them, and how much of it is due to domestic circumstances, far more clearly the government’s responsibility.

The Covid-Package debate

That debate, which itself will not change anything, will continue for some time yet, almost certainly through to next year’s general election and probably beyond.

There will be interminable arguments about whether the various Covid-19 response packages were enough, sufficiently properly targeted, and the associated spending properly disciplined.

The level of public debt run up over the last two years will continue to be a major point of political concern, even though New Zealand’s debt-to-GDP ratio remains on the low side by world standards. And then there will be the overarching question of whether New Zealand’s pandemic response was fit for purpose, or too harsh, and inconsistently applied.

In the absence of an independent inquiry, something the government seems determined to avoid before the next election, perhaps out of fear of being embarrassed, all these issues will continue to be the stuff of arcane analysis by commentators and the subject of endless dinner table arguments.

However, there are other issues arising from the pandemic that should transcend partisan political debate because they have a far deeper impact on the country’s future. Top of these is the fate of our children whose education and wider socialisation have been severely disrupted while the pandemic was rife.

Disturbing figures 

Disturbing figures released this week by the New Zealand Qualifications Authority show that on average the number of NCEA credits being achieved by students to date this year is down by over 10% on comparable levels of achievement in 2019, the last full year before the arrival of the pandemic. Moreover, the number of “not-achieved” credits reported to NZQA is at its highest point in the last two years. Secondary principals are saying 2022 could be the worst year yet since the pandemic for secondary education.

The government has already announced a $20 million remedial package to provide extra teaching and tutoring to help affected students make up ground, but that is likely to prove a drop in the bucket.

Aside from the worry of the level of achievement being slowed because of the disruptive impact on schools of the pandemic, there is also the more intangible, but equally important, matter of the personal impact of the pandemic’s disruptions on the attitude and aspirations of individual students at all levels. They will take much longer to restore than a quick remedial package can hope to provide. In many cases, students’ future long-term plans and hopes have been abruptly upturned since 2020.

Impact on mental health 

Associated with this is the wider issue of the mental health impact of the pandemic on young people. We already have one of the world’s highest rates of youth suicide and it is hard to see it not being impacted further by the educational and life uncertainties young people seem set to face over the next few years. General practices are noticing an increase in patients across the board with mental health problems brought on by the pandemic, and it would be reasonable to assume there will be many young people among those who are affected.

Unfortunately, public health services still caught up in the turmoil and uncertainty of the mid-year reorganisation of the health sector are in no position to offer coherent help, placing the onus back on general practices, community agencies and struggling, fearful families. Evidence shows there is often a lag between a civil crisis – like the pandemic – and the growth of mental health issues in the community, meaning the impact of the pandemic on young people is set to linger for some years to come.

In that regard, the figures released by NZQA this week are likely the tip of a large and disturbing iceberg, about which we should all be very concerned. Behind the statistics are many individuals and their families worrying about what all this means for their own well-being and their children’s future aspirations.

But sadly, this looming crisis appears to be receiving scant political attention – across the board. Yet the future of our young people is one of the most important determinants of our country’s future overall. It ought to be taken far more seriously by all the political parties, whether in government or not than appears to be the case at present.

The Ukraine War

Lofty speeches about the war in Ukraine, the risk of nuclear conflagration, climate change, and cyber security are of course important and deserving of much attention, but equally so too are the educational opportunities, attainments, and wellbeing of our children.

As New Zealand moves on from the pandemic and begins the slow process of recovery, looking after the future wellbeing and educational attainments of our children must become a top priority for all politicians, whatever their political stripe.

Peter Dunne was a Minister of the Crown under the Labour and National-led governments from December 1999 to September 2017. He lives in Wellington and writes a weekly column on current affairs. Photo by Getty Images

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