Auckland, May 2, 2022
Young people are the future, and a good education is a passport to the future. If that is true, there is a lot to worry about considering the current state of our compulsory schooling system.
Reports of declining literacy and numeracy levels among 15-year-olds have recently resurfaced, naturally raising concerns around the state and the future of compulsory education.
Declining numeracy levels
According to the latest PISA report, the educational achievement levels of Year 11 students in science, literacy, and numeracy have been declining over the past 18 years. New Zealand students have dropped in the ranks for all three subjects, particularly noticeable in maths; dropping from 4 out of 41 countries, to 27 out of 78 countries.
Literacy and numeracy skills provide the basics for participating and functioning in modern day societies. Considering the poor educational achievement levels of secondary students in core subjects like maths, this raises questions around the purpose of education today. Our longstanding decline in educational achievement is not new. Consecutive governments and policymakers have failed to pay close attention to the needs of our compulsory schooling sector.
Teacher shortages, burnout amongst our educators, and declining rates of educational performance of primary and secondary students across absolute and relative indicators all point to a declining education system that requires urgent attention and solutions.
The Digital Divide
The pandemic put the gaps in our schooling system on full display, from the digital divide to resourcing issues that left some learners behind. Teachers’ workloads were also increased to make up for missed learning throughout lockdowns.
Our ongoing Covid-19 recovery has focused primarily on health and economics. I would argue that education is a vital component of the conversation. We now have an excellent opportunity for those at the helm of our education sector to examine what has been lost throughout both the pandemic and the past 20 years and build on what has been gained.
The recently released Literacy, Numeracy, and Communication Strategy signals positive work by the Education Ministry to address our literacy and numeracy woes. Strategies and policies are necessary but have often proven to simply be that—words on a paper with no practical outcomes for the frontlines. Our Covid-19 response and education system history have taught us that centralised bureaucracies do not – cannot – provide all the answers. Nor can policies delivered in charismatic communication outputs that fail to deliver good outcomes.
If we consider that the proof is in the pudding, what are we baking? Our recipe seems to produce worsening reading, writing, and numeracy levels.
Broader vision needed
It is time for those in charge of our compulsory education sector to start thinking outside of bureaucratic parameters. More than ever, there is a need to consider solutions like decentralisation and amplifying the local voice. We need to give autonomy and authority back to those who know their local schools, communities, and students best. The future of our tamariki deserves precisely that—our best efforts to ensure a well-functioning education system that performs and delivers positive outcomes for all learners.
‘Alapasita Teu is a Researcher at Maxim Institute based in Auckland.