Education missing in election campaign

With the global financial crisis rolling along as an election backdrop it’s likely important policy areas won’t get the coverage they deserve.

While both main parties are rolling out almost identical proposals in most policy areas, including defending and underwriting private banks, significant policy differences elsewhere are being overlooked. Differences in education (and health) are the most significant.

There is plenty in education to be concerned about. In international comparisons New Zealand students do as well as students anywhere in the world but unlike most other countries we have what’s described as a “long tail of underachievement”. In reality this is the “long tail of poverty” which bedevils children, families and the whole country. After nine years of supposed economic prosperity we still have 175,000 children growing up in families below the poverty line and this group dominates the almost 20% of our children who leave school without reaching basic standards of literacy and numeracy. Despite Working for Families and other initiatives these kids begin school behind the start line and never catch up. The National Party is fond of saying our public schools have failed but these are the kids who are so often not at school or are in perpetual transience between schools without putting down educational roots.

Neither Labour nor National want to face this issue because it calls for profound economic change beyond the jingoism of tax cuts.

Labour points to improved NCEA results from schools in low-income communities in recent years and this reflects positive changes in assessment practice which measure what students know as opposed to predetermining the failure of 50% as under the old School Certificate. Labour recently announced a Pacifika education initiative and there are always several programmes to target Maori underachievement but these focus on symptoms of the problem and will of themselves make little, if any, difference.

National counters that setting national standards in primary and intermediate schools is the answer. They want each child’s progress regularly checked against these standards to identify a child’s strengths and weaknesses and use this information to assist the learning process. In fact this is precisely what schools and teachers have always been doing but for National it fits another agenda. They want these results publicly available for every school. The news media will fall over themselves to provide titillating league tables of primary schools just as they currently do for secondary schools. And what we can predict long before we see the results is success rates which perfectly match the income levels of families in the local community. National will use this mechanism to create a market-driven education system at primary level.

Parents will be encouraged to compete to get their kids into the “best” primary schools in high income areas. The tests themselves would become all important for schools because their reputations will depend on the results so and time will be taken from teaching and learning to “teach to the test”. Many children will be stressed by these “high stakes” assessments and schools will become less creative, more boring and most importantly the overall standard of education and learning will not be improved.

Another area where neither National nor Labour has released significant policy is in the sneaking privatisation of education whereby fees are increasing in all sectors and the quality of education depends on the ability of families and students to pay higher fees at schools or for tertiary education. Labour increased operations grant funding to schools by five percent in this year’s budget which barely met the rate of inflation. National says it will also restrict school funding increases to the rate of inflation.

This is a huge issue. The operations grant is bulk funded to schools so the government is not committed to meeting the actual costs of education. The difference is left to parents and the community to make up. Many schools now raise half their operating costs from sources other than the government.

Funding is a critical issue for tertiary education also. National plans to keep Labour’s interest free student loans and its “fees maxima” policy whereby tertiary fees can only rise above five percent if permission is gained from the Tertiary Education Commission. In practice the five percent has become the minimum with 10% increases approved for some courses.

The hope is that Labour may introduce a universal student allowance. If so this would be a welcome break. As students frequently and rightly point out, they are the only group in the community which must borrow for their food and rent.

Will any of these issues get a fair hearing this election?