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A richer New Zealand Curriculum is possible without National Standards

When National Standards (NS) were introduced it was perhaps assumed that raising achievement in schools serving low-income communities, which children who experience poverty generally attend, would be inevitable.  School data would be made public, schools would compete, and ultimately ‘failing schools’ would ‘up their game’. At the same time parents would gain a clear picture (through a written report) of where their child’s achievement stood in relation to the national cohort. With NS, competition (between students, between teachers and between schools) was seen as the key to positive change.

Various pressures and tensions surrounded the policy’s establishment and implementation, with school professionals mostly being united with public disquiet that NS encouraged too much competition, and were a harbinger to national testing. Overseas this had been the norm, and most research indicates the disastrous effect of testing on other nations’ rich and inclusive curriculum practices. In New Zealand, well-intentioned and useful initiatives like the Progress and Consistency Tool (PaCT) were regarded with suspicion. Prof Martin Thrupp’s New Zealand -based research (2010-2013) in six schools, the Research, Analysis and Insight into National Standards (RAINS) Project, found that any NS-based achievement gains were cancelled out by problems such as teachers’ increased workloads, a narrowed curriculum, the labelling of students, and school staff discontent.

The abolishing of NS indicates that the policy has failed in what it set out to do.  Recent (2017) discussions with primary school teachers, from different schools (decile ratings ranging from 1 to 4), suggest that little has changed since 2013. Huge pressures have been placed on schools, pressures which schools in higher income areas are arguably far better equipped to respond to. Already the majority of middle/upper-decile school children were meeting the standards, and it was a matter of continuing to lift those. In decile 1-4 schools the situation usually differed. Ongoing problems of inadequate funding, student transience, poor student health, crowded or inadequate housing, poorly maintained schools, staffing issues and sometimes high percentages of ESOL students meant that the playing field for all schools was far from level. Achievement-wise, with NS, little appeared to change for children in decile 1-4 schools. It is however possible that being at school was not as much fun as it was prior to the introduction of NS.

Raising achievement is not gained by assessments which check whether a child is at a particular level.  Yet testing became the overarching norm to justify statements related to achievement. An Otara school teacher decried the assessment regime which evolved with NS, for instance in spelling and writing. There was a ‘writing’ best each term. Each child’s test took up to an hour to mark and that was followed by within and across school cross-checking and moderation. She spoke of how more grouping became necessary in her classrooms, and of how children became very aware of their particular levels. For some senior and basic scale teachers, inputting student data took up many hours of precious time, and increased teachers’ workloads meant that some of her colleagues just gave up and left the profession. She also commented that, for some non-English speaking new-immigrant children in her school, it took them up to four years to catch up and be labelled proficient. A number of children became fearful of receiving their school reports as the repercussions at home could be severe. Being labelled as ‘failing to achieve’ at six years old is an unthinkable burden for children and families, yet that is what happened for some as a result of NS requirements.

Another teacher, who works across a range of Auckland schools, spoke of how children arrive at decile 1-4 schools with a skill set that is not always valued. She felt the children needed deliberate acts of teaching, not a ‘load of assessment which often tells teachers what the children can’t do’. She also said that teachers know which children are below standard without having to do extra assessment; statements written on a paper report are ‘there forever’ and usually have ramifications. According to this teacher the richness of other curriculum areas was ‘fading away’.  She could not recall the last time she had been in a school and observed a teacher taking art, music, dance or drama; she felt that wide and rich curriculum exposure would mean there was a greater likelihood of students gaining the key competencies.

Not everyone is so opposed to NS. Continuing with a form of NS will be the choice of the school of an Auckland teacher/senior manager. The school’s position is that how the standards are communicated to parents is vital. Teacher/parent partnership meetings are currently very successful with high community involvement.  In this school, teachers’ goals for students did not have to change with the introduction of NS, for those at six years it was still Level 12, and at 7 years it was Level 17/18.

Tracey Martin, current Associate Minister of Education, in a recent TVNZ1 Q + A interview stated that NS were never national and they were never standards. She maintained that NS were not about education, they were about checking on teachers. Most teachers above would probably concur with her.

With NS, classroom and school focus inevitably centred largely on what was to be tested (the three Rs). NS and its pressures thus reduced and limited the potential of what is essentially a very fine and rich New Zealand school curriculum. For many children in schools serving low-income communities, NS meant a limiting of their school based experiences, a denial of their strengths and potential in areas such as music, culture and language, and an early labelling of failure.

Teachers have always used formative assessment, essentially to ascertain the next teaching step. With the policy change schools will continue to set high and appropriate goals for their students. However, with communication and strong relationships being key to learning, the abolishing of NS and its competitive agenda will make space for a richer New Zealand curriculum, and more meaningful learning experiences.  Schools will become happier places, and happy children are open to learning.