Media release: NZ schooling must reverse alarming decline, new report says

Media release
7 October, 2020

Wellington, 6 October 2020 – New Zealand’s education system is a mess, riddled with unscientific ideas and seduced by child-centred orthodoxy, according to a new report by The New Zealand Initiative.

Falling from its height as the envy of the world just twenty years ago, the Ministry of Education has let New Zealand’s education system unravel by turning the focus away from teaching knowledge and on to 21st-century “competencies.”

In a comprehensive new report, New Zealand’s Education Delusion: How bad ideas ruined a once world-leading school system, author Briar Lipson traces how the country’s schooling system lost its way and provides solutions for correcting the dangerous path.

“Almost everyone with children can sense that something is not right about schooling today, they just may not be able to put a finger on what exactly the issue is. The international data shows they are right to be worried.

“Despite a 32% rise in per-pupil spending since 2000, today’s 15-year-olds have lost the equivalent of between three and six terms worth of schooling. Fewer perform at the highest levels and many more leave school unable to read and do basic sums,” Lipson says.

She added that it is hard to see just how poorly Kiwi students are performing because the Ministry of Education has not gathered the data that would enable us to track changes over time, or to compare between schools.

Without the OECD and other international data, the state of New Zealand education would be a black box, Lipson says.

The report pieces together how, over the last century, child-centred orthodoxy – which undermines subject knowledge and tells teachers to let students lead – captured the minds of researchers and education officials.

Lipson argues that New Zealand’s schools have become “testbeds”, but without any tests. She also points out how these new learning methods are either deeply unscientific or outright falsified by robust empirical studies.

“The philosophy of child-centred learning has changed everything from what gets taught to the teacher’s role in the classroom. It has even transformed the purpose of school,” she says.

Lipson clarifies that fault for the decline is not with teachers, who often quietly go against the Ministry of Education’s pronouncements and instead teach knowledge explicitly. Neither is the fault with parents who only want the best for their children and tend to trust the direction of modern schooling.

Instead, Lipson says the power to halt the nation’s slip into mediocrity rests with the education research community, the Ministry and, ultimately, with elected politicians.

“If education policy was based on evidence rather than orthodoxy, we would start to address some of New Zealand’s most systemic problems. Everything from poverty and lack of opportunities to low productivity.

“Repairing the damage done by blind adherence to a flawed philosophy, and restoring teachers and their subject knowledge to the core of education will be crucial if we are to solve this country’s most serious issues,” she says.

“As New Zealand recovers from a major economic downturn after Covid-19, now is the time to be honest about the failures of child-centred ideas. Then we can prepare our children for a brighter future.”

The report outlines six recommendations to reverse the country’s decades-long decline at the hands of a failed educational philosophy:

  1. Create an evidence-based teaching profession by designing a handful of mandatory standardised national assessments to highlight the effective schools and approaches;
  2. Create a new national curriculum based on disciplinary knowledge, not competencies;
  3. Encourage evidence-based instruction in early literacy;
  4. Reintroduce partnership schools, but with rigorous accountability;
  5. Redress the dominance of the New Zealand Council for Educational Research (NZCER);
  6. Fund quantitative and generalisable research that rigorously tests properly formulated hypotheses about what might raise attainment and break the link between socioeconomic and ethnic backgrounds and educational achievement.

Read more:

You can read New Zealand’s Education Delusion: How bad ideas ruined a once world-leading school system here.


Briar Lipson is available for comment. To schedule an interview, please contact:

Linda Heerink, Communications Officer
P: 04 494 9104 / 021 172 8036

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