Educational inequality matters

Dr Michael Johnston
Insights Newsletter
8 April, 2022

New Zealand has a major problem with educational inequality in its school system. The reasons are complex and not all of them are in the control of the education system. Some key things are, however. A recent NZ Initiative report shows that New Zealand's approach to teaching reading is not based on science.

PISA data suggest that the gaps between New Zealand’s most and least literate students are amongst the largest in the OECD. Literacy unlocks access to the rest of the curriculum. The variables most associated with inequality in literacy are being poor, Māori or male. These same variables are also associated with inequality in qualifications.

NZQA data show that, in 2020, just 33% of Year 13 students decile 1-3 schools attained University Entrance (UE). This compared with 70% in decile 8-10 schools. UE attainment by Māori and Pacific students was 34%, compared with 59% by New Zealand Europeans and 64% by Asian students. Girls also attained UE at a much higher rate than boys – 60% compared with 47%.

Educational inequality between boys and girls is a topic for another day. However, the sources of socioeconomic and ethnic differences are likely to be similar. Māori and Pacific households are poorer, on average, than New Zealand European and Asian households.

Another NZ Initiative report shows that family background explains the bulk of educational differences between deciles. Adopting science-informed methods of teaching literacy would be good for everyone. It would be especially good for children from lower-literacy households. Less literate parents are less equipped to make up for poor teaching at school.

All taxpayers, many of whom are parents, contribute to the education of the nation’s children. We should therefore expect all children to receive education of high quality. Education should break, not reproduce, intergenerational cycles of disadvantage.

We simply can’t afford to waste human potential by failing to provide children with the best education possible. Recent work commissioned by UP Education from NZIER points to substantial costs of poor education.

It’s encouraging to see that Christopher Luxon is now arguing for a structured literacy approach in New Zealand. Structured literacy won’t cure educational inequality. But given the link between literacy and educational achievement in general, improving the way we teach it would be a very good start.

Stay in the loop: Subscribe to updates