Schooling’s unspoken trade-off

Briar Lipson
Insights Newsletter
31 July, 2020

The Ministry of Education has “heard concerns” that some schools are “too focused on academic achievement.”

To fix this shocking scandal, the new Education and Training Bill will ensure boards of trustees “re-orient their focus.” Now they must focus more on students’ wellbeing and the Treaty.

While learning new things can be fun, most learning of any value takes perseverance and self-discipline. Many children do not relish practising piano scales, rugby drills or times tables. Yet, evidence suggests that homework and teacher-led instruction work by trading some short-term pain for a student’s long-term success.

Unfortunately, the Bill ignores this evidence in favour of making children feel good. It is a terrible trade-off.

Another such example is NCEA. Introduced in the early 2000s, NCEA redefined what school success looks like. Rather than expect all children to put in the work necessary to master English, maths and crucial cultural knowledge, NCEA lets students sail through school picking courses that make them feel good. Nowadays, lessons must be relevant, engaging and fun. Knowledge, and the practice needed to remember it, are too painful for 21st-century children.

The trade-off was bound to have an effect. A decade later, the Tertiary Education Commission found that 40% of Year 12 students with NCEA Level 2 struggle to read or do basic maths. Their wellbeing in school may be dazzling, but we can only imagine what their adult life will be like.

Another example is school attendance. Tremendous effort goes into making teachers feel more like whānau and classrooms more like living rooms. But, the hard data suggests that kids feel so relaxed they often don’t even show up. For example, last year just 58% of students attended school at least 90% of the time. This was down twelve percentage points from 2015 and compares to 87% in England. No matter how good students feel, they cannot learn anything if they are not in school.

If New Zealand were Singapore, where standards are already high, then efforts to highlight wellbeing might be well-timed. However, standards in New Zealand are miles behind Singapore’s, and for the last two decades they have been falling.   

Wellbeing and attainment do not only go hand in hand. So long as our goals are excellence and equity, students must learn to be comfortable with struggle. Policymakers and the Ministry must urgently learn this too.

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