Why are Schools Failing so many of our Kids?

23 May 2003

An address to the Visionschools annual conference

Mr Chairman, ladies and gentlemen,

I greatly appreciate the invitation to address you this morning, especially when I am clearly neither an expert in education nor the National Party’s education spokesman. 

Perhaps like most parents, I have a passionate interest in education, but I am well aware that having a passionate interest in the subject in no way makes me an expert.  Indeed, education has at least one thing in common with economics – almost everybody feels they know enough about the subject to be permitted to hold strong, and often completely unsubstantiated, views on the subject, views they feel entitled to expound at great length and with great vigour!  I very much hope that my comments this morning will have at least some relevance to your thinking.

Before beginning the substance of my remarks, let me just tell you enough about my own education to enable you to put my remarks in context.  I did my first year of primary schooling at Keith Street Primary School in Wanganui, and the rest of my primary schooling at Cashmere Primary School in Christchurch.  I then did five years of secondary schooling at Christchurch Boys High School, before going on to do degrees at Canterbury University and the Australian National University.

At the time, I saw nothing very unusual or remarkable about my education.  Looking back, I recognise that I had some rather mediocre teachers but for the most part my teachers were outstanding, giving me a strong love of learning and a strong grounding in the basics.  This was the era – in the late forties and fifties – when English teachers still taught grammar and that, together with two years of Latin for School Certificate, means that to this day I still know when to use “I” and “me” and where to put commas and apostrophes, knowledge which seems totally beyond more recent school graduates. 

I was also incredibly fortunate in having a mother who, though she had had only one year of high school education herself (until she did a university degree at the same time that I was doing my own university work), was absolutely determined that her young son would get the very best education possible.  Most nights when I got home from primary school I was obliged to “write a paragraph”.  I have no recollection at all of the subjects I wrote about, just that I had to write on a subject she suggested.  And of course she checked my spelling carefully and corrected the grammar.

As I’ve indicated, all my schooling was in public sector institutions and for years I assumed that all public sector schools were as good as the ones I had attended.  Nor was I disillusioned when my now-adult children went to Campbells Bay Primary School, Murray’s Bay Intermediate School, and Rangitoto College.  They were good schools, and it never occurred to me that they might not be.  They were, after all, state schools and my only experience of state schools had been very positive.

I’m now a good deal wiser, and understand that there are state schools and there are state schools.  They don’t all provide a quality education.  And my youngest child has gone to a private school since he was five.

On a less personal note, I know, as I am sure you do, that the 1996 survey of adult literacy found that more than 40 per cent of all adult New Zealanders had a level of literacy below the minimum required to perform adequately in a modern society, with the ratio of Maori and Pacific Island New Zealanders with inadequate literacy over 60 per cent.

Late last year, a United Nations survey of educational standards found that, while our best school achievers do very well by international standards, the difference in achievement between New Zealand’s bottom students and its average students is the second highest across all OECD countries.  It quoted the Trends in International Maths and Science Study, which revealed that 42 per cent of New Zealand 14-year-olds gave the wrong answer when asked to subtract 4078 from 7003, compared with 14 per cent in Japan and 12 per cent in Korea.1

And just last month we had the results of the 2001 survey revealing that the reading skills of New Zealand nine-year-olds were the second worst among English-speaking countries – and that the gap between the reading skills of New Zealand boys and those of New Zealand girls was the largest in the world – on a par with that in Iran and Belize!

I have often told the story of visiting a small company in Hawkes Bay last year, when I was still Governor of the Reserve Bank, and being told by the manager that he had advertised for a forklift truck driver a few weeks earlier – and been dismayed to discover that three-quarters of the applicants could not read well enough to be considered for the position.  They had to be able to read the safety instructions and the pallet labels, and three-quarters of the applicants could not do that.

I thought I would never top that story, but in January this year, when my wife and I and our then nine-year-old son moved from Wellington to Auckland, we stopped off in Rotorua so that my son and I could ride the luge.   I asked the 18-year-old behind the counter how much the tickets cost.  “Three dollars fifty”, I was told.  “Good”, I said, “I’ll have 10 tickets.  I guess that’s $35.”    “Just a moment”, said the young woman behind the counter, as she keyed in $3.50 ten times, pressed the “add” button, and confirmed that yes, indeed, the total was $35.  I guess the good news in that story is that the woman could add to 10 even if she could not multiply by 10!

And then just a few weeks ago, my wife and I went with three other adults to see a movie.  I asked for five tickets, and was told that the total price was $72.  Somewhat surprised, I enquired how much each ticket cost.  “Twelve dollars”, was the answer.  I asked why the total then came to $72.   And, after some work on the calculator, I got an apology and a request for $60.

It seems beyond doubt that we have a serious problem.  We have some outstanding schools – primary, secondary, and tertiary – and some extremely well educated people.  Indeed, some people as well educated as any in the world.  But far too many people are coming out of 11 or even 13 years of schooling without even the rudiments of literacy or numeracy, while at least for my taste even those who come out with good qualifications are too often unable to write grammatical English.

Perhaps we should be spending more on education?   That may well be a popular thing to advocate to this audience, but I am not at all sure that that’s the answer.  In New Zealand, the government already spends more on primary and secondary school education, relative to the size of our economy, than in all other developed countries.2 In the last 50 years, per pupil government spending on education has quadrupled, even after adjusting for inflation; indeed, it has more than doubled in the last 30 years.3 Even between 1995 and 1998, government spending on education increased by almost 30 per cent, an increase several times the increase in GDP over that period.4 It is certainly not obvious to me that simply throwing still more money at the existing system will produce materially better outcomes.

It is also worth noting that the United Nations survey to which I referred a moment ago found that the OECD country which was judged to have the most effective education system, South Korea, spent no more per pupil than did Greece and Portugal, which were judged to have the least effective education systems.

Nor is it obvious that simply reducing the ratio of pupils to teachers is the answer.  There has been quite a lot of research which suggests that reducing the size of classes does not make a huge difference to educational outcomes, unless the reduction in class size is very large.5  South Korea, judged by some measures as having the most effective education system in the OECD, also has the highest pupil/teacher ratio in the OECD, in both primary and secondary school education – a ratio of 32.1 pupils per teacher at primary school and of 21.2 at secondary school (compared to 20.6 and 16.3 respectively in New Zealand).6

Although as I acknowledged at the outset I am not an educational professional, I strongly suspect that the problems we face lie not in the level of government funding or in class sizes but rather in three other areas.

First, I suspect that part of the cause of educational failure lies in the seriously dysfunctional families from which many school-age children now come.  It is, of course, not quite politically correct to talk in this way, but the evidence is overwhelming, as I don’t need to tell this audience, that many children from single parent families – where the parent, usually the mother, is on the DPB with two or even more very young children – simply do not – indeed, can not – get the encouragement and nurturing that had most of us reading simple words before ever we reached school. 

Thirty years ago, in the early seventies, the number of people receiving the DPB was well under 20,000, and the number of their children was perhaps 30,000.  Last year by contrast, the number of people receiving the DPB was around 110,000, and the number of their children was estimated at almost 190,000.  While there are no doubt many single parents who do an outstanding job in raising their children in very difficult circumstances, on average it seems very clear that two-parent families provide an environment where children grow and learn more effectively.  It is impossible to avoid the conclusion therefore that the substantial increase in the number of children being raised in single-parent families will have played some part in the poor educational outcomes revealed in recent surveys.7

This means, of course, that fixing this source of our poor educational outcomes involves not finding ways to improve the educational system per se but rather finding much more effective ways to help and strengthen families, especially where young children are involved.

Secondly, there is at least anecdotal evidence that too many teachers coming into our schools are insufficiently educated themselves, and insufficiently trained as teachers.   Allan Peachey, principal of New Zealand’s biggest school, Rangitoto College, as you know, was quoted in the Dominion-Post8 recently as blaming the teacher shortage for causing training colleges and polytechnics to lower the standard of trainee they accept.

“I am getting CVs with covering letters that, if they were sent home to the parents of students, would shock them.”   He said that about 400 out of the 500 applications he received from teachers last year lacked the academic credentials he required for the subject or “did not even make sense”.

I am sure that most teachers work like galley slaves.  But it is equally clear that some find themselves in front of classes with inadequate education themselves so that, no matter how hard they work, they have little chance of being good educators.  Part of the blame for this situation must lie at the feet of some of our teaching training establishments: it is not necessary to agree with everything that Deborah Coddington wrote about teaching training establishments in her article two years ago to conclude that there are some very serious deficiencies in some of these.9

And that leads on naturally to my third concern, the educational system itself: not the children, not the teachers, but the system in which they are collectively obliged to operate.

As you know full well, the overwhelming majority of New Zealand children attend state-owned or state-controlled (integrated) schools – less than 4 per cent attend independent schools.   Not only that, but many children also have no choice over the particular school they attend, thanks to rigid zoning laws.  The remuneration of teachers is highly centralised, and is determined as a result of negotiations between a bureaucratic Ministry of Education and two powerful teacher unions, one covering primary schools and the other covering secondary schools.  There is little scope to reward good teaching performance, and almost no scope to dismiss teachers for poor performance.

As an aside, I have never forgotten meeting the then-principal of Rangitoto College shortly prior to my daughter Ruth starting at the school.  I complimented him on the reputation enjoyed by his school and his staff.  He agreed that his staff were very good – all except one, whom he described as totally hopeless, while noting that he was powerless to get rid of him.  What a scandal!  The hopeless teacher had been at the school for years and years, turning off hundreds and thousands of pupils from his subject, all because of the ridiculous rules which prevented the principal from doing anything about the situation.

And of course the same highly centralised system has a major impact on what is taught, on how it is taught, and on the way in which children’s performance is assessed.  It’s that system which has effectively mandated the whole language reading method, down-playing the use of phonics as a reading tool, despite increasingly strong evidence that some understanding of how to decode the letters of the alphabet is an important aspect of learning to read.  It’s that system which has down-played the importance of grammar in the study of English, and mandated the teaching of a particular interpretation of New Zealand history.

The National Government began some tentative moves away from this highly centralised system in the nineties – removing zoning restrictions and offering schools an option to take up bulk-funding.  This was progress, albeit modest in scope.

Of course, affluent parents have always had a considerable measure of freedom of choice about how their children will be educated.   They can sometimes find ways to get their children into the preferred schools even if they are not in the right zone.  Or they can afford to pay the $50-100,000 premium to buy a home in the right zone.  Or if all else fails, they can afford to send their children to private schools.  It is the ordinary working New Zealanders who get no choice about where to send their children, and have to make do with whatever school they happen to be zoned for.

At the core of any attempt to reform this Soviet-style way of delivering educational services must be allowing all parents to exercise more choice about the kind of education their children get.  The system needs to be able to reward good teachers, and give school principals much more freedom to hire the teachers they need – and to dismiss those whom they do not need, or who are not performing adequately.  The system needs to be flexible enough to encourage innovative schools, and to provide the freedom to experiment.  The system needs to be responsive so that, if the demand for a particular kind of education increases, its supply increases also.  It strikes me as absolutely bizarre that if the demand for Starbucks coffee increases, more Starbucks coffee outlets are quickly built.  But if the demand for more Auckland Grammar education goes up, the price of houses in the Grammar zone goes up!

The ideologues in the teacher unions and the present Government don’t just want a good education system (and to be fair I don’t doubt that their desire in that regard is completely sincere), they want it only if it is a public education system.  To these ideologues, the goal of effective education is subordinate to the need to ensure that the system is primarily one involving a government-owned and government-controlled school system, where the needs of the teacher unions take precedence over the needs of the pupils, and indeed of the teachers themselves.

For my part, I don’t care who owns the schools.  I care only about ensuring that all New Zealand children get access to good schools of a kind which their parents choose.

Interestingly, there is a gradually growing awareness of the fundamental problems of government-owned and centrally-managed education systems in other countries.  As long ago as 1989, Albert Shanker, long-time president of the American Federation of Teachers (the main US teacher union) said that “It’s time to admit that public education operates like a planned economy, a bureaucratic system in which everybody’s role is spelled out in advance and there are very few incentives for innovation and productivity.  It’s no surprise that our school system doesn’t improve: it more resembles the communist economy than our own market economy.”10

More recently, Chris Woodhead, a former chief inspector of schools in the UK, has done a complete U-turn on the central funding and control of education.  Early last month, Chris Woodhead addressed a conference organised by Reform, a UK think-tank, and called for the abolition of the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, the 150 local education authorities, and most of the Education Department.  He said that, for 30 years,

I believed that things could be improved from within, through better teacher training, more effective local education authorities, a sensible national curriculum, national testing, and a strong independent inspection service.  These things were the answer.  I came over the years to realise that they were not.  They were not for a variety of reasons, but fundamentally because they spawned expensive wasteful bureaucracies, dedicated to the promotion of dogmas that are guaranteed to undermine the educational achievement of hundreds of thousands of children.

We think that it is parents, and not the state, who have the primary responsibility for educating their children.   They must by law ensure that their children attend school.  If you accept that principle, then it follows that they should be able to choose the school they judge to be most suitable for their children…

The concept of parental choice is meaningless unless there is a genuine diversity of provision – which we don’t have at present.  Schools should therefore be owned and managed by a variety of parties, such as cooperatives of parents and/or teachers, charities, religious organisations, individuals and private sector companies, and crucially they should have complete freedom to manage their own affairs.

If parental choice is to mean anything then there must be that diversity of provision, and the diversity of provision only results from the freedom to organise things according to the wishes of the individual school.

Everybody will benefit.  Teachers, because they will become true professionals, will regain control of their working day, and be able to plan and prepare lessons effectively.  Teachers will realise that resources currently absorbed by bureaucracy, as they become channelled into schools, will result in higher remuneration.

And the most important group of all, children, will benefit as competition between and amongst schools drives standards up.  The 20 per cent of the population who are currently, on inspection evidence, being failed by the system would have the chance to succeed.  All pupils will benefit, but the disadvantaged will benefit most.11

I find myself in substantial agreement.

Within the next few weeks, the National Party will be issuing a discussion paper on education written by my colleague the Hon Dr Nick Smith and, following feedback on that, we will be developing the policies which we will be promoting to the public on education between now and the next election.

While I am not in a position to talk about the contents of that discussion paper in any detail, I can assure you that it will reflect National’s strong commitment to ensuring that all our children have access to a high standard of education, to improving the standard of literacy and numeracy of the children coming out of the school system, to rewarding good teachers, to empowering principals to manage their schools in the interests of their pupils, to encouraging innovation in education, and to providing maximum scope for parents to choose the kind of education which they want for their children.  I have no doubt that all parents and all good teachers will applaud the proposals.


1  Quoted in New Zealand Herald, 27 November 2002.

2  Education at a Glance: OECD Indicators 2001, p.76.

3 Cited by Martin Hames, The Crisis in New Zealand Schools, p.22.

4 Education at a Glance: OECD Indicators 2001, p.74.

5  Review of the Length of the School Day and the School Year, Working Party chaired by the Hon Margaret Austin, 1999.

6  Education at a Glance: OECD Indicators 2002, p.293. 

7 For compelling evidence of the impact of broken relationships on school achievement, see “Competing Visions of the Child, the Family, and the School”, in Education in the Twenty-first Century, edited by Edward P. Lazear, especially pp.156-161.

8 18 February 2003.

9 North and South, February 2001.

10  Wall Street Journal, 2 October 1989.

11 Speech on 7 April 2003 to a Reform conference, www.reformbritain.com.

Back to Top

Copyright © 2020 Don Brash.