The National, Act and NZ First Coalition and what it means for education

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Yesterday saw the announcement of a new government which came with a raft of new policies and ministerial appointments. The Minister of Education, as was expected, is National MP Erica Stanford. More interestingly was the number of policies and priorities two parties who only collectively gained 15.5% of the votes managed to get across the line. 

The common threads across both Act and NZ First included some good old-fashioned back-to-basics, a focus on compulsory attendance and cracking down on truancy, increased focus on academic achievement and shifting the fees-free policy from the first of uni to the last. To be fair, none of these represent much of a departure from what National was touting anyway. 

The interesting and, at times, worrying changes suggest Luxon was willing to let both Act and NZ First foist their ideologies on innocent schools and students for the sake of a "strong and stable" government. 

Unsurprisingly Act got Partnership Schools across the line. As someone who very nearly opened a partnership school, I can say that these won't offer much in the way of systemic disruption unless they change the policy. As it stood, the Partnership Schools policy, whilst exciting for how it might encourage innovation, was also pretty unsustainable with its lack of any real (property) funding. Act also wants to increase school choice, in line with its belief that a market-driven approach to school choice will sort "underperforming schools". But of course, it won't, it will just crush schools that are already doing everything they can to serve (often) impoverished communities with often very complex issues. And what the heck is the "free speech policy" and "Restore balance to the Aotearoa New Zealand’s Histories curriculum" all about?? The devil (in this case a very apt analogy) will undoubtedly be in the detail. I was particularly baffled by the last one as surely "restoring balance" of our bicultural nation's history was surely already at the heart of the rewrite. Be honest David, I suspect you want to "restore the imbalance". Thankfully, I trust the educators of Aotearoa to do the right thing, regardless of whatever levers the Act may want to pull to tip the scales. 

NZ First wants to maintain the Apprentice Boost scheme which seems nice. Less nice is their desire to refocus the curriculum with a view to shoehorning in "the removal and replacement of the gender, sexuality, and relationship-based education guidelines". Again, I am bloody flabbergasted that Luxon let this idealogical nonsense of a minor party across the line. I am, however, also confident, once again, that educators will continue to do the right thing for the young people they serve.

So should be worried? Maybe. It will depend on what all of this means on the ground. I do worry that market-driven approaches to school choice, a relentless focus on age-based academic targets, combined with punitive approaches to tackling truancy will only widen the divide. The talk of restoring balance to history and removal of gender, sexuality, and relationship-based education also feels like a shot across the bow for what has felt like a genuinely inclusive curriculum refresh. I mean, the NCEA and NZC refresh is far from perfect, but the one thing they have got very right is the increased focus on Mātauranga Māori and a desire for a more inclusive education system.  

As I have said before, I do think it's time for us to collectively gird our loins and continue to do what we know is right for our young people. The sooner we change the conversations from back to basics, academic attainment to more rigorous, rich and authentic learning and personalised definitions of success and switch the focus from attendance and truancy to engagement, attendance and more flexible schooling the better. We must continue on our collective learning journey with Mātauranga Māori to ensure we continue to focus on "teaching to the North-East" and commit to delivering a curriculum that is reflective of the bi-cultural country we live in and the diverse and fabulous young people we swerve. 

Below are the Education sections of the coalition agreements National made with Act and NZ First. It is worth reading them closely and more importantly reading between the lines. 

National & Act agreement

Education
  • Reintroduce partnership schools and introduce a policy to allow state schools to become partnership schools.
  • Explore further options to increase school choice and expand access to integrated and independent schools including reviewing the independent school funding formula to reflect student numbers. 
  • Prioritise reporting and enforcement action to reduce truancy, including centrally collecting and publishing attendance data.
  • Improve the cost-effectiveness of the school lunch programme.
  • Replace the Fees Free programme with a final year fees-free policy with no change before 2025.
  • Amend the Education and Training Act 2020 such that tertiary education providers receiving taxpayer funding must commit to a free speech policy.
  • Amend the Education and Training Act 2020 to enshrine educational attainment as the paramount objective for state schools.
  • Restore balance to the Aotearoa New Zealand’s Histories curriculum.
National & NZ First agreement

Education
  • Enforce compulsory education and address truancy.
  • Focus on doing the basics better through emphasising reading, writing, and maths.
  • Refocus the curriculum on academic achievement and not ideology, including the removal and replacement of the gender, sexuality, and relationship-based education guidelines.
  • Stop first year Fees Free and replace with a final year Fees Free with no change before 2025.
  • Maintain the Apprenticeship Boost scheme

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