Richard Prebble: Education standards in freefall – what’s going on in NZ schools?


We are stuffed if we do not fix this. In the 2019 international maths and science test 81 per cent of New Zealand year 9 pupils got a simple math question wrong. 73 per cent of Singaporean students answered correctly.

There are already commentators saying “no need to panic”, we have just slipped a few places. In 1970 when New Zealand first participated in an international education comparison, for reading, we came top. If you slip 2 to 3 places every three years then in 50 years you are where we are, 40th position. We have gone from top to being bottom in reading and maths in the English-speaking world.

Being innumerate is a personal tragedy. For the country these results are a disaster.

We can fix this crisis in maths teaching at no cost to the taxpayer.

It is hard to learn if you do not go to school. Thousands of pupils are truant every day. Absenteeism increased again this year. Schools discourage challenging pupils from attending. Stop paying schools for the number of pupils they enrol. Only pay for the number they teach. Reducing truancy would be every school’s top priority. Education department research shows missing just one day of schooling makes a difference to NCEA results.

It is hard to learn maths if the school does not teach it. In Parliament I received a letter from a school principal. “We have discovered how to dramatically improve pupils’ mathematics scores,” he wrote. “No one is interested”.

I visited his medium decile primary school just north of Wellington.

“When I was appointed principal”, he said, “the school had received a very bad education review for our maths teaching”.

“I realised we were not teaching maths for the recommended number of hours. Two teachers, because they did not like maths, had not taught the subject all year. We insisted all teachers teach maths each day for the recommended time. Our scores improved immediately.

“What would happen is we taught maths for double the recommended time? So we doubled the time we taught maths.

“Pupils’ maths scores improved significantly. More important, we like what we are good at. As our pupils became good at maths it became their favourite subject. Pupils wanted to do even more.

“At secondary school a majority of our ex-pupils had dropped maths as soon as they could. Now most keep maths throughout high school. For most former students maths is now their best NCEA subject.

He said “if we just teach maths at primary school for long enough for pupils to become proficient we can improve New Zealand’s maths score.”

“Is there a down side?”, I asked.

“We do not do as well as we did in cultural activities,” he answered. “Our pupils get one chance to learn maths; they have a lifetime to appreciate culture.”

If the Minister of Education just paid schools for the teaching they actually do and then insisted schools teach maths then our international test scores would improve. Instead we are going to carry on doing the same things expecting to receive a better result in the next test.

Now here is something that would cost some money.

During the lockdown I was concerned my 5-year-old grandson was missing out on learning. I bought an on line computer learning program. It is very good. He and I play the maths “game”. The result is he loves numbers.

When my daughter was going to secondary school after getting meaningless school reports, “as good as can be expected”, we got a report with a fail mark for maths. My daughter explained. “Everyone from my primary school failed. We never did fractions.”

I went to see her teacher whose advice was; “Enrol her in Kip McGrath”.

At Kip McGrath a computer test discovered what she did and did not know. “Your daughter is quite good at maths. She has not been taught any at her last two years at primary school. We can give her an individual designed program and get her back to the right level in two terms”. Three years maths in two lessons a week for two terms. Maths became one of her best NCEA subjects.

A secondary school boy who is with caregivers is struggling in maths. Social welfare is paying for him to go to Kip McGrath.

This observation is not meant as a criticism of welfare. We taxpayers pay a school to teach him maths and they cannot. So we taxpayers are paying another department for coaching. What about the children of the working poor who also need maths coaching?

There are many good computer assisted maths teaching programs. It would not cost much to have a Kip McGrath type program at every school. Then our education standards really would improve.

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