The government has set an ambitious new goal of 80 per cent of Year 8 students reaching the national standards in writing and maths by the end of 2021.
National Standards data show that students’ achievement typically drops in writing and maths between Years 4 and 8, so the new targets are a move to improve achievement in these subjects.
In announcing the new goals, the government noted that the achievement challenges set down by Communities of Learning | Kāhui Ako all involve maths or writing, and 75 per cent of those equal or exceed these new national goals.
It also said it would be “investing smartly” to give all teachers and school leaders a range of tools to collect more accurate, reliable and timely data on individual student progress and performance.
Even so, unions believe that such a strong emphasis on reaching national standards will be to the detriment of other areas of the curriculum.
"If the Government is serious about helping every child reach their potential through education, forcing teachers to focus on writing and maths is not the way to do it," said NZEI Te Riu Roa President Lynda Stuart.
"National Standards are already responsible for narrowing the focus of schools on reading, writing and mathematics, to the detriment of all the other rich opportunities to learn that are in the curriculum.
"Children learn in lots of different ways, and personalising, not standardising, education is what the evidence tells us they need,” said Stuart.
The new targets replace the previous Better Public Service goals set in 2012 around participation in early childhood education and NCEA Level 2 attainment.
Unions have expressed their relief that the focus has shifted from the 85 per cent NCEA Level 2 goal.
“The government’s 85 per cent target was an arbitrary figure that meant nothing,” says PPTA president Jack Boyle. “It resulted in students being encouraged to tot up meaningless credits just to ‘pass’ and teachers being burdened with extreme and unnecessary marking and assessing. We have been telling the government since the target was introduced that pathways should be the focus, not passing.”
Boyle doesn't think the Government has it quite right yet with the new targets.
"Even though they’ve ditched the target for NCEA, they have imposed new 80 percent targets for writing and maths on children at the end of their primary schooling. This could worsen the impact that National Standards are already having on curriculum breadth, with students coming through from primary schools without enough knowledge in science, the arts, and the like. We would have hoped that the government would have learned from the unintended consequences of the NCEA targets.”
Meanwhile, other Government announcements have been well received by the education sector, including the extra $34.7 million over four years to expand services for children under 8 years old with severe behavioural difficulties.
"This is a clear focus on children and young people and we welcome more funding to better support behavioural issues for children between zero to eight years,” said Lorraine Kerr, President of New Zealand School Trustee Association.
“This is going to further enhance support for existing challenges and increase opportunities in the education sector. The positive flow-on effect to schools to help them cope with students with behavioural problems, will be widely felt across New Zealand.”
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