Some initial thinking on National’s ‘return to basics’ education policy announcement

HomeThought LeadershipInsightSome initial thinking on National’s ‘return to basics’ education policy announcement

Some initial thinking on National’s ‘return to basics’ education policy announcement

Yesterday, I was asked on LinkedIn for my response to the policy announcement made my National Party Leader Christopher Luxon. The policy focused on a return to the basics – maths, science, reading and writing at primary and intermediate school – which will be achieved by rewriting the curriculum so that it sets out the knowledge and skills children should be taught and learn during each year at school. I said that I had much to say on the topic, but it could not be condensed into a comment. Below, is my attempt to unpack, with some degree of nuance, my thoughts.

I frequently have been critical of the New Zealand Curriculum in its current form and am yet to be convinced that the current refresh is going to adequately solve these concerns, although it is undoubtedly a step in the right direction. To that end, The Education Hub is currently undertaking a research project to explore how curriculum design decisions are made in schools, and the potential issues that stem from this.

Like many in New Zealand, I am concerned by the current achievement levels of New Zealand students and the proportion of young people who are progressing through our education system without developing the knowledge, competencies, and skills that they need (in literacy and maths but also beyond) to thrive in the future. Our declining results in international tests as well as the dismal pictured painted by National Monitoring Survey of Student Achievement (NMSSA) data across all curriculum areas deeply worry me. Similarly, I also worry about the lack of challenge and rigour I see in some of the classrooms that I visit, and what New Zealand-based research has shown about the limited breadth and depth of the curriculum exposure some students experience.

I also am concerned that we are not doing a good enough job of identifying learners who might be struggling or in need of intervention. Further to this, I also worry that there is not the urgency in all schools or classrooms to accelerate the learning of those students who are slipping behind. The result is that these students are at risk of never “catching up”.

But, I am not wholly convinced that moving to a lock step curriculum will solve [all] these issues. Not because I don’t think that teachers need more support and direction to help them to determine what to teach. And not because I don’t believe that having some core content or outcomes that all students are expected to engage with and reach is important. More, I’m concerned because I’m not convinced that our schooling system as it currently is structured, with students organised into discrete year levels, which they move through according to time rather than progress, fits with what the research tells us about how students learn and develop.

Students typically demonstrate a mixed profile of achievement and progress across the curriculum. That is, they might be advanced in reading but less so in maths. A standardised approach through the curriculum according to year levels is not aligned to this.

Learning is not linear. An individual will learn in fits and starts, sometimes progressing incredibly quickly and at other times more slowly. Similarly, learning is not consistent among people. Different concepts “click” at different times for different students. We need to ensure that our curriculum makes room for these differences.

Making judgements about when (or indeed what) knowledge and skills are required to be learned is challenging (but not impossible). If we look at the research on learning to read (an easily accessible summary is available here), there are plenty of studies that suggest that those students who start formal instruction in reading at ages 7 or 8 (as they do in a number of Scandinavian countries for example) quickly catch up to and often pass the reading achievement of students who began their formal instruction at age 4 or 5. This reflects what we know about the developmental stages of children and in particular the change in how we learn that occurs at around age 7 or 8 (but note, there are some children who are developmentally ready to read at 5 and we should not be impeding their learning journey). 

Dylan Wiliam, in his excellent paper ‘Principled Curriculum Design’ (if you haven’t read it, do), argues that:

Indeed, one of the interesting differences between the curricula of high-performing countries and those that do less well is international comparisons is the high-performing countries tend to teach the same material in fewer years (Schmidt et al., 1997). They wait until the students are ready for the material, and then teach it properly. This brings us on to the need for the curriculum to be appropriate.

If we are mandating what is to be taught at each year level, then we need to do the work to make sure that it is indeed what needs to be taught, is developmentally appropriate, and contributes to the development of a coherent curriculum.

I also worry about what such a lockstep approach might result in. If it serves to make education more equitable, to improve and deepen learning and the knowledge our students hold and their ability to utilise and apply this knowledge, then that would be fantastic. If it serves to identify where extra support is required – either for enhancing teacher knowledge and expertise or specialised interventions for students – that would be positive. If it also leaves room for and encourages a broad curriculum and ensures schools have the ability to supplement it and build around it, that is positive. However, we also know that narrow prescription can be a slippery slope to high stakes accountability measures, and the trouble with this is that it typically gives rise to problematic consequences and considerable trade-offs.

So where does this leave us? Our curriculum needs attention. So too do the supporting materials that will accompany it. That is, those resources that help teachers and schools to take the curriculum and translate it into high quality teaching and learning programmes. I’m not convinced that the approach suggested by National will necessarily result in the outcomes that our tamariki deserve. I also think that the success of any policy in education is the willingness and ability of teachers and leaders to implement it effectively. Therefore, for a curriculum change to achieve the hoped for outcomes, it is essential that teachers understand it, believe in it, and are supported to implement it.


Dr Nina Hood

Nina is responsible for the strategic direction and day-to-day operations of The Education Hub. She is a trained secondary school teacher, and taught at Epsom Girls Grammar and Mt Roskill Grammar in Auckland. She undertook an MSc (with distinction) in learning and technology, and a DPhil in Education at the University of Oxford. Since returning to New Zealand in mid-2015, Nina has been employed as a lecturer at the Faculty of Education at the University of Auckland, where she specialises in new technologies in education.

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