How to improve what goes on in our schools has become a key election-year argument.

Both major parties have focused on education, and potential coalition partners including the Greens will lobby hard for their own flagship policies.

Lurking behind all the fuss is an international test by the OECD called the Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa).

New Zealand has one of the most highly regarded education systems in the world. But, according to Pisa at least, our performance has slipped compared with other countries.


While there have been questions about the accuracy and worth of the international league tables, politicians took notice when the latest results were released in December.

Dr Andreas Schleicher, the designer of Pisa, which is taken by 15-year-olds, was hosted by Education Minister Hekia Parata in July last year and put up for media interviews.

A problem for New Zealand was the difference in achievement between our best and worst students, he said - that while our top students were world-beaters, we have a longer tail of underachievement than others.

The results also showed this achievement gap existed within schools and that many of the worst-performing students are at the same schools as the best. His recommendation? Get the best teachers in front of the most challenging classrooms.

Six months later Prime Minister John Key kicked-off National's election year with a flagship reform dubbed Investing in Educational Success that will cost an extra $360 million over four years.

The scheme aims to identify the best principals and teachers and pay them more to spend time in other local schools or provide an example within their own.

Schools that are struggling can also ask for an allowance of $50,000 to top-up the salary they can use to attract a principal.

Driving the measure is the example of schools that are doing well by their students compared to others in their own decile range. Ms Parata is fond of the quote, "decile is not destiny".

The scheme is supported by the Post Primary Teachers Association but opposed by the primary sector union the NZEI, which argues the money is better spent on helping lower decile schools cope with children damaged by poverty and neglect and that those outside-of-school factors are the main issue with the achievement gap.

The Government's belief in the power of effective teaching was also behind its aborted 2012 proposal to increase class sizes.

Its sales pitch was that research showed that money was better spent on improving teacher quality. However, voters baulked and the idea was scrapped.

That reaction was no doubt remembered by Labour when, last month, it announced the centrepiece of its own election education package was a plan to reduce class sizes.

By hiring 2000 more teachers it promises to fund one teacher to 26 students at primary schools from 2018, and introduce a maximum average class size of 23 at secondary schools.

Labour education spokesman Chris Hipkins said parents instinctively know that smaller classes allow teachers more time to plan lessons, give meaningful feedback and form better relationships with students.

Included in the package is a "school advisory service" to identify and make use of good teachers, including seconding good teachers to other schools for up to three years.

Labour's position is effectively that the best way to improve teaching is to give those doing it more time to interact with students in the classroom, and to develop outside of it.

It promises to pay for its classroom plan by scrapping Investing in Educational Success and will spend a further $900 million on other education policies. A large chunk - about $109 million over three years - is on a plan to ensure all students from Year 5 to 13 have their own personal tablet or netbook by 2017.

For schools that opt in, parents would pay about $3.50 a week to pay off the cost of the device and the Government would put in $100 kickstart payments.

An increasing number of schools have started compulsory or voluntary "Bring Your Own Device" (BYOD) policies, and Labou aims to bridge any "digital divide" between rich and poor.

National, which is yet to officially release its full education policy, has invested heavily in schools' information technology, including an initiative to deliver fibre broadband with uncapped data to nearly every school in New Zealand, provide digital infrastructure and a $35 million fund to develop learning with digital technologies.

It has also pledged $350 million from the asset sales fund to build nine new schools in Auckland and fund 130 new classrooms at existing schools, many of which have seen their rolls expand rapidly.

National says the new funds will bring the works forward by many years, but Labour promises to make the same investments if elected as it was "business-as-usual, baseline capital investment".

The third main plank of Labour's education announcements is offering an annual grant of $100 a student to schools that stop asking parents for voluntary donations.

"Voluntary" donations have steadily increased and National attacked the policy as ineffectual, given many schools now ask for more than $100.

However, Labour expects most state schools in Decile 1-7, and 30 per cent of Decile 8-10 to take up the scheme.

An independent survey found lower decile primary and intermediate schools ask for around $25, but have a median payment rate of just 20 per cent.

Further money would be spent on schools in poorer areas under a left coalition.

Labour gave a conditional tick of approval to the Green Party's $90 million-a-year package for low decile schools, including free afterschool care and holiday programmes, free lunches, and school nurses in every decile 1-4 primary and intermediate school.

The measures would be delivered through "community hubs".

The Greens, Labour, Internet-Mana and NZ First have all promised to scrap or integrate charter or "partnership" schools, which have been introduced by National as part of its confidence and supply agreement with the Act Party, which now wants existing state schools to be able to opt into a charter school format.

Five of the publicly-funded but privately-run schools opened this year, with more to be approved shortly. National Standards would also be done away with under a Labour-led government.

Introduced in 2010, the standards describe what students should be able to do in reading, writing and mathematics as they progress through levels 1 to 8, the primary and intermediate years.

They are fiercely opposed by many schools and teachers, and the determination to see them through shows another of National's key education beliefs: the importance of student achievement data.

As well as national standards, recent years have seen information such as NCEA achievement rates and school-leaver qualification information pushed to parents through the education counts website.

The next step is likely to be the development of some form of "value added" measurement, which would endeavour to show how much improvement teachers and schools have delivered for students.

Some in the schooling sector see the increasing focus on data as something that will limit creativity and thinking and that schools will "teach to the test" or assessment, which narrows the curriculum's focus.

They also worry that parents will use student achievement information to unfairly mark some schools as failures, not appreciating the more influential out-of-school factors.

Ms Parata's response is that parents should be trusted with information which can pinpoint students and schools that need more help.

On the early childhood front, the Government has invested to increase the number of children participating.

It says its spend of $1.5 billion is up from more than $800 million in 2007/08, and the ECE participation rate has now climbed to 95.7 per cent. Enrolment initiatives have focused on low-income areas that often do not have enough local centres.

Labour has concerns about the quality of some centres, and says all will be funded to employ at least 80 per cent qualified staff by the end of its first term in government.

It has also pledged to extend the 20 hours of free early childhood education for 3-and-4-year-olds to 25 hours per week, and has committed to exploring the idea of a public ECE system.

The public face of National's tertiary education reforms has often been its moves to crack down on student loan defaulters, but a more significant move is its bid to change the way universities are run.

The shake-up will reduce the size of university councils and increase the proportion of members appointed by the Government.

This is designed to make the institutions more fleet of foot and able to produce the graduates - particularly those in science and technology - deemed desirable to grow New Zealand's economy.

Institutions have steadily hiked their students' fees by the maximum 4 per cent allowable each year, saying the price at which the Government funds each domestic place is too low.

Tertiary Education Minister Steven Joyce remains unmoved, however, saying funding has increased under National and that some institutions need to up their intake of lucrative international students.

Labour agrees with the University of Auckland and others who argue the council changes threaten the autonomy and reputation of our universities.

The party has also pledged to reverse National's cuts to allowances for post-graduate study and limited borrowing for some students, but has labelled the Internet-Mana policy of free tertiary education unrealistic.

Interest-free student loans - Labour's defining move of the 2005 campaign and the biggest cost of the loans scheme - remains unchallenged by the major parties.

Labour and National's policies strike right note

As a mother of three school-aged children and a member of Edgewater College's board of trustees, Jennie Valgre supports policies from both sides of the political spectrum.

Labour's school donations plan, which would give an annual grant of $100 per student to schools that stop asking for voluntary donations, would benefit Edgewater, she said.

The decile 4 school in Pakuranga asks for $120, but a significant number don't pay.

"It's not money that we count on, because we can't rely on it ... to get some income coming in because of that could be hugely beneficial," she said.

Mrs Valgre's husband is a teacher at Southern Cross Campus. She could also see the potential of National's Investing in Educational Success, which would give the best principals and teachers more money to try to build collaboration and share best practice.

Senior staff positions were often filled by the same person for a long time, creating limited options for younger teachers, Mrs Valgre said.

"We have a couple of staff at Edgewater who have made it very clear they want to get into management, they want to grow their profession and themselves professionally ... but the opportunities for growth are a little bit stagnated."

However, she felt that IES and other election policies were not a panacea for the school system.

Assessment frameworks were too restrictive, she said, and funding meant schools competed for students.

While two of her daughters were doing well in mainstream schooling, her middle daughter had struggled and now attended MIT's School of Secondary-Tertiary Studies, which worked much better for her.

Mrs Valgre said there needed to be a radical system change to allow all schools to treat each child's learning and progress in a more holistic manner.

"It's not one-size-fits-all. It's all about responsiveness."