Thousands of children begin secondary school each year without the reading, writing or maths skills needed to make it through. In a new series 'The Primary Issue' we look at what more can be done to raise achievement for all Kiwi kids.

Six years and $250 million on, Kirsty Johnston asks if the National Standards policy has been worth it.

To the inexperienced observer, Island Bay Primary School on a Friday afternoon seems to have descended into chaos.

A pack of children are preparing to run around Wellington's south coast. Others are busily sanding a bird house, 10 little hands frantically polishing the wood. Three girls are knitting on the school steps, behind them classrooms are buzzing with art activities. And amid it all is principal Perry Rush, helping to build a popsicle-stick house.

"Every Friday afternoon we have a crazy smorgasbord of learning activity," he says. "The kind of interesting opportunities you might not always see in a school, but the things we think will impassion students."

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This fiercely holistic school was one of the last to accept the 2010 introduction of National Standards, the controversial country-wide system outlining literacy and numeracy targets. Mr Rush, like many of his peers, worried the standards' "narrow" focus on reading, writing and maths would see the arts suffer, alongside physical education and science, and so he fought til the end to keep the measures out.

Six years and $250 million on, with data showing just a small increase in achievement levels, questions are again being asked about the impact of the standards - not just on achievement but on the whole primary system.

Even with a high decile, staunchly creative community like his, Mr Rush says there's been increased pressure on the school.

"We do feel the squeeze. We feel it in the public perception and we certainly feel it from the Ministry of Education," he said. "There's not a great interest in evidencing gains outside reading, writing and maths. But lots of teachers are passionate about holistic education, so there's a struggle going on."

The concerns are not held by Mr Rush alone.

University of Waikato Professor Martin Thrupp found in a 2013 study that although the standards had increased awareness of curriculum levels among teachers, important factors such as social sciences and arts were being left behind.

And in a recent speech, the Government's Chief Education Scientific Adviser Professor, Stuart McNaughton, ended his talk by warning about the dangers of judging schools' effectiveness by achievement outcomes alone.

"There are very well known and severe risks with that. We need to focus on the social skills as well, including those of collaboration and empathy," he said.

Read more:
The Primary Issue: Quality of school report cards a 'lottery'
The Primary Issue: Are our schools making the grade?

A "collective wisdom"

Students building a bird-house during Freedom Friday activities at Island Bay School in Wellington. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Students building a bird-house during Freedom Friday activities at Island Bay School in Wellington. Photo / Mark Mitchell

However, unlike large parts of the education sector, Professor McNaughton does not believe the standards have been a failure.

"I think they are helping. They enable us to have a collective wisdom about where we think children should be. It is important to have a very clear shared understanding about what we expect children to do."

In fact, Professor McNaughton believes if anything, we should have the same "collective wisdom" about all areas of schooling, including science, arts and social skills.

Education Minister Hekia Parata said the small increases in achievement would grow larger over time, as the standards bedded in.

"The feedback I am receiving is that it is providing teachers with better information than they have ever had about the strengths and weaknesses of their students and that they are using that information to inform the way they teach," she said.

National Standards was introduced in 2010 after a successful National Party election campaign. They require teachers to judge children twice-yearly against a four-point scale, and were prompted by concerns that one in five students were leaving school without basic literacy and numeracy skills.

In a 2008 press release, John Key vowed to fix that. "National believes that the first task of our education system should be to ensure that every child from every background can read, write, and do maths at a level that allows them to participate in a modern economy," he said.

Key pledged $47 million towards a literacy and numeracy "crusade", including $18 million a year in targeted funding for struggling students. The policy would also require plain-language reporting to parents.

Outrage was swift. Even a parliamentary paper said the standards by themselves would not help. "It is the teaching and learning that is invested in students that will raise achievement levels," it read. "To be able to provide effective teaching and learning, schools and teachers will need professional development assistance and support that may not be adequately provided for under the standards."

Education Minister Hekia Parata has responded to flatlining primary school pass rates by saying National Standards are intended to reveal problems, not to solve them.

"National Standards haven't told us anything"

After six years, many believe the standards have only served to highlight already well-documented trends.

For example, the data shows the largest differences are between rich and poor. Just half of children at Decile 1 schools met maths expectations at Year 8, compared to 80 per cent at Decile 10. Boys, and Maori and Pasifika children, also lagged behind.

"None of that surprises me. National Standards haven't told us anything we didn't already know, and the problems haven't gone away," said Labour's education spokesman Chris Hipkins. "The whole exercise has diverted time and attention away from what really matters - teaching and learning."

Labour would get rid of the standards if elected. While the new head of the Education Council, Graham Stoop, does not go that far, he also believes the standards in themselves are not the answer.

"They don't provide parents - or their children - with a good description of their child's strengths, or the skills and knowledge they need to be working on next," he wrote in a recent opinion piece. Despite that, Dr Stoop said measuring progress was still important.

"We do need a more systemic approach to sharing evidence of what's working. The teaching profession reports the most valuable aspect of National Standards for them is the learning and sharing that comes with teachers collaborating on what works for their learners."

However, Dr Stoop also highlighted the ongoing inaccuracy of the standards, which rely on teacher judgment, not testing. The standards were said to "lack dependability" in the most recent national monitoring study. Because of the variability, comparisons between schools are still not advised by experts.

"We have to address the whole of the issue"

The head of primary teacher union NZEI, Louise Green, said its position had not changed since 2008. "Measuring does not raise achievement," she said. "What happens in classes raises achievement. And that's about professional development and support across all subjects, not just in narrow areas."

Mrs Green said there were also wider issues - including a lack secure jobs for beginning teachers, cultural competency, and the huge impact of poverty.

"If we are really serious as a country about raising achievement we have to address the whole of the issue," she said.

"The reality is we still have to deal with the fact our kids are living in substandard homes, rentals are expensive, people have to move because of jobs, schools are feeding and clothing children, there are high levels of health issues, special needs and second-language speakers, all who need continued support in school."

Whether or not the Government will move to more fully address the sector's concerns about poverty is still up in the air. Although many interviewed for this story believe a new social investment approach and plans to change the decile system signalled a shift in thinking, the Green Party's education spokeswoman, Catherine Delahunty, had her doubts.

"Time after time we have said poverty is important. But the Government keeps saying it's about quality teaching. It's a predictably sad debacle."

At Island Bay, the messy, busy learning carries on. Mr Rush speaks excitedly about a doctor visiting to dissect organs, and a parent coming to teach martial arts. He hopes that one day the skills the children have learned in those kind of sessions will be valued just as highly as their marks plotted on a graph.

"Good educators are people who understand how humans grow. It's not a linear, one-size fits all thing. And an intelligent education system should be able to recognise that complexity."

The series

• Day 1: National Standards: A failed crusade?
• Day 2: Measuring the success of Early Childhood Education
• Day 3: Teacher quality: How to raise the status
• Day 4: The problem with maths
• Day 5: Peace, war and reading