Voters face a tough choice in this election between starkly different education priorities from our two main parties.

National's main goal is lifting student achievement, particularly in the basics of primary school reading, writing and maths.

Labour's goal focuses on the other end of the age spectrum, proposing three years of lifetime free tertiary education to help us train and retrain to cope with expected technological upheavals.

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Both goals are important to many voters, but in this election we are forced to choose between them.

A vote for Labour would mean abolishing the national standards that set the benchmarks for raising primary school achievement.

For Bill English, free education would mean taxing the poor to pay for the education of future well-paid doctors, engineers and lawyers. Photo supplied
For Bill English, free education would mean taxing the poor to pay for the education of future well-paid doctors, engineers and lawyers. Photo supplied

And a vote for National would rule out scrapping tertiary fees. Prime Minister Bill English has made it clear that his priority is to cut taxes rather than to tax even low-income earners to pay the student fees of our future well-paid doctors, engineers and lawyers.

The choice between tax cuts and free education has become arguably the central policy battleground in the election.

For Labour's young new leader Jacinda Ardern, the choice is generational. Young voters will need free education because 46 per cent of today's jobs are said to be at "high risk" of being replaced by robots or computers in the next couple of decades.

Jacinda Ardern watched Joseph Galloway sign his apprenticeship papers on a Pukekohe building site this week; for Ardern, the choice is generational. Photo / Jason Oxenham
Jacinda Ardern watched Joseph Galloway sign his apprenticeship papers on a Pukekohe building site this week; for Ardern, the choice is generational. Photo / Jason Oxenham

The jobs that go are likely to be mostly routine, low-skill jobs. The jobs that survive and flourish will be those requiring empathy and creativity that will never be either replaced by robots - or measured by national standards.

"We will change our schools from being a place of assessment to a place of creativity," Ardern declared in her campaign launch.

But for English, whose proudest achievement is a "social investment" model that invests money now in social services that will save money in the future, throwing away $1.2 billion a year on free education for those who could afford to pay for it themselves is pure folly.

His campaign launch featured "investments" - in maths, languages, digital education and a new app to track children's educational progress - that would add up to less than a twelfth of the cost of Labour's free tertiary policy alone.

Altogether, Labour's promises would add an extra $2.6 billion a year to education spending, about 27 times more than National's new offerings.

As voters, we need to ask whether it would be worth it. And more importantly, we need to think about which party's approach would more effectively achieve our preferred educational outcomes.

What is education for?

There are subtle, but telling, differences in the ways our two main parties define those preferred outcomes.

National has recently rewritten the Education Act to state that the objectives of education are "to focus on helping each child and young person to attain educational achievement to the best of his or her potential", and to develop specified abilities such as social skills and critical thinking.

Labour's education manifesto opens with this somewhat wider vision: "High quality public education provides all New Zealanders with the opportunity to achieve their full potential and lead happy and fulfilling lives."

One view leads naturally to specifying achievement standards for everyone to meet; the other leaves much more scope for students to choose their own learning paths.

But both views imply three possible policy tests: are we offering people relevant knowledge, skills and understanding that they will need in today's world; are we offering enough of that learning; and are we offering it fairly to everyone?

Test 1: relevant?

National is still a firm believer in the continued relevance of the "three Rs" spelt out in its national standards. Its election policy, including $31 million extra a year to support maths in primary schools, indicates that maths is particularly important because it is the foundation of expanding fields such as information technology.

The party would also put an extra $12 million a year into "digital academies" for 1000 senior high school students and "digital internships" in workplaces for another 500 young people.

Its costliest new policy is $40 million a year to offer a second language to every primary school student, choosing from "at least 10 priority languages which we expect to include Mandarin, French, Spanish, Japanese and Korean along with te reo and NZ Sign Language".

In contrast, Labour's policy emphasises a proposed $50 million-a-year "school-leaver's toolkit" offering senior school students driving lessons, budgeting, "civics" and "employability skills" such as teamwork and self-management.

It would boost careers advice by $30 million a year.

It does not promise all students a second language, but it does promise to offer re reo Māori lessons to all preschool and primary teachers, and to restore funding for Pacific language reading books.

Comet Auckland, an Auckland Council trust formerly known as the City of Manukau Education Trust, has been advocating more languages in schools for years because of Auckland's numerous ethnic groups, and chief executive Susan Warren is excited that the issue has finally made it on to the political agenda.

But she says the top priority is to let children learn first in their own first languages, which both shows that they are valued and lifts their later educational achievement. She is disappointed that National's "priority languages" don't include any Pacific languages or the languages of other big migrant groups such as Hindi.

"We need much more understanding in the education system about building from children's first language and recognising that as a strength that kids bring to school," she says.

She also worries that the new Communities of Learning, groups of local schools that have taken control of teacher professional development, are focusing too much on literacy and numeracy.

"How do you make learning really exciting and interesting and relevant?" she asks. "Relate it to things that are going on in kids' lives and in the world.

"We need more kids coming through with science, more kids coming through with technology skills. Those things also are getting squeezed out."

Test 2: adequate?

Comet Auckland surveyed its stakeholders, including educators and employers, and found that a key issue they see in education is inadequate funding.

"Everyone is finding that the overall budget is the issue," says Warren.

"We would especially ask what is the targeted funding to those early childhood centres and schools that are allowing for kids from low socio-economic families, diverse kids, who need extra support. It's very clear that's underfunded.

"So is support for special education. It's just shocking the data that came out about waiting times [for early intervention]. That is all time that kids are not learning effectively."

Comet's stakeholders are also worried about a growing shortage of teachers in Auckland because many can no longer afford the city's sky-high house prices. More than half the region's primary schools started this term with at least three vacancies.

Nikki Kaye surprised even her own staff by extending a bonus of up to $17,500 to all beginner teachers who keep teaching in any Auckland school for five years. Photo / Nick Reed
Nikki Kaye surprised even her own staff by extending a bonus of up to $17,500 to all beginner teachers who keep teaching in any Auckland school for five years. Photo / Nick Reed

National Education Minister Nikki Kaye surprised even her own staff by telling primary principals last month that she would extend a bonus of up to $17,500, now paid to beginner teachers in low-decile schools, to all schools in Auckland.

National has indeed squeezed early childhood education to help achieve its Budget surpluses. The main early childhood funding rates have not changed since July 2014 despite 2.6 per cent inflation since then, and an extra $10 million a year in this year's Budget for children with parents on welfare will lift overall funding by only 0.5 per cent.

However funding for children with special needs across the whole education sector has jumped by 23 per cent, and despite one child waiting 381 days for the Early Intervention Service, the average waiting time for the service has reduced steadily from 97 days in 2013-14 to 71 days in the latest year to June.

Operations grants have also risen in those three years by 7 per cent for each primary school student and by 6.8 per cent for each secondary school student - real increases of just over 4 per cent above inflation. Again, part of those increases has gone only to schools with "at-risk" children.

Labour is offering $86 million extra a year in higher subsidies for early childhood centres with 100 per cent qualified teachers, $70 million a year extra to schools that stop asking for donations, and to "progressively increase" special needs funding with a long-term goal of removing the cap on students in the Ongoing Resourcing Scheme which currently supports only the most needy 1 per cent of children.

Labour also promises to "review teacher supply policy relating to Auckland" and to provide more bonded scholarships for teachers training in hard-to-staff subjects and areas.

But Warren questions whether Labour has the right priorities in allocating far more money - that $1.2 billion a year - to its three-years free tertiary policy.

"I think we've got a whole lot of other priorities actually before that," she says.

Test 3: fair?

English boasted in this week's TV3 debate with Ardern that National has lifted the numbers of Māori and Pacific students achieving Level 2 of the National Certificate in Educational Achievement (NCEA) "from half to three-quarters".

He was broadly correct. Students leaving school with at least NCEA Level 2 jumped from 46 per cent in 2009 to 67 per cent last year for Māori, and from 56 per cent to 75 per cent for Pasifika students.

Both groups are still behind European students (84 per cent), but the gaps have narrowed dramatically.

However other data suggests that this may be just a mirage. School-leavers with University Entrance (UE), which is less subject to "gaming", increased only from 14 per cent to 18 per cent for Māori and from 17 per cent to 21 per cent for Pasifika students.

But those with UE also rose from 42 per cent to 46 per cent of European school-leavers, so the ethnic gaps did not narrow at all.

Waikato University associate professor Mere Berryman says too many Māori students are being steered into courses which get them NCEA credits but not much else.

"When I hear of Māori students who leave with NCEA Level 2 and can't get a job because they have standards in first aid and fencing - I don't want that for my grandchild," she says.

Her research shows that schools need to change their whole culture if they are to engage Māori and other students from minority groups who now feel they don't "belong" in school.

"It's about the wider context of education, and how to bring families and communities into the learning conversation in a very respectful way," she says.

She says Labour's policy of free tertiary education would help the 20 per cent of students who leave school without NCEA Level 2 to start again, but it is not enough.

"I want the 20 per cent to receive more," she says. "I don't want equal treatment, I want equitable treatment of the students who are not achieving.

"I want our schools to continue to be places of excellence. I also want our schools to be places in which our students feel that they belong.

"I think understanding what belonging feels like might be something that both of our political parties need to think about."