Editorial: School-tech moves don't go far enough

Education Minister Hekia Parata. Photo / Doug Sherring
Education Minister Hekia Parata. Photo / Doug Sherring

It is hard to escape the sense that Education Minister Hekia Parata should have gone further when announcing a limited inclusion of digital technology in the school curriculum.

That is certainly the view of technology industry leaders. In an open letter to the minister, three of them made their disappointment abundantly clear, arguing New Zealand secondary students needed to be better equipped if they were to pursue technology careers.

The letter was a response to the move to include the teaching of digital technology in schools as a strand of the technology learning area. Her critics wanted bolder decisions, that put the subject on a par with maths and physics. It might have come as a surprise to many that the subject was not already an integral part of the school day for students, given the digital world youngsters inhabit.

But curriculum change is a slow-moving beast. The embrace of digital technology followed the first curriculum review in six years, and took 12 months to complete.

Then it failed to provide any real clarity about the classroom resources required to encourage pupils, in the words of Parata, "to develop skills, confidence and interest in digital technologies and lead them to opportunities across the diverse and growing IT sector".

Pupils spend countless hours in a digital space. Any measures which help them understand and manage that world, even belated ones, are welcome. It means that New Zealand students will be better equipped for the digital environment they occupy, and be more than simply consumers of technology. And it means more will have the skills to create the new technologies that industry is demanding.

Technology is entrenched at the core of the economy. High-tech is New Zealand's third-largest export sector after dairy and tourism.

Dairy exports are worth $14.2 billion, tourism $11.8b and, according to Statistics NZ figures, technology follows with $6.5b in exports, much of the revenue derived from smart manufacturing enterprises. The sector itself generated $16.5b in GDP last year. In the years ahead, tech firms will require more and more educated, tech-savvy recruits to retain a competitive edge.

Where will they come from? Obviously some will be hired from overseas. The successful firm Xero says it has filled 38 positions from overseas this year, and values its relationship with Immigration NZ which helps it find foreign specialists. It seems unfortunate that our education system is not providing more of the talent.

Having made the decision to start teaching digital technology to the very youngest pupils, Parata has given education officials the next two years to consult with the sector, prepare content and ensure the system has enough qualified teachers before the subject joins school timetables in 2018. Existing teachers will need to bone up. Trainee teachers will need thorough preparation on the new material. At present it is not at all clear how Parata's plan will be funded and delivered.

This hole in the programme needs to be patched soon to reassure the industry and give teachers certainty that education's overdue embrace of digital technology will inspire as many young New Zealanders as possible.

- NZ Herald

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