Government education shake-up spurs school to underline importance of reading and writing.

In today's online world it is even more important for young people to develop key skills in traditional subjects like reading and writing, according to a senior Auckland secondary school principal.

Danny O'Connor, executive principal at ACG Strathallan, says the abundance of online information means it is crucial for students to develop good literacy and numeracy - the ability to read, write and to understand and work with numbers - and to have their progress tracked.

O'Connor's comments come against the back-drop of an education shake-up being planned by the government; it is to abolish National Standards which set out levels of numeracy and literacy for years 1 to 8 and has signalled a review of the National Certificate of Educational Achievement (NCEA) in secondary schools.

New Education Minister Chris Hipkins has indicated the changes are designed to have schools focus more on learning than assessment, although he says schools will be free to choose their own ways of assessing student progress.

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ACG Strathallan, one of five independent schools run by ACG Education in New Zealand, sits outside the state system. While O'Connor says ACG aims to provide a rounded "holistic" education for students, there is a strong focus on numeracy and literacy.

To the notion reading and writing are no longer as vital in a digital world, O'Connor says: "I say the opposite is the case - strong literacy and numeracy helps with confidence, creativity, critical thinking and problem solving.

"These skills underpin everything in education," says O'Connor. "Together they form the foundation for a lifetime of learning and help prepare students for the future.

"Students who have poor numeracy and literacy skills have difficulty not only socially but with their future job prospects as well."

He says although New Zealand students generally have a good standard in these areas, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development's (OECD) latest Programme for International Students Assessment (PISA) results indicate there has been a decline in performance in recent years.

About 540,000 students - representing 29 million 15-year-olds in 72 countries - were surveyed in 2015 under the PISA programme. New Zealand ranked 10th for reading, 12th in science and 21st in mathematics.

The survey, which was based on a two-hour online test to determine the extent to which the students have acquired key knowledge and skills in science, reading and mathematics, showed up to 20 per cent of students globally perform below the baseline level of proficiency in both reading and science.

Reporting on student progress is a key part of an ACG education: Nathan Villars, principal at ACG Sunderland and chair of the Association of Cambridge Schools in New Zealand, says use of the international Cambridge curriculum allows it to "benchmark in a robust way".

ACG Sunderland Principal and Chair of the Association of Cambridge Schools in New Zealand, Nathan Villars. Photo / Supplied
ACG Sunderland Principal and Chair of the Association of Cambridge Schools in New Zealand, Nathan Villars. Photo / Supplied

"The advantage is we have a curriculum that moves from year to year in a succinct way and is the same the world over," he says. "It is designed so there is no confusion or variations from school to school - and so there are no surprises for parents."

The Cambridge system originated over 150 years ago at Cambridge University in Britain and was designed for British expat communities around the world. Today it provides international qualifications and exams to 10,000 schools in 160 countries.

He says ACG uses a number of systems to benchmark student performance including Progressive Achievement Tests (PAT) in mathematics, reading, vocabulary and listening comprehension and Cambridge Progression Tests for years 3 to 6.

"The progression tests focus on mathematics, English and science and the results are posted internationally so we are able to benchmark against other countries," Villars says.

For years 6 and 9 ACG uses Checkpoint, a benchmarking system which reports back to parents on the classroom strengths and weaknesses of their children while for students in years 10 to 13 other assessments are followed including the International General Certificate of Secondary Education (IGCSE) and International A-Levels.

"The reality is," says Villars, "our key stakeholders are the students and their parents. I've not met one parent who doesn't want to know how their kids are doing at school - and the worst case scenario of not reporting is parents will not be fully aware of where their kids are at.

"If they know, then they can intervene if necessary to set up additional support or talk through the situation with teachers."

Villars says no matter what curriculum or system is being used there will always be students who are not strong in some areas. The advantage of testing and reporting is in knowing how to handle the challenge of a student performing below where their parents and teachers want them to be or the level they are capable of.

"Students already know if they are struggling in class, there are no surprises for them," says Villars. "But without benchmarking there could be surprises for parents, so the more information they have the better placed they and teachers are to help."