Radio NZ has reported that schools around the country are paying tens of thousands of dollars to private consultants to help them improve the way they teach reading. They are introducing the so-called 'structured literacy' approach, more commonly known as phonics. While backed by 30 years of educational research, it is not funded by the Ministry of Education.
Phonics has been at the centre of a long-running education debate, as freelance journalist Karl du Fresne explains:
"In 1994 I wrote an article for the 'Evening Post' about a remarkable woman named Doris Ferry. Doris, who was then 78, was a retired teacher who lived on the Kapiti Coast. All she wanted to do was devote herself to her large garden, but instead she found herself spending half of each day providing individual tutoring at home to local kids who had fallen behind at school. The reason they were failing, without exception, is that they couldn't read. Parents came to her in desperation after word got around that Doris was succeeding where schools were failing.
"By the time I interviewed her, she had brought 1500 kids up to speed with their reading – kids who, in many cases, had fallen hopelessly behind at school, even after completing so-called reading recovery courses. The difference to their lives was dramatic.
"I'm sure Doris' empathetic manner and one-on-one tuition helped, but there was no doubt in her mind that what counted most was her use of the teaching method known as intensive phonics, whereby children learn to read by recognising letters or combinations of letters and the sounds associated with them. Many readers will recognise that description, because until the 1960s it was how reading was taught in all New Zealand schools. Then, in one of those sudden theory-driven shifts in direction to which the education system seems fatally susceptible, phonics was supplanted by a method known as whole-language."
Developed by the New Zealand educationalist Dame Marie Clay, the 'balanced literacy,' or 'whole language' approach, is based on the idea that learning to read should be as natural as learning to talk. If you put children in a 'book-rich' environment, they will learn to read in their own time, taking their cues from pictures and context.
Indeed, while this method works for many children, it doesn't for far too many of our most vulnerable children, including an estimated one in seven with learning disabilities.
In a bizarre twist, the Ministry of Education's $30 million Reading Recovery programme for children struggling with reading was also pioneered by Marie Clay. As a result, it reinforces the whole-language approach, instead of offering phonics as an alternative.
While many schools would prefer to re-direct their Reading Recovery funding into phonics instruction, they are prohibited from doing so. As a result, those who wish to teach phonics must fund it themselves.
The Kaiapoi North School, in Canterbury, which has invested around $20,000 in phonics, has reported that after two years, 94 per cent of children are at or above the curriculum standards, compared to 70 per cent using the whole word approach.
Ladbrooks School, on the outskirts of Christchurch, which introduced phonics three years ago at a cost of hundreds of thousands of dollars for a specialist teacher, six learning assistants and professional development for all teaching staff, says the impact has gone far beyond literacy to improve all areas of children's learning.
While the phonics debate continues within education circles, what is beyond debate is the significant fall in New Zealand's educational standards. The decline, which started decades ago, cannot, of course, be blamed on phonics alone, but the move away from proven systems of learning to experimental ones has contributed.
One experimental reform that is believed to have played a major role in the slide in standards is New Zealand's 'progressive' child-centred approach to learning. Introduced in 2007 by Prime Minister Helen Clark, this strongly ideological methodology, which was designed to remove elitism from the education system, replaced New Zealand's traditional knowledge-based syllabus with a focus on skills and competencies.
While it gave schools the freedom to develop their own curriculum, it also provided an opening for the introduction of radical cultural and environmental agendas that erode core learning. If children spend more time on issues like climate change and the Treaty, and less time on the basics, then numeracy and literacy standards will decline.
And decline they have. In 2016, the reading levels of New Zealand 10-year-olds in the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (Pirls) fell to their lowest since the survey began in 2001, dropping below all other English-speaking countries, to 32nd out of the 50 countries surveyed.
In the OECD's Programme for International Student Achievement (PISA) surveys, New Zealand's results for 15-year-olds also deteriorated, sliding from 3rd in reading in 2000 to 12th in 2018, from 3rd in maths to 27th, and from 6th in science to 12th. Altogether, New Zealand's scores have declined by 23 points for reading, 29 points for maths, and 22 points for science, where the OECD estimates that a 30-point decline is equivalent to one year of learning.
As the New Zealand Initiative pointed out in its recent report, New Zealand's Education Delusion: How bad ideas ruined a once world-leading school system, "despite a 32 per cent real rise in per-pupil spending since 2001, students have gone from world-leading to decidedly average." They believe the child-centred approach to teaching and learning is responsible for the decline in standards, and are calling for a return to a knowledge-based national curriculum.
The tragedy of educational failure is that it particularly affects children from low socio-economic communities because their families are less likely to provide the out-of-classroom support that kids who are struggling need. While radicals blame poor statistics for Māori children on racism and colonisation, the answers usually lie in the home.
As well as reporting the academic performance of 15-year-olds, the PISA surveys cover many of the other factors that influence a child's ability to learn. They show New Zealand students are losing confidence in their education. They are now more likely to say reading is a waste of time, with 52 per cent of pupils saying they "only read if they have to." In 2018, these students not only reported less reading of books, but also less systematic teaching of new vocabulary, less reading out loud, and more silent reading, each of which was related to lower achievement scores.
The results showed that New Zealand now has one of the worst scores for classroom behaviour of any OECD nation. It has the highest rate of frequent bullying, and the number of students who did not feel safe at school increased from 13 per cent in 2009 to 19 per cent in 2018. In addition, 41 per cent of students reported noise and disorder in English classes, 35 per cent said students did not listen to their teachers, and the number of students who skipped school in the two weeks before the test increased to 29 per cent.
Education has long been described as a passport to a better future, but with increasing numbers of students leaving school without any form of qualification, the system appears to be failing the very children for whom it was traditionally a lifeline.