In the 10-part series What's the Plan? The Herald's political and specialist reporters examine the big issues facing New Zealand and how the main political parties plan to deal with them. Here, Simon Collins compares the policies for education
The ideological battle lines in education are clearer in this election than they have been for years - "equality" on the left versus "choice" on the right.
The great debate over "national standards" in the Key era from 2008 to 2017 obscured the usual battlefield because the drive for higher standards seemed to be more managerial than ideological.
In 2017, Labour offered two big policies to make the system fairer - paying $150 per student per year to every school that stopped asking parents for donations, and scrapping fees for the first year of tertiary education. But those seemed like isolated gestures.
In the last three years, however, its commitment to equality has become clearer.
Education Minister Chris Hipkins launched reviews of just about every aspect of education, including the 1989 reform called "Tomorrow's Schools" which freed schools to compete for students.
A review team led by Bali Haque found that creating choice massively undermined equality.
Given a choice of schools, parents chose based on the wealth of the other children in each school. If they lived in a poor area, they sent their kids up the road to the nearest school they could get into in a richer area, so that between 1996 and 2018 student numbers in the poorest three deciles shrank by 4 per cent while in the richest three deciles they jumped by 49 per cent.
Since funding was based on rolls, rich schools enhanced their facilities, hired good teachers and offered a wider choice of subjects. Poor schools struggled to maintain their facilities, lost good teachers and offered fewer subjects.
The outcome was stark. Only 14 per cent of students left decile 1 schools with University Entrance last year, compared with 69 per cent in decile 10 schools.
In New Zealand, that inequality has an ethnic character. It means Māori and Pacific students, who are concentrated in the lower-decile schools, are much less likely to leave school with UE than European and Asian students, so they are more likely to struggle in life economically and socially.
Haque's review led to a decision to transfer school zoning to a new Education Support Agency within the Ministry of Education, which will aim to boost support for struggling schools.
Funding has been moved slightly towards the poorer schools - a process actually begun through Bill English's "social investment" work in 2016-17, when the only increases in school operating budgets of about $12m a year went to schools with the highest numbers of "at risk" students based on factors such as their parents' welfare and criminal records.
Last year Labour implemented its promised $150 a year per student to schools that stop asking parents for donations - but only in the poorest seven deciles, giving those schools an extra $75m a year.
Decile-1 principal Shirley Maihi said her Finlayson Park School would get an extra $148,500 a year from the scheme to pay more teacher aides, stationery, sports club fees and other activities.
In this election both Labour and National propose to scrap deciles and adopt a new funding system using an "equity index" based on the same factors that National used in 2016-17 such as families' welfare and criminal records.
National has not allowed for any extra spending for the change, but Labour has earmarked $320m over four years so that it can pay more to schools with the most disadvantaged children without having to cut funds to schools that get more through the current decile-based system.
Surprisingly, Labour's biggest funding shift towards poor schools was not even mentioned in its 2017 manifesto, but arose out of its work on child poverty - a $44m pilot scheme to provide free lunches to children in 30 schools from last year, growing to 120 schools with 21,000 children by 2021.
When Covid-19 hit this year and the Government found itself with billions of dollars to spend, the pilot was suddenly ramped up to a $200m-a-year scheme to feed 200,000 children in the 25 per cent of schools that have the most disadvantaged children based on the equity index.
Labour's election policy promises to keep that scheme going at the same $200m a year after the initial Covid money is spent.
More quietly, the Government found $200m over four years in this year's Covid-swollen Budget to boost funding for kōhanga reo, and $108m over four years to train mainstream teachers in te reo Māori.
It has also changed the objectives of school boards to include catering for students with different needs, achieving equitable outcomes for Māori students, ensuring that their curriculum reflects local Māori tikanga, and "taking all reasonable steps to make instruction available in te reo Māori".
In contrast, National's election policy, released by education spokesperson Nicola Willis, places much more emphasis on giving families more choice than the party has in the last few elections.
It is not ignoring equality. Its most expensive promise is an extra $630m over four years for more teacher aides and other learning support for children with extra needs.
But it is concerned about the high cost of Labour's school lunch scheme and promises to "provide food in a more targeted way to ensure it gets to students who might otherwise go hungry".
Its other big-ticket pledge is to give parents a choice on how to spend a proposed $3000 credit for approved services in their child's first three years, including early childhood education.
It promises to return zoning to school boards and to "limit the need for more restrictive school zones by supporting the expansion of fast-growing existing schools". It is backing that with a massive $4.8b extra for school buildings over the next 10 years to enable popular schools to grow.
"We will make it easier, where appropriate, for families of children identified with a high level of additional need to enrol their children in state or state-integrated schools with expertise in catering to children with additional needs, where they would otherwise be prevented from doing so due to school zone restrictions," the party says.
National will "aim to establish 25 new partnership schools by 2023, including some focused on specific learners such as Māori and Pasifika, specialist areas such as education for children with additional learning needs, or particular subject areas".
It will "allow state integrated schools to open or expand in areas of high roll growth", and will "consider applications for special character status from schools that cater specifically to children with additional learning needs".
Principals would be given "more control over decision-making at their schools", and school boards would be given "genuine choice about the design of new school buildings" rather then being forced into building big multi-teacher spaces.
National would also let schools choose which languages to teach, rather than promoting te reo Māori in particular. All primary schools would have to offer at least one second language, and school boards would have to consult with their families about which of 10 priority languages they choose.
The party recognises that choice is only meaningful if parents are well informed, so it also proposes more spot checks on early childhood centres, "plain English" reports to parents on their children's progress, and restoring targets "including for the proportion of Māori and Pasifika students leaving school with NCEA".
National standards have been abandoned, but National would "instruct education officials to identify which schools are having the greatest positive impact on student achievement, including for specific learners such as Māori and Pasifika students, to identify those schools where students may not be making adequate progress, and to intervene where necessary".
The Act Party would go further than National, giving parents $12,000 a year for each child between ages 2 and 18, which families could spend on their choice of education.
NZ First policy is harder to characterise in terms of equality or choice. Its most distinctive idea is free tertiary education for the numbers of students required by employers, on condition that give back a year's work for each year of training.
Election may spell life or death for school
About 50 students at a small private school in Remuera don't know where they will go next year.
Their current school, Mt Hobson Middle School, has operated for 18 years in an old villa owned by the Dilworth Trust, which now plans to demolish it and sell or redevelop the site and an adjoining property.
The school's owners, the Villa Education Trust, applied to Education Minister Chris Hipkins to turn the school into a "designated-character" state school for 240 students - the same path the trust has already taken for its two former charter schools, South Auckland Middle School and Middle School West Auckland.
Hipkins rejected the application in June, saying that the cost of building or leasing a new property for the school "would require reallocation of funding away from priority projects".
But National's education policy includes a clause that appears to have been written with the trust's plight in mind, saying National will "consider applications for special character status from schools that cater specifically to children with additional learning needs".
Trust chief executive Karen Poole says the school was not started specifically for children with additional needs, and not all its students have such needs, but it has attracted them because of its small size and its limit of up to 12 students in a class.
Jo Martin, whose 12-year-old daughter has mild dyslexia and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, says her daughter felt "judged" at her previous schools.
"She was constantly criticised for not focusing in class, being distracted all the time," Martin said.
On her first day at Mt Hobson, she loved it.
"She said, 'I just feel accepted, they are all really warm, I'm not judged'," Martin said.
"She's flourishing. It's proven in her academic results. She was failing maths, science and history and barely passing the other subjects, now she's frequently getting excellence.
"She recently said to my mother, who is heavily involved with her after-school care: 'This school has changed my life'."
Camillo Spath tried to get his now 13-year-old adopted son, who was born with fetal alcohol syndrome, into King's School and then St Kentigern. Both turned him down, and St Kent's Boys' School principal Peter Cassie suggested he try Mt Hobson.
"He needs, 'Here's my sandbox - it's structured, it's regular, it's always the same,'" Spath says.
"If he ends up having to go to Auckland Grammar, we will make the best of what we have to do, but I really hope that is not his only option."
Maddy Wright, 15, a current Year 10 student, came to the school because she suffered from anxiety at her previous schools.
"I was quite badly bullied at my first school," she says.
"At my other schools I have been to, people who learn in different ways kind of get put into the big classrooms and forgotten about.
"I feel like at this school they really focus on students."
Education: The policies
• Spend $600m extra over four years to raise early childhood teachers' wages.
• Screen school entrants for dyslexia and improve specialist support (not yet funded).
• Boost funding for the most disadvantaged schools by $320m over four years.
• Transfer school zoning to the Ministry of Education and boost regional school support.
• Expand free school lunches to cover the most disadvantaged quarter of schools.
• Free apprenticeships for the next two years; merge all polytechnics into one vocational training institute; retain one year fees-free post-school study.
• Scrap higher funding for early childhood centres with 100 per cent trained teachers, and use the savings to improve teacher/child ratios under age 2.
• Spend $630m extra over four years on more teacher aides and support for children with extra needs.
• Let schools draw up their own zones, create 25 new charter schools to expand choice.
• Bring back achievement targets, including proportions of Māori and Pacific students getting NCEA.
• Dismantle the mega-polytech and resurrect the regional polytechnics.
• Replace fees-free post-school study with possible saving scheme or other reform.
• More playcentres and mobile kindergartens in rural areas; improve teacher/student ratios under age 2.
• Screen school entrants for dyslexia and other conditions; expand Ongoing Resourcing Scheme (ORS) funding from 1 per cent to 3 per cent of children.
• National rollout of Napier's "Managed Moves" programme for primary and intermediate school students who would otherwise be suspended or excluded from schools.
• Fully fund tertiary study and training, with a universal living allowance, for the numbers required by employers.
• Scrap student fees and loans if students work for one year for each year of study.
• Prioritise pay equity for early childhood teachers; encourage early childhood centres to co-locate with schools to support transition to school.
• Fund learning support as needed; improve programmes to creative inclusive schools free of bullying, racism and violence.
• Make te reo Māori a core subject to Year 10.
• Expand funding for outdoor environmental education.
• Pay tertiary students the guaranteed minimum income of $325 a week; raise the income threshold where you start repaying student loans from the current $20,020 a year.
• Pay $12,000 a year from age 2 to 18 into Student Education Accounts which students and their families can use to buy education at any registered provider, public or private.
• Hold back part of overall funding to pay schools to serve students with special needs.
• Allow state schools to choose to become partnership schools, "freeing them from union contracts".
• At age 18, pay students a further $30,000 for tertiary education, topped up to $50,000 by scholarships for more than half of students.
• Put 25 per cent of the education budget into Māori models of delivery and pastoral care.
• Make te reo Māori and Māori history core subjects to Year 10.
• Require primary schools to teach in te reo Māori 15 per cent of the time by 2023 and half the time by 2030.
• Spend $200m a year on iwi, hapū and whānau-based initiatives such as wānanga.
• Remove schools' power to kick out students under age 16.
• Free computers and internet for students in Years 4 to 13.