Why are New Zealand children falling behind in maths and science? In the second of our three-part education series we investigate what's gone wrong - and how more time with better-trained teachers could help our kids lead the world again.

Phoebe Ross doesn't even blink at the prospect of joining what has traditionally been viewed as a man's world.

The softly spoken teenager plans to study to be a structural engineer after she finishes at Auckland's Mt Albert Grammar School this year.

Phoebe, 16, is a bit of a whiz at maths and is in an elite scholarship class for the subject.

About 40 per cent of her 200 fellow Year 13 math students at Mt Albert are female, and are every bit as ambitious. Nearly half of the other students are in a scholarship class.


Phoebe derives much of her inspiration from her dedicated mentor, Johanna McHardy, an engineer-turned-teacher. The school's principal, Dale Burden, says McHardy is a "rock star" of a teacher.

"You can only get so far on your own and it is my teacher who drives me on to meet expectations," Phoebe says. "I feel well-supported and it is very motivating to be taught by someone who has also done the kind of job I'm aspiring to."

Across the Harbour Bridge, on Auckland's North Shore, it is a different story for Madeleine Marriott, 15. The Year 11 student at Northcote College was falling behind in maths, mainly because she has dyslexia and a hearing-related issue.

Madeleine recently started a private maths class once a week at NumberWorks in Birkenhead. She won two-and-a-half terms worth of free lessons at the learning centre in a competition at her school.

Her mother, Elizabeth, explains the college has done what it can to help but having more intensive tutoring is significantly improving her daughter's abilities and confidence. Once the free lessons are completed, she intends to pay for Madeleine to continue the classes at $50 an hour.

"I want to be a designer so I really need to do well in maths," Madeleine says. "My own school has been great with getting me extra support in the past two years but sometimes the class is too big and I don't get much time with the teacher.

"It would be nice if they had a lot more teacher aides."

New Zealand has long been proud of an education system that has a reputation for being world-class - the envy of many other countries.

But recent international comparisons suggest that may no longer be the case. New Zealand suffered a drop in education rankings last year. The latest figures also revealed there is a growing gap between the top and bottom end of academic performers at primary and secondary school level.

Compared with the 2009 results, 15 year olds saw their overall ranking in the Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) fall from 7th to 13th in reading, 13th to 23rd in mathematics, and 7th to 18th in science. This was hard on the heels of Kiwi 9 year olds finishing last-equal in maths among peers in developed countries in the most recent Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (Timss). This led Education Minister Hekia Parata to consider a return to basic arithmetic for primary school children.

Also, it has emerged about a third of primary-aged kids are failing writing standards set by the Government because they don't read enough and are confused by text language and slang.

The situation has education experts worried. So what is to be done to halt the perceived slide in standards?

John Morris is one of our most experienced educators. He was headmaster at Auckland Grammar for 20 years before leaving to become a consultant in 2012. These days, Morris is part of the New Zealand Initiative, an independent thinktank that provides information to the Government and business to help shape education policies.

Morris says he has watched in frustration as hundreds of millions of dollars have been poured into initiatives that have had little effect.

He is convinced the key to boosting the performance of school kids lies with producing better teachers.

"When I was at Auckland Grammar, people would often say what a wonderful institution I was in charge of," Morris says. "But there is no point having a nice building if you have lousy teachers.

"We are not attracting the brightest and best from the universities and the only way to do that is to look at the career structure. It is too factory-like at the moment and we have to start paying people properly to tempt better-quality staff.

"In the past 40 years we have spent a fortune on equipment, infrastructure and projects to bring about improvements in results, but none of it has worked very well."

The NZ Initiative is believed to have been instrumental in influencing Prime Minister John Key's announcement last month of a radical overhaul of teacher management. This will see almost $360 million being spent over four years. The move was welcomed by most teachers' unions.

The policy will create four new teaching and management positions in schools. This will include about 250 executive principals who will work with schools in their community and help those that are struggling.

On March 5, Morris' advisory group will present a paper to teacher unions and the Ministry of Education about how to implement new career structures and make further improvements in teaching.

However, despite his concerns, Morris believes New Zealand's results on the world stage don't necessarily mean our system is in alarming decline. "The warning from studies like Pisa and Timss should be that places like Korea, Hong Kong and other parts of Asia are improving - and at a much faster rate than we are - so there has to be something to be learned from that."

Madeleine Marriott won free math lessons. Photo / Jason Dorday
Madeleine Marriott won free math lessons. Photo / Jason Dorday

Other senior education figures agree that upskilling teaching stock and attracting better candidates is the main priority. But some believe too much importance is placed on drawing comparisons with other countries.

As principal of New Zealand's biggest high school, Rangitoto College on Auckland's North Shore, David Hodge oversees a roll of nearly 3000 students.

He thinks focusing on climbing international league tables is misguided. "If we wanted to be top of the Pisa charts we could do it tomorrow and simply teach to the tests, like some other countries have been doing," Hodge says. "But at what cost? A lot of forward-thinkers believe the success of our future economy will depend on creative people and those with superior interpersonal skills.

"The danger is we could lose some of those resources by simply drilling kids to do well in these tests."

Heather McRae, principal at Diocesan School for Girls in Auckland, agrees. "The international tests don't pick up on the principles and values we want our students to have and which we regard as being important to the kind of well-rounded people we would all benefit from."

But try telling that to employers, who raise an eyebrow at the calibre of our workforce. "Our members tell us again and again that they want to see more focus on raising the quality of mathematics and science taught in schools," says Gilbert Peterson, spokesman for the Employers and Manufacturers Association.

"This is vital for manufacturing and processing industries to compete on a world stage."

Academics like Dr Steven Sexton, senior lecturer at the University of Otago's College of Education, acknowledge there has been a downward trend in school results, particularly in maths and science.

Sexton believes the new curriculum, which was revised in 2007 for new entrants to Year 13, will eventually come good. But he thinks teachers were not properly prepared for the changes. "Things are likely to get worse before they get better," he adds, ominously.

A third of our primary children may be struggling with their reading and are also falling behind other countries in maths and science, according to Pisa. The country needs better prepared teachers to make a difference, says Jill Corkin, head of Snell's Beach School in Auckland.

"It is time we changed the entrant qualifications required to become a teacher," she says. "The present BA degree is too general and it is a big ask to get a teacher to deliver expert information on everything.

"I would like to see graduates getting a second degree in an area that is more specialised, like maths and science, and perhaps have some more focus in these areas in the classrooms."

While arguments rage on about how improvements will be made, it is good news for Andrew Pound, a former teacher who spends his days flitting between his private NumberWorks centres in the North Shore suburbs of Takapuna and Birkenhead. It is Pound who offered the free booster courses to students at Northcote College, from which youngsters like Madeleine Marriott now benefit.

Up to 400 kids are enrolled across the specialist classes, staffed by trained graduates with a focus on maths and English. The teacher-student ratio is about five pupils to one educator.

"It is scary that some kids get to high school and don't know their times tables, or concepts of decimals and fractions," Pound explains. His "magical ingredient" is the personal touch, combined with computerised learning systems that most schools don't have access to.

"We can do more in an hour than most schools can manage in a week. The way that you teach kids is every bit as important as what it is you are trying to teach them," Pound says.

"Most of the kids we see are not necessarily behind in their subjects and the fact they come here doesn't always reflect badly on schools - it is more a reflection of increased parental expectations.

"When their parents read about New Zealand slipping behind in international tests, they expect their children to do better. They don't want them just to pass or scrape by in exams."