The primary school system is in trouble. It is failing some of the young pupils who can least afford to be left behind, and it is struggling to attract talented young New Zealanders to a career in the country's classrooms. Out of nearly 60,000 youngsters who finished Year 8 in 2014 - 12-year-olds on the cusp of their high school years - a staggering 17,900 could not meet writing requirements, 18,500 were behind in maths and 12,700 struggled with reading. These distressing figures emerged from our important series this week, The Primary Issue. They should concern every parent, and they ought to be sounding alarm bells in Wellington.

All is not well at the front of the classroom either. Teaching, once an appealing and rewarding career option, is now seen by potential recruits as a "Plan B" job. New teachers' college entrants lag behind their peers studying for other degrees in their entry scores. It is the worst of worlds - the next generation of teachers indicate they would rather be somewhere else and our best and brightest graduates are not excited by the school bell.

Education, at every level, never seems an easy policy to shape or a straightforward service to deliver. Politicians forever appear determined to realign the business of education, regardless of how it is performing. In the case of the primary sector, the Government invested $250 million in six years to lift achievement in literacy and numeracy and measure progress through national standards. The results, as the figures demonstrate, are dispiriting.

It is not all gloom and doom. Our series confirmed that thousands of youngsters are thriving in schools and achieving results that stand alongside the best in the world. Teachers at these schools are bringing out the best in young pupils. The system at these schools is working.


But the inescapable and uncomfortable reality is that far too many children are not succeeding in class. For their future, and for long-term social cohesion, the chasm between achievement and failure has to be arrested. It is abundantly clear that family circumstances are one of the significant drivers of school failure. To put it bluntly, kids from poor families fare worse in our system than children from better-off backgrounds. This outcome is hardly news, but we run the risk of it becoming entrenched. It is where interventions and resources need to be directed.

Being education, there is no shortage of suggestions to help kids catch up. Some deserve urgent attention. The status of teaching needs lifting. Factors outside the school gate have to be part of the package. The approach dealing with communities of schools offers much promise because what works best will be evident.

Back in 2008, the Prime Minister declared that his party "believes that the first task of the education system should to be ensure that every child from every background can read, write and do maths at a level that allows them to participate in a modern economy". No one would disagree with that sentiment, but eight years on, the modern economy may remain a world that a generation of children may never enter.

There are steps to turn this around. Teachers and education leaders need to share what works best and get cracking.

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