It is good news that schools are finally going back in Auckland and the Waikato in the middle of this week.
It is a shame it has taken so long, given the Government's health advisers have said schools are a relatively safe environment.
The focus must now fall on a plan to catch up for lost class time.
One only has to imagine for a minute – an 8-year-old trying to learn at home, in a crowded house, with younger siblings running around, parents absent, no laptop, no regular contact from a teacher, maybe a workbook dropped off last week, the TV on – to get a sense of the tragedy unfolding in Auckland education.
Parents, teachers and students have worked hard to make out-of-class learning work – but the reality, on the ground, is incredibly mixed. There are tens of thousands of kids in Auckland who have had little direct education for weeks.
A good education is the most powerful gift we can give to any young New Zealander, especially to Kiwis from disadvantaged backgrounds. That gift has been taken away for too long.
So where do we start?
First, to state the obvious, we must ensure the kids actually get back to school in 2022. They're not going to catch up if they're not back at school.
Our truancy rates are a national disgrace. Pre-Covid, only three out of five kids were attending school regularly.
The starting point should be to set high expectations of attendance in 2022. Schools should publish their attendance data regularly in flashing lights on their websites, so communities face the reality of the situation and are focused on change.
We need to adopt a no excuses culture to truancy.
Second, schools will need extra support to help next year. We think a one-off payment to schools of up to $400 per pupil would be an investment well made.
Schools could spend that money early next year on extra teacher aides, or teachers to offer after-school catch up classes, or for counsellors, or for tutorial spots – anything that will help students who have fallen behind catch up academically.
Third, we should concentrate on the basics next year. Schools are currently distracted with extensive curriculum and NCEA reviews – we think much of that work can be postponed for a while, so as to concentrate on the catch-up. I'm glad the Government has gone some way in this direction.
Fourth, we agree with the Government's maths advisers, who recommended an hour of maths a day is something we can start straight away.
Most parents will be surprised to learn that isn't the case already. Well it isn't.
Fifth, the Government has no plan to measure how far our students have fallen behind during the lost class time. Labour has an ideological aversion to measuring progress.
Don't ask, don't tell is our approach to education progress. That is a hopeless basis for an education system. It's a basic requirement to make an assessment of what a student knows at the start of the year, then to check at the end of the year that they know more than they did at the start. But we don't do it consistently.
Next year is when we have to change that.
Schools have excellent assessment tools available, such as e-asTTle. These are not high-impact, stressful, tests – but regular assessment tools that give parents and teachers insights into how their kids are doing.
But only half the schools use it. They all should.
Finally, there has been a lot of innovation in the system during this incredible period disruption. It'd be a shame if in 2022 we just went back to the way things were in 2019.
Let's have a structured and purposeful discussion through the year on what innovations we can build on – especially about the opportunities that online classes bring for hard to resource subjects.
We are calling on the Government to adopt National's Back on Track education plan immediately, in full, to give parents and children the certainty they deserve.
• Paul Goldsmith is National's education spokesman.