Education is the greatest opportunity provided to all New Zealanders to reach their potential, regardless of background, and it is the foundation of our nation's future prosperity.
Our goal must always be to educate Kiwis to succeed globally. That is the only way to maintain our way of life and high living standards over time.
Yet the cold, hard message of international comparisons in standardised tests, such as the Programme for International Student Assessment and Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study, is that we are falling off the pace. We need to turn this around.
There are four basics to education: The kids must be at school to learn; a world-class curriculum that, if mastered, enables Kiwis to foot it with the best in the world; great teachers, teaching subjects that they know well in classrooms that are fit for learning; and robust measurement of progress, so we know whether our kids are learning or not.
Sadly, we're failing in all four areas.
Only three out of five kids attend school regularly. For Māori and Pasifika kids, the rates are worse. This is a national scandal.
Our current curriculum in many subjects is too loose. Learning intentions are not clearly and fully stated – too much is left to the interpretation of individual teachers. Currently, some of our best schools opt out of NCEA Level 1 and manage their way around it with more rigorous options. The current Government's proposed changes to NCEA Level 1 subjects are pushing more schools away from NCEA for several reasons – including a view that matauranga Māori must have "equal status" with so-called "Western knowledge".
Specialist teachers are concerned about not being able to understand what is to be taught and why this approach is being taken at the expense of basic subject content. It is driving the credibility of our national qualification backwards.
We have many passionate teachers in our schools. But too many graduates of our teacher training institutions are not properly prepared to teach maths, science and literacy. In the meantime, we've conducted an experiment in teaching our youngest children in great open barns with up to a hundred kids and downgrading our teachers to facilitators of "student-led" learning. It's certainly not working for those who can't cope with noise and chaos.
Because Labour axed National Standards and didn't replace it, our education system has no external, consistent and robust measurement of progress before year 11. Even in the final years, NCEA is not as robust as it should be. As a result, too many students and schools just drift.
But what do we do about this? Here are some of the things National is thinking and what we will debate with New Zealand over the next two years.
On attendance; no excuses. We've allowed a culture of excuses to develop for truancy. This has to stop. All schools should submit their attendance data weekly and it should be publicly available. Every community needs to know the scale of the problem, so we can fix it. Government should also properly resource schools to knock on doors and round the truants up.
On curriculum, we'll have to go back to the drawing board to rebuild a globally first-class curriculum, one that acknowledges the special place of Māori language and knowledge in New Zealand but doesn't try to tell our kids that the insights of one culture – Māori – has "equal status" in science, maths, commerce and every other subject with the combined wisdom of all the other cultures of the world. We've got to keep our perspective global.
We must insist on robust achievement in the basics of maths, science and literacy for all starting teachers, and give teachers access to better teaching materials so they and their schools spend less time reinventing the wheel. We should allow principals to reward great teachers. And we should face reality and allow schools to pay more for hard-to-recruit subject specialists, such as maths and physics. We should stop building big barns for learning unless we have robust data of their effectiveness.
We must insist on standardised external assessment at key points of our children's education, so parents and teachers know when to worry and so steps can be taken to address problems early in the piece. We need this to restore some basic accountability to the system.
If we do these things, we can restore New Zealand's education system to the top ranks globally. We can restore the opportunity to every Kiwi kid, no matter what their background, to be equipped to succeed.
Aim high and think globally: that's what we do when we're at our best.
• Paul Goldsmith is the National Party spokesperson on eduction.