The implementation of a controversial new science curriculum that caused outrage for its lack of any mention of physics, chemistry or biology has come to a halt - both delighting and frustrating educators.
Consultation on the draft new science curriculum, which caused uproar when an early version was leaked, has been put on hold for a second time, with the Ministry of Education waiting to “engage” with the new Government before it is sent out.
The National Party waded into the education debate during the election campaign, promising to “rewrite” the New Zealand school curriculum, meaning the controversial proposal may never see the light of day.
Principals spoken to by the Herald said teachers were frustrated by the lack of certainty but pleased there was an opportunity to make improvements or start over.
A “fast draft” of the former Government’s new science curriculum was sent to a few teachers for feedback in July, ahead of its wider release for consultation scheduled for August, but was leaked by concerned educators.
The draft contained no mention of physics, chemistry or biology and set out that science would be taught through four contexts - the Earth system; biodiversity; food, energy and water; and infectious diseases.
Teachers who had seen the document said they had grave concerns. It was embarrassing, and would lead to “appalling” declines in student achievement, they said.
One of the curriculum writers, director of the University of Waikato’s Wilf Malcolm Institute of Educational Research, Cathy Buntting, defended it, saying teachers would be teaching “the chemistry and the physics that you need to engage with the big issues of our time”.
In August, the Ministry of Education informed the “peak bodies” that the draft science curriculum would instead go out for consultation in October, saying it wanted to “make sure the next draft accounts for the concerns raised so far”.
The ministry said it would release the draft arts and technology curriculums at the same time.
This month, the ministry told the Herald the release had again been delayed as staff waited to “engage with the incoming government before releasing the updated drafts of the refreshed science, technology and the arts learning areas”.
St Cuthbert’s College principal Justine Mahon said delaying consultation was a positive move because New Zealand’s education was in “dire straits” at the moment and the incoming Government needed to make it a priority to lift the standard.
“It’s actually really urgent, secondary teachers need certainty,” she said.
She said it was particularly frustrating for teachers of subjects like science that needed to be taught very systematically.
“An awful lot of planning needs to go into this and then you need to have time to ensure that the teachers have the training and support to implement these changes properly,” Mahon said.
“So it’s a matter of extreme urgency because you can’t have cohorts of young people not being prepared to compete in the STEM world. New Zealand cannot afford to fall behind.”
She said it was quite possible the new Government would decide to scrap the current proposal and believed starting over would provide the best outcome for students.
“Teachers always put the needs of their students first. They’re very good at pivoting and preparing but they want to prepare and provide a curriculum that’s robust and rigorous and it’s very difficult for them, as professionals, to be asked or expected to teach anything that’s not.”
Secondary Principals of New Zealand president Vaughan Couillault, who is also Secondary Principals of New Zealand president, said he believed it would be “imprudent” to rush ahead with consultation now. He hoped work could continue in earnest once a Government had been formed.
He acknowledged science teachers around the country were “frustrated”. While getting it sorted was a pressing issue, it was not urgent given it did not have to be implemented until 2027, he said.
“There are frustrations but it’s borne of how the process has gone up until this point in terms of whose voice is loudest. There’s discontent and so I think it is very prudent to just leave it there at the moment - wait for the Government to form, see what the direction the new minister, whoever that may be, wants to take in this regard. And it may not happen before Christmas.”
As for the new Government scrapping the refreshed curriculum entirely, Couillault said it would be “problematic” and a “waste of taxpayer money”.
He believed the direction of travel would change but the current work could be built on.
A National Party spokesman said they were unable to comment while coalition negotiations were ongoing.
In July, Association of Science Educators president Doug Walker said he was shocked when he saw a copy of the draft new science curriculum.
“Certainly, in its current state, I would be extremely concerned with that being our guiding document as educators in Aotearoa. The lack of physics, chemistry, Earth and space science, I was very surprised by that.”
New Zealand Institute of Physics education council chairman David Housden said physics teachers were not happy either.
“We were shocked. I think that physics and chemistry are fundamental sciences and we would expect to find a broad curriculum with elements of it from space all the way down to tiny particles.”
Amy Wiggins is an Auckland-based reporter who covers education. She joined the Herald in 2017 and has worked as a journalist for 12 years.