Some New Zealand schools are avoiding declining student achievement levels shown in an international survey which has tracked the reading, mathematics and science literacy of New Zealand 15-year-olds for the past 20 years.
The results - shown in the 2018 Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) testing and released in December 2019 - suggest that New Zealand teens may have lost the equivalent of up to three-quarters of a year's worth of schooling in the last 10 years.
ACG Schools CEO Clarence van der Wel believes that this figure may be further affected by the impact of Covid-19 and lockdown restrictions.
"New Zealand schools have faced unprecedented challenges over the past year," he says. "While some were able to deliver online classes to ensure learning continued uninterrupted, others have experienced disruptions that will have made it difficult to fufil curriculum requirements."
The New Zealand Initiative, a Wellington-based think tank, has called for a collective shift in the country's schooling. Their report, New Zealand's Education Delusion: How bad ideas ruined a once world-leading school system, argues that the current curriculum and assessment policy are based on an unscientific and flawed philosophy.
Author Briar Lipson says the system's focus on child-centred learning has been to the detriment of knowledge: "By appealing to the inarguable idea that children should be at the centre of decisions about their learning, children-centred orthodoxy has undermined subject knowledge. It has told teachers they are at their most professional when they let their students lead," explains Lipson.
"Consequently, educational standards have plummeted. Despite a 32 per cent real rise in per-pupil spending since 2001, students have gone from world-leading to decidedly average."
However, educators such as ACG Schools – a group of four independent schools where students study the Cambridge International Curriculum – provide a different pathway to success.
Danny O'Connor, Principal of ACG Strathallan, says students studying Cambridge know exactly what they need to learn to advance through the curriculum, which sets clear learning objectives and focuses on developing knowledge and skills in all subjects.
"It values disciplinary subject knowledge alongside the development of learning competencies such as problem-solving and critical thinking skills."
"Cambridge delivers a structured approach to teaching crucial numeracy and literacy skills and ensures that students have a strong foundation as they progress through school," he says.
ACG Strathallan was one of the schools randomly selected to take part in the 2018 PISA test – a worldwide study by the OECD evaluating the scholastic performance of 15-year-olds in 78 different countries.
New Zealand placed 12th overall among OECD and partner countries, including 12th in reading and science and 27th in mathematics. China was awarded the number one ranking, with Estonian, Finnish, and Canadian students also performing strongly.
Many participating New Zealand schools showed a significant decline in academic achievement and standards of wellbeing. In contrast, ACG Strathallan ranked well above the national average in reading, mathematics, and science. O'Connor believes this is the result of excellent teaching and the school's decision to offer the acclaimed international Cambridge Curriculum.
While ACG Strathallan's learning programme is much broader in scope than what is measured in PISA, the core areas of literacy, numeracy and scientific thinking equip students with the knowledge and skills they require across all their subjects.
While some perceive Cambridge to be only for highly academic students, in reality, it is a flexible and adaptable curriculum easily tailored to all levels of academic ability. With a wide range of subjects (from chemistry and computer science to music and performing arts), students benefit from enriching experiences and learning opportunities that help them reach their potential.
Taught in over 10,000 schools, across 160 countries, the Cambridge International Curriculum is widely recognised by employers and universities as setting a global standard for education. Delivered at ACG Schools since 2003, Cambridge has given New Zealand students the choice of including an international qualification in their schooling.
According to Metro magazine's Best Schools list, the ACG group have regularly been awarded the title of Auckland's top schools over recent years.
For ACG Sunderland Principal and Chair of the Association of Cambridge Schools in New Zealand, Nathan Villars, the Cambridge Curriculum offers invaluable "structure, heritage and transportability".
"Cambridge is much broader than many national curriculums. Students enjoy using knowledge and content to build understanding rather than learning foundations built on skills alone," he says.
"Not only are Cambridge students problem solvers and critical thinkers, but their subject knowledge and understanding of real content make them very prepared to take on post-secondary study.
"Students can be confident the Cambridge Curriculum will prepare them well for the future – not just in New Zealand but anywhere in the world."