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PoliticsAugust 22, 2023

National accuses Labour of ‘stealing its homework’ in education policy tussle

(Photo: Getty Images)
(Photo: Getty Images)

Both major parties are now proposing to mandate some aspect of core teaching at schools. So what’s the difference in their plans? Stewart Sowman-Lund reports.

National has accused the government of “stealing its homework” when it comes to a proposed plan to mandate some elements of core learning at schools. 

This week marks the penultimate before parliament formally closes down ahead of October’s election, meaning it’s the home stretch ahead of the campaign proper. But it’s hard not to feel the campaign is already in full swing, as both major parties tussle over who is best placed to deliver for the next generation. 

Yesterday morning, education minister Jan Tinetti announced the government would make core teaching requirements for maths, reading and writing compulsory. The requirements would be used from 2024 and made compulsory by 2026. 

“We have great teachers, but historically the curriculum hasn’t always been clear about how core subjects should be taught, and it’s meant there are wide variations of teaching,” said Tinetti in a press release accompanying the announcement. “These changes set clear expectations for schools and signify the importance the government places on strong foundational skills in early learning and schooling.”

(It’s worth noting this policy was announced as “government” policy, not as part of Labour’s election year manifesto, although the fact there are only two more sitting weeks of parliament means there is a blurred line. By contrast, “Labour” – and not as the government – announced over the weekend it would like to mandate financial literacy as part of the curriculum).

Jan Tinetti (Photo: Getty Images)

The compulsory teaching requirements will outline what teachers have to cover off at every year level across a child’s time at school, said Tinetti. “Teachers will be supported with guidance, professional development, and materials to implement these changes and ensure there is consistency across all schools to give all kids equal opportunity.”

A few hours after this policy was announced, the National Party said the government’s plan amounted to nothing more than a cheap and unimaginative copy of its own proposal to “teach the basics, brilliantly”, which was announced six months ago. Unveiled in March, that policy would mandate that primary and intermediate children must spend an hour per day on reading, writing and maths, and would be tested on these twice a year. The government’s policy has no testing requirements, but Tinetti’s release referenced the continued implementation of “learning progress steps”, which “give parents an overview of their child’s achievement and enable them to work with teachers to support their child’s progress”.

Party leader Christopher Luxon said the plan was a sign Labour had run out of ideas and was making it up on the fly. “Labour has stolen our homework,” he said, speaking to reporters from a private clinic in Auckland as he announced a new health policy. “What we’re seeing is a lot of frenetic behaviour from the Labour government, that’s understandable, they haven’t had any ideas.”

National leader Christopher Luxon and his health spokesperson Shane Reti
National leader Christopher Luxon and Shane Reti speak to media (Image: Stewart Sowman-Lund)

But Mark Potter, the president of the education institute Te Riu Roa, the union which represents 30,000 primary school teachers, disagreed. He told The Spinoff that while National’s plan was akin to mandating people to remember to breathe, the government was instead “putting a pin” in work that was already under way to develop a “common practice” approach for teachers. 

“What the minister’s announcing is that there has been some ongoing work with the sector, doing things the sector has asked for,” he said. The common practice model has been in development for close to a year, with the Ministry of Education in consultation with those in the teaching sector since October.

Therefore, Potter said it wasn’t accurate for National to claim its policy had been stolen, because the opposition’s “nothing announcement” involved trying to mandate teaching practices that were already being followed – schools always have taught reading, writing and maths. “It’s like someone who is on the sidelines screaming to the All Blacks ‘kick the ball, run with the ball, grab the ball’ and then claiming that the All Black coach stole their idea. That’s the best way I can put it.”

Potter said you shouldn’t “confuse a mandate with a manual”, noting that the work undertaken by the government was focused on helping teachers with ideas and practices in core subjects. “We would be extremely alarmed if they were talking about bringing in a set of… manuals to tell you what to do, but that’s not what they’re talking about.”

The union representing secondary teachers, the PPTA, was more concerned about the government’s announcement, suggesting there could be a “slippery slope” when it came to legislating how teachers teach. “Today, it’s about how to teach reading and maths but who’s to say with future governments it won’t be about how to teach health, social studies or science?” questioned the acting president Chris Abercrombie in a statement.

Earlier in the year, the prime minister expressed concern about the school curriculum becoming a football in this year’s election. “That hasn’t been a feature of our recent New Zealand political history because I think parents, kids, teachers deserve to know that we’ve got a stable curriculum regardless of who the government is,” he told reporters at the time.

Hipkins reiterated this in his post-cabinet press conference last evening, saying he didn’t want “political tinkering” to get in the way of educating students. The prime minister invoked the unpopular national standards policy that he ditched during his time as education minister. “That was an ideologically driven policy that resulted in reading, writing and maths getting worse for that generation,” he said. “We have to make decisions that are based on evidence.”

He said that announcing this government policy just 50-odd days out from the election was because he hadn’t wanted to implement major education changes during the Covid-19 period. “I stand by that decision.”

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