Farmers on social media and National MP Amy Adams have responded with fury to an NCEA English exam question that included discussion of water quality. But what was the question actually asking?
In 2017, NZ Geographic published a long feature about the impact of agriculture on the Taieri River in Otago. ‘Troubled Waters’, by vastly experienced journalist Kennedy Warne, was a fact-heavy discussion of the tension between increased intensification of agriculture and restoring freshwater quality, and ventured into the urban-rural divide that polarises the politics around the issue.
Ironically given the discussion of that divide in the article, it then became fodder in the endless culture war in New Zealand around farming.
This year, a section of the piece was included in an NCEA English exam. It asked students to read the piece, and “discuss the way the writer explores ongoing change, referring to at least TWO specific aspects of written texts. Aspects may include figurative language, emotive language, symbolism, allusion, and rhetorical question.”
The issue blew up online. South Canterbury dairy farmer Michelle Pye tweeted that she “just received this text from a passionate dairy farmer. “NZQA level 3 english just attacked farmers for water way pollution. Half the exam on it. How can a farmer’s kid pass that when they dont agree with their views”.” New Conservative deputy leader Elliot Ikilei described it as having “a lot of anti-farmer narratives” and accused the ministry of education of “indoctrination.”
MP Amy Adams, the representative of the dairying-heavy Selwyn electorate, went even further. “This is state sponsored bullying and brainwashing on a massive scale. No wonder farmers feel under attack in their own country,” she tweeted.
Farmers recently protested at parliament, with hundreds turning up and saying they under attack from a range of government environmental policies. National MPs, including agriculture spokesperson Todd Muller, were prominent at the protest. It was a flashpoint in a long running and grinding argument about how farming impacts the environment.
Muller later sent out a press release, saying the “education system” presented an unbalanced view of farming. “Coupled with our national museum Te Papa advising our children they should be giving up meat and dairy for the sake of the environment, there is a concern our kids are being convinced that farming drives environmental degradation.”
The picture around water quality on the Taieri River is complex. Data from Land and Water Aotearoa shows that while overall “water quality is excellent”, of the two points of the river monitored for safe swimming, neither are suitable. And Otago Regional Council report published in 2012 found that “where ecological degradation had occurred, it was attributed to a lack of stock exclusion, irrigation run off and prolonged low flows (over-allocation of water).” In short, it isn’t by any stretch an open sewer, while there are widely acknowledged changes that have occurred over time as a result of agriculture.
But that wasn’t really what the complainants were arguing about. Their beef was that farmers were being bullied by the education system.
On this point, the segment of text used in the exam is worth reading in full. It was posted by New Plymouth Boys’ High School student James Macey, a youth MP for National’s Jonathan Young and year 13 student.
He confirmed that the question was entirely around language techniques used, rather than being anything to do with arguing for or against a position on the issue. “I think it would be hard to politicise an answer to that exam. You have to be quite focussed on the language used and can’t really afford to go off track.”
He added that “the exam in general focusses on how authors get their point across, not the point they are trying to make,” and saw the piece as “more of a comment on the difficulties faced with trying to maintain NZ as a farming nation and a ‘clean, green’ nation simultaneously.”
As for how exam questions are set, the process is long, torturous, and entirely apolitical. NZQA has a guide on its website which outlines each step of the way.
The process of creating an NCEA question can take up to 18 months, going through various critiques by subject matter experts, independent checks, translation into te reo Māori if needed, and measurement against previous years. At no stage of the process are any politicians involved.
Rebekah White, the editor of NZ Geographic, also tweeted about the storm of controversy. “I invite anyone who identifies incorrect facts in this extract to write to me for a correction.”