One Question Quiz

PoliticsMarch 26, 2024

‘Not a big deal’: Schools unfazed by new mandatory teaching hours


Schools are now teaching mandatory hours of reading, writing and maths. But has anything changed?

In 2022, two thirds of students that sat a pilot writing test to show they were functionally literate, failed. A third failed pilot reading and maths tests. One of the fixes  the National Party campaigned on in the 2023 election  is a compulsory hour of teaching every day in reading, writing and maths. 

The state of education in New Zealand “is alarming,” said education minister Erica Stanford in March last year. “Achievement has been in decline for the last 30 years, across multiple governments…. Reading, writing and maths are fundamental skills that unlock the rest of the curriculum.”

There were doubts about what that would achieve, with some experts saying it showed a lack of understanding of complex issues, and that it didn’t tackle the important problems in education. 

Once National had signed its coalition deals with NZ First and Act, the three hours of mandatory core subject teaching was added to the 100-day plan. From the first day of school this year, teachers of students from years 0-8 have had to teach an average of one hour a day of reading, writing and maths. So has anything changed?

Act's Brooke van Velden in Mission Bay
Act’s Brooke van Velden during the 2023 election campaign (Image: Tina Tiller)

Most schools are already doing it. Liz Hawes, publications editor of the New Zealand Principals’ Federation, said almost all schools would be teaching these subjects for an hour a day already 

Dirk Winnie, principal of Avalon Primary School, explained that “the policy itself for us is not a big deal. You can integrate your reading and writing into so many other things.” The school changed its timetable recently but not as a result of the policy. If anything, Winnie says the requirement just means “we’re more explicit in our planning.”

Pembroke Primary School also hasn’t changed anything; “we have a priority on it anyways,” said principal Brent Godfery. As a result, they don’t measure the amount of time spent teaching reading, writing and maths. The policy is not onerous, he says; as students get older, reading, writing and maths are integrated anyway into other subjects. He believes the policy is a waste of effort and time.

Stanford recognised that “many schools across New Zealand … routinely schedule minimum class time each day for the basics. But this is not always the case.” Ensuring every school does it should reduce inequities of access to learning, although there doesn’t seem to be any active monitoring of whether schools comply.

But Avalon Primary hopes this policy won’t get in the way of extracurricular activities and other experiences. Activities like kapa haka or chess remove some students from class, meaning they don’t get the full five hours of reading/writing/maths each week. “It’ll be interesting to see how pedantic they are around the monitoring,” said principal Winnie. “I hope they can recognise that there’s so much richness in these additional experiences, and that actually adds to their education.” Avalon Primary School has a high Equity Index, meaning students facing more or greater socio-economic barriers. Winnie believes allowing for additional experiences within the curriculum is especially important as many of their students wouldn’t have those experiences outside of school.

Hobsonville Point Primary School hasn’t needed to change much either. Principal Daniel Birch thinks the legislation leaves it open for schools to implement the policy in a way that’s best for them. Reading, writing and maths make more sense to students when integrated into other activities, and “we’ve always done that here”. 

In line with Te Tiriti o Waitangi, the government must consult with kura Kaupapa Maori before the policy applies to them. The policy is set to come into force for kaupapa Māori education providers in term 3 of 2024, though it’s unclear how much consultation has occurred. Specialist schools – those that cater to students with high learning needs – were told to make any changes, if they need to, as early as possible. However, they have until term one of 2025 to start this.

The policy doesn’t mean five-year olds will be sitting through an hour block of difficult reading. Teachers can teach low-level skills in small chunks, and use reading within other subjects. School camps and sports days are still allowed, but over the week an average of an hour a day of each subject must be taught. Teaching can be part of one dedicated block, or it can be integrated into other subjects or activities, so long as teachers deliberately and purposefully plan it. 

classroom empty with alarm clock floating and slightly odd eerie colours, it's desaturated
Schools say they aren’t meticulously timing their lessons (Getty Images / Bianca Cross)

But schools question whether the policy is helpful. Student achievement has been declining for years even while most schools were teaching an hour a day of reading, writing and maths. Principal Birch believes “there’s little or no evidence to show that [mandatory hours] works,” which was noted in the briefing paper for the policy itself. As Liz Hawes explains, “The hour is of no help if it is not high-quality teaching.” Essentially, it is not one of the real issues holding our students back. 

“We are hugely under-resourced for teacher aids and specialist teachers,” said Godfery from Pembroke Primary. Hawes agreed. “Learning support for students is well below what is required and New Zealand has a high level of children needing additional learning support.” She explained that it is important to recognise that Aotearoa has one of the most devolved systems of education in the OECD, which makes the job of the ministry difficult in providing support and services that suit the different needs of each school. 

NZEI TE Riu Roa president Mark Potter said in January that “What we need change of is the emphasis in the investment in education into better ratios, so teachers don’t have as many children to deal with, better learning support so every child who has different needs gets those met. They’re the reasons we are struggling to get every child across the line.”

Students’ lives outside of the classroom affect their learning too. For instance, the lunches in schools policy, which associate education minister David Seymour is reviewing, has made a huge difference at Pembroke Primary. Principal Winnie also emphasised factors outside of the classroom, such as housing and food security. Green Party education spokesperson Teanau Tuiono noted that, “evidence has been clear for years that the main issue with educational outcomes is underlying inequality, especially kids who bounce around between schools because they haven’t got secure housing.”

Winnie thinks it is important not to forget “meeting our kids’ needs wherever they sit.” “I would hate if we set our clocks and thought, ‘here’s an hour, here’s an hour,’ and forget what these kids need in their emotional space.”

Cabinet were advised that this policy would essentially cost nothing. The work on it is covered by the Ministry of Education’s regular funding. And as for implementing, it appears little has changed in the way schools teach reading, writing and maths. A win-win or a lose-lose?

Keep going!