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Insights 38: 9 October 2020
TVNZ Breakfast: Briar Lipson explains why NZ's education system is a mess
Podcast: The only briefing any new minister needs, with David Law
Report: Roadmap for recovery: Briefing to the incoming government

Lessons from the All Blacks
Briar Lipson | Research Fellow |
It took eighteen years for New Zealand’s school system to plunge from world-leading to decidedly average.

Despite a concurrent 32% real rise in per-pupil spending, in maths, Kiwi 15-year-olds now perform the way 13 and a half year-olds did just 20 years ago. In reading, Year 5s now rank 24 out of 26 participating OECD countries.

More damning, educational inequity is worse here than in Canada, Australia, the US and UK. And yet, over the same period, NCEA pass rates have rocketed up. Why the disparity?

The reason NCEA masks this basic dumbing-down is that, just like the curriculum, it is child-centred to the extreme.

On the face of it, child-centred schooling is wonderful – like ferns and chocolate afghans. However, it has been applied so uncritically in New Zealand that many teachers now believe they are at their best when students lead. They are convinced that whole-class teaching is old-fashioned and crushes creativity.

It is quasi-religious adherence to child-centred ideas that explains the open-plan classrooms, the rise of “independent” learning, collaborative projects and beanbags.

And paradoxical as it may sound, these approaches confuse the ends of education for the most effective means.

Consider the All Blacks. In preparation to face their opponents, these world-leading athletes do not spend most of their time practising rugby games. Instead, they spend most of their time memorising the broken-down parts of what makes them great on the day. They spend hours lifting weights, passing and kicking, practising strategy and set-plays. For them there are no shortcuts. Memorising every component is essential to expertise.

By comparison, the national curriculum side-lines knowledge in favour of competencies. For example, the entire curriculum for social sciences (covering social studies, geography, history, economics, etc.) for primary and secondary schools fits on one A4 page. Teachers can make all the choices. There is no content progression or accountability.

Fortunately, some schools still ignore child-centred orthodoxy. They find engaging ways to teach subject knowledge and expect their teachers to lead. However, many do not. Schooling has become a high-stakes lottery.

In this election, neither major party has come close to identifying the root cause of the school system’s embarrassing failures. That’s why my report New Zealand’s Education Delusion: How bad ideas ruined a once world-leading school system uses evidence to point the way.

Getting serious about New Zealandís recovery
Dr David Law | Research Fellow |
New Zealand faces its worst recession in nearly a century. Unfortunately, the economic response to the challenges of Covid-19 leaves much to be desired. Most new policy initiatives proposed in the run-up to the 2020 general election range from trivial at best to economic sabotage at worst. New Zealanders deserve better.

The scale of the problem is immense.

Independent forecasts by the OECD predict an unemployment rate of 8.9% next year, and figures released by Statistics New Zealand for the June quarter of this year reveal our collective income fell by 12.2%.

To make matters worse, even before Covid-19 New Zealand struggled with lacklustre productivity performance – productivity growth is crucial to raising living standards in the long-term.

Then there is the rising public debt – projected to peak at over 56% of GDP in 2026 (up from a mere 19% in 2019). Taking on some additional debt for an effective public health response and economic support is justified, but additional spending and promises now go well beyond that.

This week, the report Roadmap for Recovery: Briefing to the Incoming Government was released to help plug the policy gap. The report includes over 30 recommendations to promote employment, growth and productivity and a credible path back to sustainable debt levels.

Productivity could be improved with key changes to education, regulatory settings affecting investment, monetary policy and climate change.

But the next Government must resist the temptation to tighten labour market settings. These are performing well, delivering relatively high participation rates, job creation and low levels of unemployment before Covid-19. If anything, labour market settings should be more flexible now.

Raising or introducing new taxes will hurt growth. More tax is unnecessary for getting the public debt back under control. Instead, there is ample scope to reduce public spending through greater efficiency, scrutiny and by ending wasteful spending on costly programmes which do not deliver on their objectives. Health, education and welfare need not be affected by these changes and may even improve. Changes to retirement income policy alone could return the public debt to about 30% of GDP by 2034.

This report will not leave you feeling warm and fuzzy. New public holidays, green schools offering DNA activation ceremonies, PayWave fees, electric cars, wealth taxes and a guaranteed minimum income do not feature on our list of recommendations.

But, if a prosperous New Zealand floats your boat, Roadmap for Recovery: Briefing to the Incoming Government will have you hooked.

Working group enlightenment
Dr Oliver Hartwich | Executive Director |
It took New Zealand to disprove the entire body of political science.

For millennia, political philosophy was thought to be about the dual question of who rules and for what purpose. Over this question, wars were fought, revolutions triggered and kings beheaded.

Not any longer. New Zealand politics reveals the essence of politics is not to rule while preventing anyone else from ruling.

To achieve this political enlightenment, one has to be elected ... and then do nothing without anyone noticing.

New Zealand's new political philosophy is diametrically opposed to everything that came before it. For Niccolo Machiavelli, politics was a brutal fight for dominance. For Karl Marx, all of history was a class struggle. For Friedrich Nietzsche, the “will to power” drove society’s development.

How wrong they all were. In 21st century New Zealand, the noblest political ambition is to run for office only to establish many working groups once elected. Whether you are a left-winger or a right-winger, the practical abdication of power is the cross-party panacea for every aspiring politician.

Working groups are the homeopathic equivalent of politics. They purport to tackle the same significant issues but they do so in a much gentler way. And just like homeopathy, they may not achieve anything, but they make the patient feel listened to.

The biggest advantage of working groups is that they do not consume many resources. A secretariat and a few million dollars are usually enough to keep them busy for 18 months.

Working groups are also inclusive. Since they never make hard decisions, it does not matter who is on them. It allows the ruler to demonstrate openness without committing to any course of action.

Finally, working groups show that something is being done. Of course, this is only a simulation of action but most voters would not know the difference anyway.

Since working groups never implement anything, they cannot be blamed if things go wrong later. And when that happens, one can still task a select committee or a Royal Commission with an investigation. A bigger working group, if you like.

New Zealand’s post-modern politicians have moved past the old power philosophy and found nirvana in a place where nothing ever happens and the rulers remain untouchable in power.

Nirvana is an eternal working group. Bliss.

Pity about the house prices.
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