New Zealand has one of the most unequal education systems in the world, with experts saying it’s part of a wider issue of the haves and the have nots.

UNICEF’s annual Innocenti Report Card, a study of rich countries, ranked New Zealand 33rd out of 38 countries in terms of educational equality.

New Zealand is also the worst in the world for bullying at school.

The report looks at the gaps between the highest and lowest-performing pupils in OECD countries, by measuring the difference between those in the bottom 10 percent and top 10 percent.

New Zealand ranked in the bottom quarter for the gaps in education in early childhood education, primary school and high school. The report measures ECE enrolment and attendance and reading levels in primary school (age 10) and high school (age 15).

The gaps first show in ECE, where about 93 percent of children are enrolled and attend, according to the report. The Ministry of Education ENROL system shows 96.6 percent of children are enrolled in some type of ECE in the six months prior to school. By either statistic, New Zealand was still behind many other countries with 100 percent enrolment rates.

While the gaps close for most countries as children get older, in New Zealand they widen.

UNICEF NZ Executive Director, Vivien Maidaborn, said it was further evidence of how many Kiwi kids faced an unfair start in life.

“This report is a bit like an x-ray. It can show us what is broken, but it doesn’t explain the reason it ended up that way,” she said.

“What we can see from the report is that our education system is working well for some children, and not well for others.

“Our education system splits children into achievers and non-achievers. The challenge is how we ensure that all children get the same chance to succeed.”

This report comes one week after another international report highlighted the gaps in New Zealand’s achievement in maths and science subjects.

Children’s Commissioner Andrew Becroft said most children did well in the education system, and life generally. But that wasn’t true of all children.

About 70 percent of Kiwi kids do well – some do particularly well and are world leaders. But 20 percent face some significant challenges and disadvantages, and 10 percent face multiple challenges and disadvantages, including material hardship. This raised the risk of adverse outcomes going forward.

The report backed up Becroft’s breakdown in its finding that 73 percent of children in New Zealand reached a good level of reading proficiency. But that left 27 percent who didn’t.

There were 80,000 to 100,000 children in New Zealand who faced multiple challenges, and those were generally the children who were also missing out in education.

The size of the group, and severity of the issue, was underestimated by New Zealanders, he said.

“That doesn’t mean, incidentally, that being in that 10 percent is a life script for inevitable poor life outcomes, but it raises the risk, hugely.”

Children’s Commissioner Andrew Becroft said a consistent message from students themselves was they felt some mainstream teachers displayed racism. File photo: Lynn Grieveson

The role of poverty

New Zealand’s lack of educational equality does not exist in a vacuum.

Everyone who spoke to Newsroom about educational equality, and the UNICEF report, raised New Zealand’s wider inequality and poverty issues.

UNICEF child advocacy rights director Andrew Whittaker talked about the recurring poverty cycle.

One measure of poverty was a family’s household income. One of the enablers of household income was having a good, stable job; and one of the enablers of that was having a good education, Whittaker said.

“For those families that are from low income areas, there’s a generational cycle of the education system not working for them.”

Things like nutrition, stress levels, and stimulation in the home all played a part in a child’s educational achievement from a young age, and these factors were also related to poverty, he said.

“Kiwis like to see fairness in everything we do, and what we’re seeing from this report is that it’s not fair,” Whittaker said.

“And children shouldn’t be disadvantaged because they come from a low-socio economic environment, and that having an impact on their ability to have a quality education.”

Education Minister Chris Hipkins said while some students did well, New Zealand had persistent inequality problems.

“We know we’ve got a big challenge in that area.”

Like others, Hipkins said what happened outside the classroom – in communities and households – also played a part.

The socio-economic gap in New Zealand was getting bigger, and that had a flow-on effect for education, he said.
“Fundamentally, we’ve got to address the broader issues – around housing, and around parents’ income.”

National Party education spokeswoman Nikki Kaye said New Zealand had long-standing issues with equity.

“You can’t just look at it from the school level. You need to look at the households and the communities.”

Kaye said she believed better data was needed in order to target those with the greatest need – something National champions through its social investment approach.

There were also issues of school governance and funding. Some of the schools with consistently low achievement were hard to staff, some did not have enough engagement from parents, who were often busy. Governance, funding and resourcing also played a part. Kaye said.

“I don’t believe we are going to get equity until we get a better system in place.”

Those worst off

UNICEF commissioned New Zealand-specific research to sit alongside the report, in order to get a better sense of why the country was doing so poorly, and who was worst-affected.

The Workshop policy researcher Jess Berenston-Shaw found Māori and Pasifika children were over-represented when it came to lower educational achievement.

The effects of living in lower-socio-economic households and communities, as well as racism and unconscious bias in school were factors that added to inequality.

Māori and Pasifika students were more likely to be excluded, or expelled, which also exacerbated inequality.

Kaye said over the past nine years, National had made a concerted effort to lift Māori achievement.

Berenston-Shaw’s report showed there were improvements across all ethnic groups between 2009-2016 in educational wellbeing, but the gaps between groups (inequality) were static.

For example, Māori and Pacific students were less likely than Pākehā or Asian students to leave the education system with a qualification and more likely to leave school with a qualification below NCEA level 1.

While 71 percent of Māori stayed at school until 17, for Pākehā that rate rose to 85 percent.

Everyone who spoke to Newsroom cited racism or unconscious bias by some teachers as one of the drivers of inequality.

Becroft said this was an uncomfortable conversation to have but a consistent message from students themselves was they felt some mainstream teachers displayed racism.

UNICEF’s Whittaker said this perpetuated a sense of not belonging, something that was important for all students, especially those with specific cultural ties.

That culture, and the way of forming relationships, needed to be reaffirmed within the education system.

Horrific rates of bullying

Eating away at students’ sense of belonging, confidence and engagement is New Zealand’s horrific bullying rates.

The report ranked New Zealand bottom of the OECD for school bullying – now behind Latvia.

Almost 60 percent of students experienced bullying either weekly or monthly – more than twice the rate of the countries with the lowest rates.

Kaye said bullying was rife in schools, and more needed to be done to deal with the issue as a wider society.

This included making sure schools and parents understood the extent of the problem, and how to implement school-wide approaches to tackle the issue.

This damning result comes in the midst of the mental health inquiry, and as suicide rates continue to climb.

Becroft again labelled bullying as a New Zealand-wide issue, not one confined to the education system.

“It’s a dark side of New Zealand that we’re very unwilling to face up to.”

Optimistic about reforms

Becroft said New Zealand had dropped the policy ball for 30 years.

“The message was slow to get through… and there was almost a blind faith in the neoliberal approach, which assumed that economic growth, and wise use of resources would ensure that the advantages trickled down to all those who needed it most. But actually it stopped… I think everyone’s woken up to that,” he said.

“It surprises me that in a country like New Zealand – as small as we are – that we were so slow in catching on to the damage that was being done.”

The Commissioner said he had four core areas of focus: listening to children and taking into account their views; improving outcomes for Māori; protecting children’s rights to attend full-time education with their peers; and reducing suspensions and exclusions from school.

UNICEF is also calling for policy aimed at guaranteeing a good level of core skills, producing better data, focusing on equality, reducing the impact of socio-economic inequalities, and closing gender gaps in achievement.

Kaye said all politicians started with the same vision: “the most important thing for the future of New Zealand was for every child to have equity”.

And part of that is getting the education system right.

So where possible, politicians should try and reach cross-party consensus in order to more efficiently and effectively fix the system, she said.

Some areas like charter schools and the use of data were sticking points, but when it came to the child poverty framework and NCEA review, Kaye said National planned to work with the coalition Government.

All said they were cautiously optimistic things could improve, and said the child wellbeing framework, and focus on child poverty would help.

Becroft said the widespread education reforms – which included reviews of Tomorrow’s Schools and NCEA – were ambitious but needed.

What needed to come after reviews and reforms, was ongoing investment, firstly to make up for under-spending, then to maintain a level that would help more Kiwi kids achieve.

Hipkins said he believed the current measures being put in place by the Government, including improving the affordability of housing, and the Families Package, would make “a huge difference”. 

“I think it’s going to have a pretty transformational impact on the education system, and inequality within it. But I’m also a realist; things take quite some time to turn around… but that’s the game we’re in – changes in education take quite some time.”

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