Amidst all the Covid-19 related drama last week, there was an unrelated government announcement that slipped through almost unnoticed. However, its impact is potentially more significant and important for our future than the return to lockdowns, and certainly more so than the Government’s desperate spin that becoming around the 80th country to start vaccinating its people when we were promised to be at the head of the queue is a triumph of leadership to behold.

The curiously low-key announcement from the two Associate Ministers of Education that the national school curriculum is to be “refreshed” to make it “clearer, more relevant [and] easier to use” has huge implications for current and future students, and arguably deserved more critical attention than it has received to date. In view of its significance the announcement should have attracted more prominence and initiated an immediate and active public debate about what the refresh should entail.

According to the Ministers, over the next three-to-four years, each learning area in the New Zealand Curriculum will be refreshed – beginning with “Aotearoa New Zealand’s histories” in the Social Sciences learning area this year, followed by the content for Mathematics, English and Science learning areas in 2022.

They intend to review the large number of achievement objectives currently in the curriculum to provide greater clarity about progress across the curriculum to ensure all learners are reaching the milestones they need to – something which sounds remarkably like a return to the National Standards the previous government introduced, and which Labour and the teacher unions railed so vehemently against.

The Ministers also said that the review will seek to strike a balance between the learning that is important nationally and that which is relevant locally, and professional learning and development is being prioritised to better support schools to develop their local curriculum.

This all sounds positive and worthy, although little detail has yet been provided about how and by whom the review will be carried out, other than the vague and somewhat pious comment from the Ministers that the review will be developed collaboratively with opportunities at all stages for the education sector, learners, parents and whanau to be involved.

It is an ambitious programme with the potential to shape the shape of our education system and what children will be taught for decades to come. For that reason alone the refresh needs to be thorough and future focused.

One of our greatest Prime Ministers, Peter Fraser famously said, “all persons, whatever their level of ability, whether they live in town or country, have a right as citizens to a free education of the kind for which they are best fitted and to the fullest extent of their powers.”

That ambition is as relevant today as it was when Fraser was Minister of Education in the late 1930s, although the greater impact of globalism today means that those educational opportunities now must be seen in a broader, more internationally relevant context, something Fraser, an avowed internationalist in his time, would have surely embraced.

In that regard, the Ministers’ reference to a striking a balance between what is important nationally and what is relevant locally seems somewhat narrow and potentially insular. Surely the balance, particularly in Mathematics and Science, has to be as much on what is relevant and being taught internationally, as it is on local factors within New Zealand?

In a future world dominated by the impact of, and response to, climate change, and now the outbreak of pandemics, access to and learning about the latest and best knowledge in these areas has to be both a priority for New Zealand students and a key focus of our education system. By all means, though, use that information in a way that is relevant to local circumstances, but it would be remarkably short-sighted and a huge disservice to future generations of New Zealand students if a commitment to a curriculum focused primarily on national and local factors means that international benchmarking becomes a secondary consideration.

A similar argument could be made in respect of the refresh of the English curriculum. A focus on New Zealand literature and language – both indigenous and contemporary – is vital and deserves its prominence. We have a rich collection of our own writers whose work over the last century has contributed so much to our language and identity to draw from.

At the same time, the impact the great writers of earlier times had on the development of the English language cannot be ignored. The impact of William Shakespeare, for example, both in terms of the standardisation of grammar, spelling and vocabulary; the introduction of many now everyday phrases, and the development of the art of poetry, means that he cannot be disregarded in any study of the English language, even though he died nearly five hundred years ago. While contemporary New Zealand English and language is evolving dramatically the link to its various origins cannot be overlooked.

The Ministers have prudently set a reasonable timetable of the next three to four years for carrying out the refresh. That is sufficient time to ensure that all the issues can be properly addressed and consulted upon, without losing the momentum for change. Nevertheless, it will be vital to involve the wider community to the greatest extent practical to secure its buy-in. This is necessary not only because of the fundamental importance of the school curriculum to New Zealand’s future, but also because such changes as are made need to be sustainable over time. The last thing our future students deserve is a future government taking office and starting another major review, before the results of the current have had a chance to bed-in properly, and their impact assessed.

For that reason, the refresh process needs to be broadly based and inclusive. It cannot become captured and driven by education sector vested interests, or the opportunity to inject a particular ideological flavour into the curriculum. While it needs to reflect our increasing national diversity, it must also seek to empower all students, regardless of background or circumstances, to seize the opportunities that will become available to them. 

In many regards, Peter Fraser’s template is still a relevant starting point for the contemporary curriculum. In short, its aim should be to ensure that every New Zealand student leaves school with the skills and experiences necessary to prosper, according to their abilities, in today’s world.

Ultimately, however, whatever particular decisions are reached, the success of the refresh will be determined by its implementation. The Ministers have acknowledged in their initial comments that teachers will need “greater clarity and guidance on what to teach and when.” This implicit commitment to more effective resourcing of teachers in the implementation of the new curriculum is positive.

Alongside the curriculum refresh the Government needs to be constantly focusing on improving teacher performance. Our best teachers are outstanding but not all fit that category, yet every student has the right to expect that they will get the best experience available to them.

As a profession teaching needs to be enhanced to achieve that, to ensure students are getting an education that meets the highest international standards. Parents should be demanding no less of the education system, schools and the government.  

Last week’s announcement presents a potentially positive opportunity for young New Zealanders growing up in a world grimly dominated by climate change and the recent impact of the Covid-19 pandemic. 

For their sakes, it is critical the Government get this refresh right, and delivers a curriculum that is relevant, encourages new thinking and innovation, and offers future generations the best starting point to their futures.

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