David Seymour appeared today outside his old high school to deliver his vision of the education system.

At the gates of Auckland Grammar School, the Act leader announced a wide-spanning education policy that would allow failing schools to be subsumed by successful ones, and force big changes on the school curriculum.

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Seymour said the raft of changes would cut red tape and prevent the Ministry of Education from micro-managing schools, while setting high performance standards to get the country out of what he called a “very large hole” in education.

But his calls to return to standardised testing and set up a league table of publicly accessible performance targets between schools has attracted criticism from the teachers union.

Liam Rutherford, teacher and former president of union NZEI Te Riu Roa, said the policy set schools and students up to fail.

“Standardised testing and league tables have failed before so there is no reason they would magically start working,” he said.

“Such an approach to testing cannot provide a comprehensive measure of educational achievement and can disadvantage already disadvantaged students, increasing educational inequity. At worst, and especially when coupled with ‘league tables’, it can lead to a narrowing of the curriculum and ‘teaching to test’.” 

Act wants stricter performance targets all the way down to four-year-olds, expanding the mostly optional B4 school checks that currently assess the health of preschool children to check their ability to hold a pencil correctly, read their own name and put a triangle through a triangular hole.

ECE providers who “consistently fail” to contribute to child development would lose their funding, although Seymour said the threshold had yet to be determined. 

He said it would be set at a level that wouldn’t force the majority of ECE centres to close, but would affect those at the bottom of the target list.

When questioned as to whether this was a wise policy due to the shortage of ECE teachers, Seymour said it would only affect funding for specific centres rather than the working ability of the teachers themselves.

Virginia Oakly, an ECE teacher and representative of NZEI Te Riu Roa, said it was disappointing to see full pay parity for ECE teachers left by the wayside, and questioned the stricter B4 school checks.

She said testing a four-year-old’s knowledge of the alphabet would be hard to enforce, while punishing centres by withdrawing funding if those four-year-olds “failed” would disproportionately affect centres with high numbers of children with learning support needs, and second language learners. 

Stricter measures would also apply to schools deemed to be failing. Instead of commissioners coming in to take the reins of failing schools, a tendering process would open for other schools to take over operation.

Seymour said there was a risk of schools overextending themselves, but said it could have benefits like economies of scale.

“You could have one school leader who has a lot of talent, but their talent is spread across two schools,” he said. “They might be able to do a lot of back-office admin that would be serving a larger number of students; they might actually become more efficient as a result of having a wider network.”

He compared the system to other countries where school boards oversee multiple schools.

“This idea of having multiple campuses is not a new thing,” he said. “It’s actually the norm in most of the world.”

A traffic light system would be enacted giving the public information on absence rates across schools, and centralised truancy services would instead be contracted by individual schools.

Act would also make big changes to the curriculum, altering the Ministry of Education’s role from curriculum writer to curriculum approver. Instead, teachers would have a range of course material they could pick and choose from.

“Something that you might consider comparable to an app store for teachers,” Seymour said.

The policy would change the current curriculum but also clamp down on the ability to easily make changes in future, nominally to prevent the “curriculum wars” of the United States.

Changes to the curriculum would include removing “government-imposed value judgments” from subjects like history. Act’s policy document said the current history curriculum divides the past into “villains and victims, contains significant gaps, and pushes a narrow set of highly political stories from our past”.

When questioned on what gaps the history curriculum has, Seymour said there was very little taught about the period between Māori arrival in New Zealand and European arrival.

“There’s a real gap there, and I think that students should be learning about that whole period rather than Māori basically arrived and then got colonised,” he said.

And what about these political stories?

Seymour said the history curriculum is too focused on what he describes as “quite left-wing philosophical concepts”.

“Where was the place of business, of technology, of civil society, of fashion,” he said. “New Zealand’s history is a lot richer than victims and villains and colonisation.”

The policy essentially allows the free market to take a greater hand in setting the curriculum, with curriculum writers applying to have their materials available from the Ministry of Education and then receiving royalties based on how popular they are.

Seymour said the model would “depoliticise curriculum writing because people would then have a range of choices that people could opt for”.

Act’s policy document calls the current curriculum a “political weapon” and criticises Mātauranga Māori being brought into science classes.

But for any of these policies to fully go through, Seymour would have to have a good result at the negotiating table with National.

He was critical of the performance of both Prime Minister Chris Hipkins and National leader Christopher Luxon at the first leaders’ debate the night before, saying whoever won, they would need a good coalition partner.

“I would argue from last night’s debate that Act was the real winner because it showed the need for real choice and real change,” he said.

But he has been reticent to say which of his policies would be off the table if it came to making a deal with Luxon, and said the circumstances would dictate fiscal policy more than pet policies.

“We’re not going to negotiate through the media with each other, we have a strong personal relationship, with clear professional differences, and we’re going to work through those together if the people choose us.”

Matthew Scott covers immigration, urban development and Auckland issues.

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