We're judging schools wrong - report

A new study is criticising the country's leaders for refusing to admit failures in the education system.

The New Zealand Initiative looked abroad to see how other countries managed to turn around failing school systems.

In its report Fair and Frank, the think tank found one of the best ways to improve learning outcomes is to change the way in which school success is measured.

The authors recommend the Government put less emphasis on the number of students who pass NCEA level two (the old Sixth Form Certificate) and instead judge schools on the amount of progress pupils make throughout their schooling.

"Students don't start school with a blank slate," says Martine Udahemuka, who authored the report.

"A school with school-ready students may seem successful for meeting national targets even if its students underperform relative to their capabilities.

"Conversely, a school with many lower starting-ability students may seem a failure for not meeting national benchmarks even though its students may have progressed substantially."

She points to successful efforts in the UK, New York, Houston and elsewhere to transform schools - largely through bringing in private and/or independently run academies and charter schools, and changing how teachers are evaluated and paid.

Walworth School in southeast London was a "dire place", according to one of its former principals. A decade ago, fewer than 30 percent of its students met the minimum academic targets set by the Government.

In 2007 it was closed, and transformed into a privately run Walworth Academy. Last year, 99 percent of its senior class achieved their A levels - the British equivalent of our University Entrance requirement.

"It's a low socio-economic area, poor area, but once you walk into the school… it's like stepping into a completely different world," Ms Udahemuka told The AM Show.

"The students there look really proud, dressed neatly, disciplined, proud of what they were doing."

She  says there are dozens schools in New Zealand, identified by the Education Review Office (ERO), which are in the same boat Walworth was in 2007. Ms Udahemuka says around 20 of them have failed to improve their student outcomes for almost a decade.

The report points to systemic issues preventing these schools from improving, including:

  • the data doesn't show how students or schools are performing, given their starting points or student intake
  • teachers appraisal systems don't accurately show which are better at getting results
  • teacher turnover is rising, especially in lower-decile schools
  • ineffective leadership and teaching in poorly performing schools.

"The schools inspector [in the UK] was providing much better information about schools to parents. It was saying to parents, 'this school is a good school, this school is an outstanding school, this school requires improvement'.

"Whereas our Education Review Office reports, you really need to read between the lines, and you really need to know what you're looking for to know how a school is doing."

UK schools also get a day's notice of an inspection by the authorities, "compared to ERO's four to six weeks' notice".

The report comes a day after economist and philanthropist Gareth Morgan's new political party released its education policy.

NCEA, National Standards, and early childhood education would get an overhaul under the Opportunities Party, which is proposing free education from age three and wants to reduce testing of children.

"The whole testing obsession is basically a response to the vanity of parents, and the uncertainty parents have their little Johnny or Jenny's not doing so well," says Mr Morgan.

Under the policy, NCEA would only happen on the final year of secondary school.