Increased spending won't fix Kiwi students' academic decline - report

A new look into what's going wrong with New Zealand's education system says it's unlikely we'll be able spend our way out of the problem.

Over the past 15 years Kiwi kids' academic performance has fallen behind their international peers, despite rising NCEA pass rates. 

The decline shows up in three different surveys - the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS), the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) and the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA). For example, last year 13-year-olds scored their worst-ever results in TIMSS; and in 2019 Kiwi 15-year-olds had their worst-ever PISA results in reading, maths and science. 

On Tuesday think-tank the New Zealand Initiative released its latest report, Educational Performance and Funding in New Zealand: Are our children getting the education they deserve?. The conclusion? Further increasing spending won't reverse the decline.

"We've been spending more on education but we're getting less," said David Law, co-author. 

"You would like to think that when you put more resources into a problem, you get more out of it... We've actually over the last 15 or so years spent quite a lot more on education on a per pupil basis. Relative to other countries in the OECD - a group of well-off countries we normally compare ourselves to - we used to spend relatively little and get really good results; now we're about average-spending, and get average results."

In 2006, New Zealand's spending per student was near the bottom quartile in the OECD for both primary education (21st out of 28 countries) and secondary (24th out of 33). By 2017, primary spending was only just below average and secondary spending slightly above. 

"We used to be head of the class 20 years ago in maths, about fourth in that survey - now we're 27th," said Dr Law. "It means our 15-year-old kids today are only about as good as 13-and-a-half-year-old children 20 years ago."

New Zealand Initiative spending decline
Photo credit: New Zealand Initiative.

In real terms, spending rose $2100 a year per primary school pupil and $2700 per secondary school student.

"That's really surprising - we've had a really large increase in both absolute and relative... spending, yet our performance has been declining over the same period."

Beyond a certain level - about US$50,000 between ages six and 15 - Dr Law says there appears to be no additional benefit to be had by increasing education spending. 

"OECD evidence says for countries that spend a relatively large amount on education, it isn't about spending more... it's about how we teach, what we teach and how we assess. Don't get me wrong - I'm not advocating that we need to spend less on education, certainly not... we can't rely on more money as a magic bullet in education." 

The report says NCEA - in which students earn credits for achieving certain standards, and get their qualification once a certain number of credits have been attained - could be masking the drop in performance. 

Newshub has contacted the Ministry of Education and its minister, Chris Hipkins, for comment. Last year, when a previous NZ Initiative report blamed students' declining performance on the "flawed philosophy" of "child-centred learning", the ministry said a "great many factors influence their progress and learning".

Several teacher groups, including the Principals Federation, last year blamed the declining results partly on the previous National-led Government's National Standards programme, as well as the difficulty of finding teachers with the ability to teach complex subjects like science.