Chris Hipkins doesn't want education curriculum to become 'political football' after National plan 'rewrite'

Prime Minister Chris Hipkins doesn't want to see the education curriculum become a "political football" after the National Party announced it would "rewrite" it if elected.

National leader Christopher Luxon on Wednesday morning announced the curriculum would be re-written under a National Government to include "non-negotiable" skills that primary and intermediate schools must cover for each year group across reading, writing, maths and science. 

"At the moment, one curriculum level can span several school years which makes it difficult to identify and help children who are falling behind," Luxon said.

The policy will be fully unveiled on Thursday, but the National leader said it's necessary due to what he called the "alarming" state of education in New Zealand. 

He pointed to a recent NCEA pilot which found two-thirds of students couldn't meet minimum writing standards. New standards corequisite to NCEA are being developed for a 2024 rollout. 

But Hipkins, the former Education Minister, said curriculum matters are usually approached on a bipartisan basis with incoming governments instead of rewriting the curriculum "to suit their own political agenda".

"We try and achieve a bipartisan consensus around curriculum because I think that is something where we should be able to reach agreement.

"Of course, we agree that there are some basics where we can do better. Reading, writing, maths - those are foundation skills every young person should have.

"The curriculum rewrite that's underway at the moment where we are still trying to strive for that bipartisan consensus, I think is an opportunity to explore that."

He said he'd "hate" to see parties putting "specific curriculum initiatives up in their manifestos".

"That hasn't been a feature of our recent New Zealand political history because I think parents, kids, teachers deserve to know that we've got a stable curriculum regardless of who the government is. I just don't want it to become a political football."

Speaking from Dawson Primary School in Otara, Auckland on Wednesday morning, Luxon reiterated how "alarmed" he is about education. 

"It is the single biggest issue that has kept me awake since I've become the leader of the National Party," he said. "It's the single biggest constraint for us doing well in the world. If we can build a world-class education system, we can have a world-class standard of living."

He said New Zealand's standard of education should be coming second to any country around the world.

National's education spokesperson Erica Stanford said teachers can contextualise the learning to individual students but there must be a "base expectation" for each year of the skills and knowledge needed to succeed at high school. 

She said having children in bands means some kids "get lost" and fall behind. This then isn't picked up until later when they sit formal exams at high school, she said. 

"It's not about failing and passing, it's about having non-negotiable levels of progress along the way," she said.

"Teachers are amazingly skilled at being able to understand where kids are at in the curriculum. Some will come in who are behind and they will need to be learning at a level behind.

"But then what we've got is a curriculum that tells teachers exactly how to progress them through so that they can catch up and we don't have that at the moment."

National said the Government should be more ambitious than it is through the current curriculum refresh, first announced by the Government in 2021. 

The refresh replaces year levels and achievement objectives with five phases of learning - essentially groups of year levels - that are "the signposts that guide the learning pathway". 

"Each phase of learning contains progress outcomes that describe what ākonga should understand, know, and do at each phase of learning," the Ministry of Education said. 

Consultation is currently underway on a draft framework for the refreshed curriculum.