27 Apr 2014

Teaching in spotlight at NZ summit

4:33 pm on 27 April 2014
Radio New Zealand Education Correspondent John Gerritsen.

Radio New Zealand Education Correspondent John Gerritsen. Photo: RNZ

Nearly 400 education ministers and teacher representatives from around the world converged on Wellington recently for the International Summit on the Teaching Profession. Education correspondent John Gerritsen reports for Insight.

New Zealand got a nasty shock when the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) published the results from the most recent of its three-yearly Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) tests of 15-year-olds late last year.

PISA is a worldwide study of pupils' scholastic performance in mathematics, science and reading. It was first performed in 2000 and is repeated every three years.

New Zealand had slipped out of the top group of nations in reading and science, and tumbled to barely above the OECD average in maths.

New Zealand's 15-year-olds are slipping back in world PISA rankings.

New Zealand's 15-year-olds are slipping back in world PISA rankings. Photo: PHOTO NZ

So when the leaders of some of the top-performing education systems in the world gathered in Wellington, it was a golden opportunity to find out what this country could be doing better.

The International Summit on the Teaching Profession is run by the OECD and the global federation of teacher unions - Education International.

Over two days, the 25 nations attending the event swapped ideas about how to improve their education systems, with a focus on the achievement gap between children fom wealthy homes and poor children.

That is a big issue for New Zealand, which has a particularly large gap between rich and poor students. The OECD estimates 18 percent of the variation between students' PISA scores in this country is because of socio-economic factors.

That might not sound like a lot, but it's one of the biggest gaps in the developed world and in high-performing countries such as Canada and Hong Kong the difference is more like nine or seven percent.

What then are some of the answers?

Hong Kong's representative at the summit credited the region's success in PISA to strong government investment, and a school system that encourages students to follow their strengths and does not assess them solely through tests and exams.

Canada says it does well because schools have a great deal of autonomy and parents have a lot choice, while Finland attributed its success to a culture that values education and holds teachers in high regard.

Students in Hong Kong are encouraged to follow their strengths and are not assessed solely through tests and exams.

Students in Hong Kong are encouraged to follow their strengths and are not assessed solely through tests and exams. Photo: AFP

The OECD's deputy director for education and skills, Andreas Schleicher, says the systems that do well in PISA tend to have high expectations, which are evident not only in government policies, but in the mindset of school children themselves.

"You can see that particularly in east Asia, when we ask children, 'what makes you successful in mathematics?', those children consistently tell you, 'it's an issue of if I try hard, if I study well, I trust my teachers are going to help me and I'm going to be successful'.

Andreas Schleicher answers questions during the summit. Beside him are Education Minister Hekia Parata and Education International senior consultant, John Bangs.

Andreas Schleicher answers questions during the summit. Beside him are Education Minister Hekia Parata and Education International senior consultant, John Bangs. Photo: RNZ

"If you see countries that are not doing so well, typically students say 'well, it's all a matter of talent, of the context where I come from, of the money that I have'. In the former case, school is helping everyone to leverage their talent. And I think that's the real differentiator," he says.

Mr Schleicher says another important indicator of success is how schools are resourced.

"In high performing countries and equitable countries, the system is very good in attracting the most talented teachers into the most challenging classrooms and getting great principals for tough schools. That's not the case in the majority of countries.

"In the majority of countries, resourcing is regressive. You come from a better neighbourhood you get a better teacher and a better school, and you come from a poorer neighbourhood and you're penalised twice - part is your own background and part is the poorer-resourced school and I think changing that balance, tying the resources to the challenge, is one of the things that we can learn how to do."

But the global federation of teacher unions, Education International, warns that not everyone is heeding those lessons.

The general secretary of Education International, Fred van Leeuwen, says education systems world-wide are locked in a struggle between two opposing visions.

"The first one is grounded in the understanding that without highly-qualified, self-starting and motivated teachers there is little chance of all children getting the education they deserve. The second vision is sustained by the illusion that education can be delivered more cheaply and efficiently by the private sector, preferably with fewer, less-qualified staff and a liberal dose of one-size-fits-all online programmes."

Mr van Leeuwen says New Zealand does not appear to be going down the path of privatisation and a weakened teaching profession, and its teacher unions are strong enough to ensure things stay that way.

But he is worried by the government's experiments with charter schools - the publicly funded private schools it is calling partnership schools - and by plans to appoint non-teachers to teachers' registration and disciplinary body, the Teachers Council.