A CONVERSATION WITH ALWYN POOLE
In 2022, after being alerted to shockingly poor levels of numeracy and literacy among New Zealand’s school leavers, the Ministry of Education finally assessed what was happening. In tests given to 15-year-old students, only two-thirds passed the reading tests, just over half passed numeracy – and writing was even worse, with only one-third passing.
Some have called it a national disgrace …
Barely a day goes by without the state of our schools being discussed in parliament and newspapers, talkback radio and online media. So, we reached out to a well-known figure in the New Zealand education system, ALWYN POOLE, to get his thoughts on what’s going on … how we can stem the decline … and the vital role parents play in giving their children the greatest chance of success.
As a school founder, past principal and academic consultant (amongst other things), his extensive teaching career and study have qualified him more than most to help answer the question: Why is education such a hot topic at the moment?
ALWYN POOLE: Because people like me have made it one! And that’s true of anything. I think it was All Black coach John Hart who was once asked, “Are you bothered by the amount of criticism around the All Blacks at the moment?” And he replied, “Well, it would be a lot worse if people weren’t talking about them!” An issue is created by outspoken people. And there is no issue if you can’t, 1) highlight what’s going wrong, and 2) provide some evidence.
So, in New Zealand, we’ve known for a long time that a significant number of our children are failing in our school system.
GRAPEVINE: How are they failing?
ALWYN: Well, for starters, 10,000 school-aged kids in New Zealand are not enrolled anywhere! They’re in the wind. These aren’t home-schoolers or anything like that. They’re just not on anyone’s books.
And then we’ve got a significant number of students who aren’t attending school full-time. These numbers are accentuated in what used to be called lower decile schools. They’re now (just to confuse the issue) called schools with a higher Equity Index number. In other words, the higher the equity number, the more ‘disadvantaged’ students you’ve got.
And unfortunately, these numbers are accentuated for Māori and Pasifika students. Currently, we sit at about 50% full attendance across all school-aged kids, but it’s about 38% full attendance for Māori. Now, whether that’s to do with ethnicity or whether it’s to do with socioeconomics, the fact is this shouldn’t be happening. Public schools were designed to overcome these sorts of issues!
GRAPEVINE: There must be some significant fallout when numbers like these show up – right?
ALWYN: For sure! Cameron Bagrie (the economist) is very good with this stuff. He says it like this: If we want to know what New Zealand will look like (societally, economically) in 20 years, we need to look at our school system today.
In Auckland at the moment, for example, about 20% of those aged 18 to 25 are not in education, employment, or training. And we have employers crying out for people to come out and work. Well, the people are there – they’re just sitting at home on a couch … well, maybe a metaphorical couch!
So, if we want to change that for the future, we’d better get busy and change what’s happening in education TODAY!
Now, don’t get me wrong. Some really good schools in New Zealand are doing exactly that. But, thinking from an economic perspective: how can we inspire a child to grow up and get a job? We have all these young people who’ve grown up and don’t have this sense of … I ought to be working … I ought to go out and earn something.
I mean, when you look through someone’s qualifications, if they have Levels 2 or 3 NCEA, University Entrance, an apprenticeship or a trade qualification, or a university degree … you know that (generally speaking) their income levels go up accordingly.
So the better qualified a young person is, the better they’ll be able to pay for an overseas experience … provide for their family … save for a house – all of those things. And if they’re not achieving that through our education system, there really is no other avenue.
That’s why I say it’s crucial, absolutely crucial, that we keep our children in school. We shouldn’t be getting stats like this in 2023.
GRAPEVINE: But we used to have a world-class education system, right? We certainly used to skite about it back in the day!
ALWYN: Comparatively, yes. But you need to look at why we were successful. I don’t know about the quality of teachers that you had, but I only remember two-and-a-half good teachers in my whole schooling. It might sound tough, but I’m pretty honest! Both my boys went to Auckland Grammar, and I asked them one day how many good teachers they had during their collective 10 years at high school. They got to five.
I think that in New Zealand during the 1970s and 80s, we had strong links between family values and the values of our schools. And while our qualification system wasn’t perfect (and I’m not advocating going back to a School Certificate and University Bursary), it was easy to understand – which I think meant a lot.
The number of parents and families who still have no idea about NCEA is a real worry. And no idea about university entrance – what an accredited subject is, how you get it, and what the value of it is – all that kind of stuff. We’ve never explained it clearly, and it’s constantly being tampered with.
GRAPEVINE: So, was our education system world-class?
ALWYN: The answer is ‘probably’. But you’ve also got to remember that a lot of countries were slowly coming back from being devastated after World War II, etc – particularly Asian countries, which throughout the Pacific had been shattered. The same was true for some of the European countries.
And so, for a period of time, New Zealand’s education system stood still … based on its heritage and that set of family values. Since then, it has certainly declined – which is a tragedy that shouldn’t happen. And at the moment, unfortunately, we’re accentuating that.
GRAPEVINE: Aside from that ‘disconnect’ between family values and the school, what else went wrong?
ALWYN: There’s a range of things. I think the professionalisation of ECE (Early Childhood Education) has been problematic, because we’ve kind of said, in a roundabout way, that parents aren’t really the first teachers. Your role is to change some nappies … feed your kids … and, if you get a bit busy, put them in front of the iPad! And your children will start learning when you put them into a childcare facility or preschool.
Well, that’s nonsensical!
We now know a huge amount about what’s important for children and their development. David Eagleman from Stanford University is one of the world’s preeminent neuroscience communicators. He’s written a book called The Brain: The Story of You, which explains how parents play a vital role in this stuff. Starting from within the womb, we now know there are things for a mum to avoid – alcohol, drugs, stress, anger, smoking – that all harm the growing child.
But what can be beneficial? Because you can’t just take away harmful things and leave a vacuum! Well, the mother being fit and active … the mother eating well … the mother relaxing, doing things like reading, watching a good movie, listening to music – all of those things allow the baby within the womb to feel peaceful and help him or her develop best.
GRAPEVINE: When they reach the ‘ECE’ age, should parents still see themselves as their child’s first teacher?
ALWYN: Well, Eagleman goes on to talk about the first three years of a child’s development. We know, for example, that a child should hear thousands of words each day. I grew up in a relatively materially deprived home – I can’t even remember books. And for a long time, I wondered: how on earth did I learn anything? And then I remembered that my mother could bang on like no one else –she was like a chicken who had lost something! And I think I got so many words thrown into the mix that it was probably a very good thing!
Kids, when they are young, need to hear lots of words … lots of words! And they need to hear positive words. And they need their infantile formative efforts responded to – because when they’re saying something that sounds like gobbledygook to you, to them it makes sense!
That’s the formative part of their brain developing. And how you respond to that gobbledygook – whether you say you understand or don’t understand – is hugely important. If, for example, they say they’d like some yoghurt out of the fridge, and you say, “Honey, I don’t know what you want …” it creates a degree of frustration in them. They’re thinking, “I need to try again.” So, they will try again and again in that situation until they feel understood.
But if you’re ignoring them and palming them off … then they learn to not bother trying.
Eagleman makes this observation from the research done with the Romanian orphans, where people would go into these orphanages and find that the babies were silent. They had stopped crying because no one was responding to their crying. The neglect these children suffered during this time impacted their developing brains. People would adopt these kids (because that was a good thing to do) – but getting them back to where they could be stimulated again was often very difficult. They had basically shut down emotionally.
So, I think it’s vital we understand that in every young person’s life, parents are more important than schools. Parents are the first teachers.
GRAPEVINE: So, parents need to take some responsibility for our flagging education outcomes?
ALWYN: Absolutely. I think some of the responsibility lies with parents and parenting. And, as a society, we also need to take responsibility for that.
Look, if we send our kids to school at five years old, in good shape (of course, there’ll always be some exceptions), then our moderately good teachers will become better teachers – their job will be easier because they’re dealing with kids who can sit still and who have learned some of the basics of reading and maths.
Obviously, there are things within the system itself we need to improve. For example, I’m critical of teachers who aren’t good enough. But we’ve got to be very realistic about parenting and the need for parents to do a really good job. And we’ve got to get the information out there. It’s tempting to think everyone knows this stuff – that you’re supposed to talk to kids, and you’re supposed to be positive – but they don’t!
I was at the supermarket the other day, and this little kid was there who wasn’t being particularly naughty. But his mother, in front of everyone, calls him a little s***! And, you know, if you’re prepared to talk to him like this out in public, what do you say to him in private?
GRAPEVINE: So parents carry some responsibility … but surely teachers, schools, and the government must take some of the blame, right?
ALWYN: I think significant fault lies at the feet of the Ministry of Education. For starters, at the upper level of the ministry (the top eight or nine), only one has any teaching experience! Most of them are long-term bureaucrats who have gone from one department to another – so they can talk the language, but I don’t think they know what’s going on.
For instance, we had something the ministry imposed upon our teachers called the Numeracy Project – which was an example of someone trying to be innovative. But it was just a fledgling idea we threw at kids without any evidence that it worked. It was like giving kids a guitar and saying to them, “You work out how to play it!”
I remember being invited to a highly-rated school to observe a maths class, and I’ll never forget what happened. There were 30 kids aged 10, and the teacher gave them the problem, “We’ve got 220 M&Ms, and we’ve got 20 people. Here’s a sheet of A3 paper and some pens. Now go and work out how many M&Ms each person gets.” They were given 20 minutes to come up with an answer.
So these kids waddle off … and I’m watching one draw 20 squares, one dotting all the 220 M&Ms – all sorts of crazy stuff was going on! They returned after 20 minutes, and only 4 out of the 30 got it right. The teacher then asked, “Can anyone tell me the maths problem?” And not one of the kids went, “It’s 220 divided by 20.” Instead, they all said something that kind of sounded nice, and then the teachers congratulated the kids for trying!
In the debrief afterwards, I asked if it mattered that only 4 out of 30 got it right? And they were like, “No, no, no … they’re only 10!” And what about the fact that they also spent 20 minutes on a task that should only take 20 seconds? Why didn’t they just teach them to do division? – to show them 220 over 20, cancel the zeros, 22 divided by 2 is 11 …
We did this in New Zealand for several years to lots and lots of kids. We talked about all the creative ways, all the different strategies – but the thing is, there are simple principles that you have to follow in maths … and then there’s a time for creativity.
So, using the guitar illustration again, when you’ve learned the guitar basics – the chords and progressions, etc – then you can think about innovating and seeing what crazy sounds you can get out of it.
We did the same with reading, where someone decided that ‘whole language’ would be a great way of teaching kids to read. That you learn by context. But again, you must have the basics! You first have to be able to read well, to be able to then understand context and inference and things like that.
These ideas didn’t work, and (thankfully) we’re now looking at more of a structured learning approach.
GRAPEVINE: What about modern learning environments – how did they pan out?
ALWYN: Well, these were just imposed on us – it was the Ministry going rogue and figuring out how to get more bang for their buck! There was virtually no teacher support on how to manage a class of 90 among three adults … how to work in that environment with kids who maybe had a bit of ADHD, or were autistic, or didn’t have good hearing … things like that.
And then you couple those modern learning environments with this current philosophical approach of saying to kids, “You come and tell us what you want to learn and what your success factors will be.” Telling kids that they can define success in their own terms is a ridiculous thing to say. “Well, success for me is not going to school. I’m really happy sitting at home on the couch.”
So we did this to our kids. But it’s a pendulum swing that I hope is coming back …
GRAPEVINE: You mentioned being critical of teachers who weren’t good enough. Obviously, there are some incredible teachers out there, but how did those who aren’t up to standard fall through the cracks?
ALWYN: I think we’ve undervalued the qualifications and qualities teachers need to be good teachers. And maybe that’s because we’ve been a bit desperate in terms of numbers.
But many of our primary teachers admit that they’re uncomfortable teaching science and teaching maths above a certain basic level. To me, that’s a really easy fix. Our qualification should require teachers to have at least level 2 maths and at least one level 2 science and English.
And if we have existing teachers in our classrooms who, for example, don’t have level 2 science, give them some professional development time to get it. That would add real value to our schools.
GRAPEVINE: One of the good things that happened around the world during the Covid response, was that many parents took much more notice about what their kids were learning at school – particularly around sex education – which has caused some pushback from some families. What’s been going on?
ALWYN: Well, in 2020 some documents were published called Relationship and Sexuality Education. It didn’t come out with much fanfare, but it was a major change to the curriculum. Up until that point, we had quite a well-known system (not always good – but at least well-known!) called sex-ed. In our schools, we used Attitude to teach this because their values fit with ours – and it was good for the kids to talk to someone other than the teachers, because that can be a bit embarrassing!
But parents knew that, firstly, the school had to consult with them, and secondly, if they didn’t particularly agree with what was being taught, they could withdraw their child from the class. That’s really important – parents have sovereignty over that, and their values must be respected in that situation. Now, for me personally, sex education actually belongs in the home.
Anyway, now the Relationship and Sexuality Education addition to the curriculum is being effectively imposed by boards of trustees (who have to do the planning and imposition of this) across every subject area. And the year one to eight documents are particularly disturbing. For instance – and this might be one of the more extreme examples, but it’s indicative – if you’re teaching science to years one to eight, you’re supposed to teach them about the role of puberty blockers.
I’m like, what the heck? Because around the world, scientists (and others) are saying they don’t even think puberty blockers are a very good idea. And a lot of psychologists agree, saying that we’re confusing kids at a time when they’re incredibly vulnerable.
So there’s a bit of a growing movement going on at the moment – and I think it’s a positive one – to let kids be kids. Don’t impose adult problems on children because, ideologically, you want them to grow up thinking a certain way. Let them be kids.
Thankfully, there is pushback against this Relationship and Sexuality Education – it’s a really big moral issue that parents need to be involved in.
The Ministry of Education is completely ignorant of the feeling on the ground. And, by and large, they don’t really care. They have a specific agenda that they want to impose, and they’re very powerful. But parents have to equally impose their will back on them, and say, “You’re not going to inflict this upon our children!” It’s critically important we do this – parents need to be involved.
I think this is one reason why a lot of parents are now saying, “We’re going to homeschool for a while. We’re going to make sure we know what’s being taught, and we’re going to be involved.” And I don’t think that’s a bad idea at all. Sometimes, you have to walk away and go: We’re going to do things differently.
GRAPEVINE: I know you advocate having a crown entity (a government department) for parenting in New Zealand. What’s one of the messages you’d like to get out to parents?
ALWYN: Like I said earlier, they are their child’s first teacher. Many parents will say that they can’t wait for their kids to start school so they can learn to read … no, no, no, NO! YOU are their first teacher! Sit on the couch and read to them every night.
It’s a story I’ve told before, but when my oldest was just under three, we’d finished a book, and I asked him to go and choose another one. And so, he wanders off and returns with The Lord of the Rings. Now, we were young and pretty naive parents (which we all are – as Nathan Wallis says, kids don’t come with a manual!). Anyway, I said, “Yeah … okay. I’ll make a start, but every night, you’ve gotta tell me what happened the night before, and then I’ll read it.”
And so, it took eight months, but he adored it! And then, a couple years later, his little brother wanted it read, so I read it to both of them. And then a couple years later again, his sister wanted it read! I read to them every night from when they could sit up to when they were 14. And it’s a neat time. It’s not just the reading of the book. It’s that quality time – sitting still together, typically after dinner … and, well, I wouldn’t trade it for the world!
GRAPEVINE: How does the modern, busy parent find time to do this with their kids?
ALWYN: People often say parents are too busy. Well, you had the kids, so sit down with them and read – it might also do you good! Take turns, if one of you doesn’t always have the time … get Nana involved – there’s always a way. And you’re introducing children to remarkable characters.
I saw an old couple down the road painting a fence the other day, and I immediately thought of Tom Sawyer and that they were doing it all wrong! They should have harangued everyone walking past until a team of 20 was painting the fence! (Ed: you need to read Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer to understand this reference!)
Look, this is the best time ever to grow up – but only if the adults of the world give their very best to the next generation.