our work in nz

Closing the gap for Kiwi kids

Out of 38 OECD countries, New Zealand ranks 33rd when it comes to education equality.

By Andre Whittaker, UNICEF NZ Child Rights Director

I read this report with great sadness, because as I read it I see the future of children being mapped out before they are even born, and too many of them are being set up to fail.

The 2018 UNICEF Innocenti Report Card measures education equality within OECD countries. New Zealand doesn’t do well. Out of 38 countries, New Zealand ranks 33rd overall.

Basically, the gap between our highest-performing and lowest-performing pupils is bigger than almost all countries we are being measured against.

New Zealand is one of only three countries, alongside Australia and Slovakia, to rank in the bottom third for all three measures.

This doesn’t mean New Zealand’s education system is bad - many of our top pupils are doing very well when compared with their international peers. It simply means that it is not working equally for all.

We have the worst rates of bullying at school. We have the second widest gap in primary school reading comprehension. We have the sixth largest reading gap among 15-years-olds. The achievement gaps emerge before preschool, carry on through primary school, and continue into secondary school.

What the report doesn’t get into is why? It acknowledges that the situation in every country is different. But here in New Zealand the why has been building for decades, and it should come as little surprise.

We know that children whose parents work in professional jobs do better. We know that children in wealthier neighbourhoods do better. We know that children who don’t live in material hardship do better. We know that children who are not bullied do better. And we know that children who are surrounded by their own culture and language do better.

Overwhelmingly, it is our Māori and Pacific kids who are missing out. As a nation we should be appalled by that - we have allowed a system to develop where a specific group of children are overrepresented in almost every negative statistic. A system where the uniqueness of their mana has been ignored.

That means by the time many children start school, they’re starting at a disadvantage.

Imagine that a child’s education is like a road trip, and the usual fuel or rest stops along the way are things like libraries, parks, healthcare, financial security. Lots of children manage to have all those stops, making their journey much more comfortable, faster, safer. But other children don’t have access to all those stops. Their trip is longer, harder, less comfortable. Some may not even make it to the end.

Imagine dropping off your child for their first day of school, and knowing they were already destined to do less well because of nothing more than circumstance. Imagine how crushing that must be. I struggle to believe that anyone could be happy about a system that has allowed and entrenched this for generations.

UNICEF is there to stand for those children who have been failed by the system and society. This is not a matter of blame. It is a matter of fairness.

We’ve all let this happen. Now it is on all of us to fix it.

So what do we do about it? For a start, it’s not about dragging the best-performing kids down, but about supporting those kids doing least well up to achieve the same level.

To do that, we need to acknowledge that all children have the right to a good education, and that all children have a unique “mana” that needs to be recognised.

But enhancing mana means different things to different cultures, and we need to understand what those things are in order to do it well for all children.

We need to invest more resources for at-risk pupils.

We need to train our teachers so that they can better recognise and work to reduce instances of institutional bias.

And we need to understand that it is not acceptable to allow more children to carry down a path of underachievement.

Only then can we truly say that our world-class education system is working well, for every child.

To read the UNICEF report, click here.