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The Nation: Lisa Owen interview Hekia Parata

Press Release – The Nation

On The Nation: Lisa Owen interview Hekia Parata Headlines: In answer to suggestion that more Maori and Pasifika NCEA students are doing skills-based unit standards instead of academic standards, the outgoing Education Minister Hekia Parata says …On The Nation: Lisa Owen interview Hekia Parata
In answer to suggestion that more Maori and Pasifika NCEA students are doing skills-based unit standards instead of academic standards, the outgoing Education Minister Hekia Parata says “We need more people in trades. We need more automotive engineers, plumbers, electricians and so forth. So the skills-based approach is not somehow inferior to going to university.”

Hekia Parata admits the gap between Maori and Pakeha achievement in NCEA is still not good enough, and there is more to do. She also says the government is “not satisfied” with the number of NEETs – young people not in education, employment or training, or with the country’s PISA results.

Lisa Owen: Hekia Parata is leaving Parliament after nine years as an MP and six as education minister. She’s made some controversial moves but also seen some successes, so what will her personal report card read? Well, she joins me now. Good morning, minister.
Hekia Parata: Kia Ora.
Education minister, so what is your grade? What is the grade you’d give yourself? A, B, C or D?
Oh, I think that’s very much for parents and schools to make that decision. My focus has been on how do we build on a strong system to be even stronger and future-focused and ensure that every kid gets a great education.
At the very least, will you leave being satisfied with what you’ve achieved?
Okay, well, let’s look at some of that, then. A significant increase in the number of Maori getting NCEA Level 2 since 2008. How big an achievement is that?
Oh, that’s a huge achievement. It’s a huge achievement for Maori and Pasifika kids, because when we came into government, less than one out of two were leaving with our minimum qualifications, and now Maori are nearly at 75 per cent and Pasifika at nearly 80 per cent. But all population groups have gone up. These ones are now much more – Maori and Pasifika – are now much more in the mainstream of acquiring qualifications, leaving with the better possibilities for their future.
Okay, but let’s look—burrow down to some of the detail, because Maori students are achieving in some different areas to Pakeha students, aren’t they? They’re doing more skills and vocational courses than academic. Is that how you wanted it to go?
I don’t agree with you. I don’t think you can stay one ethnic population is doing this kind of course and others are doing that. I know that there have been assertions that the NCEA credits that young Maori and young Pasifika are attaining are all unit standards. That’s not borne out by the evidence.
Well, if you look at the 2015 numbers in details, in decile one schools, 56 per cent of Maori were doing unit standards skills – vocational stuff, rather than academic courses.
So they were doing a mix of both unit and academic, and here’s the thing to know – we have a national qualifications framework that makes plain what it is everybody’s doing. We need more people in trades. We need more people become automotive engineers, becoming plumbers, becoming electricians and so forth. So the skills-based approach is not somehow inferior to going to university. The right pathway for the right kid is the right pathway for them.
I think people would accept there are different pathways, but again, if you look at those 2015 stats, 14 per cent of Maori studied Level 2 Science, whereas 28 per cent of Asian students did in comparison. And the question is, really, how does that help more Maori into university and into a high-wage economy? Yes, some people are always going to go into the trades, but I’m talking about people who may have other options, but they’re not there.
Typically in New Zealand, about 30 per cent of New Zealand school kids go on to university. That’s about the number. Traditionally, in the past, the whole focus has been on those young people who are going to university. What our government has done has made the whole qualifications framework available, and we do – it’s great that we’re having this debate now, isn’t it, because we’re debating it against what young Maori and young Pasifika are doing, because they’re getting qualifications. Is there still more to be done in raising the quality of the qualifications? Absolutely. We need to be focusing much more on endorsements now at NCEA 2. We need to see more staying for NCEA 3. We need to see more participating in scholarship. And that’s the platform that is now in reach of those possibilities.
Do you think that you may have sacrificed a higher quality of education for an arbitrary target to aim for – getting 85 per cent of 18s and under an NCEA Level 2 qualification by 2017 was your target. Do you think by aiming for that target, there hasn’t been enough focus on the quality of the education?
I think it is the responsibility of a government to set high ambitions for its systems, and that’s what we’ve done in the education system.
It’s not likely that you’ll meet that target, though, is it, given the numbers you’ve got?
We will meet it. We will meet it.
Well, yes. The target is for 18-year-olds, and we meet it in the 2016 results, so we’re a year ahead. We’re talking at the moment though about school leavers, right?
Or at least, Year 12 students. So what we’ve got is the possibility of young people doing better. I mean, the full story of our education system is we’ve got more people involved in early childhood education, staying longer at school, less stand-downs and exclusions and leaving with better prospects.
That may be the case, minister, but there is still a huge gap between the achievement of Pakeha and the achievement of Maori. If you look at those NCEA figures, what is it? It’s about 13 per cent difference, isn’t it, still, at the moment?
Yeah, and I mean, but at 75 per cent, that’s 25 per cent better than it was at 50 per cent. So we’ve got a strong base to build from with even more to do.
But that’s good. I don’t think anyone’s taking away from that achievement, but that gap is still big, and are we expecting less from Maori students than we’re expecting from Pakeha students?
No, and again, just to be clear about what our process is, it’s not me as the minister of education, who chooses the credits and the subjects that students take. That is a discussion between students, their parents, family, whanau and the school. And so my expectation as minister of education that we raise achievement for every child then has to be executed at the school level.
So whose expectations are too low, then? Because why is there such a huge disparity? In your maiden speech, you said, “low expectations in schools is predictably repaid with low achievement.” So who is perhaps putting low expectations on these students?
Well, I think we’ve seen expectations rising across the system as we get—
But the gap is still 13 per cent.
Yes, but it’s not 50! It’s not 100 per cent. Of course we’ve still got to—
Is that good enough, then?
No, it isn’t good enough. It’s great we’re having this conversation, but what I’m saying is we have moved significantly from where it was. There is more to do. We do have to drive greater meaningful credits for all young people. The communities of learning that I have established recognise that it’s a whole pathway from nought to 18 years of age. It isn’t simply Year 12 when NCEA was being sat. So National Standards introduced by our government gives us greater insights into how well kids are doing in every year of their journey along the education pathway.
I do want to talk about National Standards, but before we do that; when Maori and Pasifika students do go to university, only two-thirds of Maori complete their degrees and only 55 per cent of Pasifika students. Do we know why?
That’s one of the reasons that we raised the standard of entry in terms of university entrance. We’ve lifted that because we’ve found that too many young people, young Maori in particular, were going to university and not able to complete their first year at university. So now, since 2014, university entrance has been more tightly calibrated to what’s required in doing a university degree. We’ve seen a dip in that, but that’s climbing back up again, and I am confident that it will continue to climb, and we will see more Maori completing degrees.
The thing is, statistically, would you not expect that Maori success rates – attaining NCEA, finishing their degree – would be on a par with Pakeha rates?
We would expect that, and that’s what we have been working towards.
So why do we still have these massive gaps?
Well, we’ve only been in government eight years, and we were—
Eight years is a long time, minister.
Yes, but look, what we inherited as a legacy was less than one in two Maori leaving with the minimum qualification. We now have it at three in four—out of four. That has a knock-on effect to the choices that young people can now make, whether it’s university, whether it’s into one of the vocational pathways. So that gap is closing. It’s still there. It’s not good enough, and we have more to do.
Those are the people who are still in the education system, but what about NEETS? These are people, 15 to 24 years old, who are not in employment, education or training. Now, the number of NEETS has increased under your government. Is that a failure of the education system?
It’s certainly a challenge for the education system, but it’s also a challenge for all the other levers that create these conditions, and that’s why our social investment approach is very much about which student, where, what resources, when. How do we make sure that we understand specifically who are the kids in the school that need what kind of support to get them across the line? We’ve had a great of success with our numbers to names to needs approach.
So that’s not enough? You accept that that’s not good enough?
Oh, we’re not satisfied.
92,700 kids in 2016 who were not in education, training or work.
Look, our government is constantly focused on how we improve, how we have the conditions for people to be able to live good and satisfying lives, and that’s what our social investment approach is about, and education is a critical, but not exclusive, part of that.
So National Standards – they’ve barely improved in about five years, so—
That’s not true, actually.
No, well, it is when you look at the stats. Reading 2013, 77.9 per cent achievement. By 2015, 78 per cent. So that’s less than a percent improvement.
Yeah, so one of the things—
Hang on, let’s just go through these. Writing, 2013, 70.5 per cent achievement. 2015, 71.4 per cent. Maths, 74.6. By 2015, 75.5. It’s tiny. Tiny.
Yep, so this is a new system of ensuring that in every classroom, from year one on, kids are making improvement. And what we have seen is National Standards has been bedding in. We have seen incremental improvement. I would be worried if we saw wild swings in those statistics, but what we have seen is incremental improvement.
But something in between, between wild swings and teeny-tiny, less-than-one-percent improvement would be better, wouldn’t it?
Yes, but they’re in the top-quartile one-percent improvements, right? So what we’ve got is teachers working really hard every day to bring about improvements in reading, in writing, in mathematics.
How much did that cost you? What was it — $250 million? Would that not have been better spent in retaining and upskilling teachers?
Well, we’re not taking an either-or approach. We have been investing in retaining and upskilling teaching.
But you can only spend a dollar once and that’s money you spent on a system that some people might say was ideologically driven.
Well, some people would be wrong then, because the international research absolutely supports in high-performing education systems that there must be clear, unambiguous and high standards set if we are to progress learning towards that.
OK. So PISA, which is a standardised international education ranking system – we’re hitting the skids there too, aren’t we? Because over the last 15 years—
Hang on. Over the last 15 years maths scores have dropped 42 points, reading 20 points, science 15 points. How is that not a bad result?
Well, I think if we look at the 2015 results, you’ll see that New Zealand is in the top 10 for reading. We’ve significantly improved in science.
But we’re still dropping. We might be in the top 10, but—
We’re not dropping. Sorry, you’re just wrong.
We dropped in those point scores.
No, because PISA is a dynamic league table. Nobody stands still where you just keep dropping. So New Zealand has—is stabilised at that point. But the point is—
Yes, because for instance, we’re higher than Australia. We’re higher than the UK. We’re higher than the United States, but we are below Hong Kong, Singapore, South Korea. So it is a mo—it’s a dynamic process. It’s one of the international pieces of research.
So you’re happy with where we’re at there?
No, not at all. I think we have to continue to work, but what I’m saying is in contrast to your persistent “this is negative, this is terrible”. It’s not. It’s factually where we are. We’ve made significant improvements and we have to continue, and that’s why our focus everywhere along the system – at National Standards, at Year 9 and 10, all the way through – has been across it, not just at one part of it. That’s why the Communities of Learning are such an important new operational crutch.
OK. I want to talk about funding because we’re running out of time. In real terms, per-child funding using Ministry of Education figures – you’re spending about $38 less now than when National came in, so I’m wondering how you can expect educational achievement to keep rising when you’re asking people to do more with less.
Again, I think that while averages can be useful, they’re not that helpful because we have increased—
So it doesn’t matter? It doesn’t matter that the total spending per child has gone down?
Well, if you’ll just let me finish, Vote Education has gone from 8 billion to 11 billion, so there has been a $3 billion increase. Averaging is one insight, but what we’re trying to do is say, “Which child where needs what kind of resources?”
OK, so on that note, Minister, you froze operational grants in order to target kids—
…in order to target kids at risk of underachievement.
That is not true. I know that’s the union’s assertion, but actually operational grants for 2017 are $1.35 billion, as well as the $12 million for targeting.
OK, well, let’s put it another way that you’ll perhaps accept, which is there’s the potential for about $80 per child to go to targeted funding for kids who are at high risk. So these are kids whose parents have had long-term benefit dependency. What about the kids of the working poor? Don’t they need as much help and as much input?
Yeah, so this is again—It’s neither one thing or the other. I mean, the binary propositions you’re putting to me is that if we’re funding there we can’t be funding elsewhere, but we are, obviously, because if we’re putting over a billion dollars into operational grants for all schools—
But there is a finite amount of money that you’re prepared to spend. There’s a finite amount of money that you’re prepared to spend.
That’s right, because we want hospitals and roads as well.
Yeah, so if some kids get it, other kids logically don’t.
No, that’s not true, because the way that we fund into schools is we provide a global amount of money. It’s been drawn from different formulas, but then schools decide how they’re going to spend it. Schools are the experts on what do they need for which of their children. These are not vouchers. We’re not saying, “For this child you should spend this amount of money.” We’re saying, “This is the formula by which we make up the funding that will come to your school.”
But isn’t the formula for these at-risk kids that they get a targeted amount of funding?
No, the children don’t get it. The school gets it.
The school gets it, yes. So that raises the next question – how do you know that it’s going to be spent raising the educational attainment of those kids that are most at risk of failing?
Because we’ve also introduced a very detailed data framework. We now have Communities of Learning, which are groups of schools using their data saying specifically, “What are our achievement challenges at Year 1, at Year whatever? Which learning areas specifically? How many young students specifically do we need to move from this level of reading to that level of reading?” And we have that reporting from schools. In the end it is schools that are the professionals. They make the decisions about how they cause learning to happen and they are the ones that need to be able to say, “It did have an impact. It didn’t. What do we do differently to ensure that we get every child the best education possible?”
Thank you so much for joining us. We’re out of time. We could keep talking. Thanks for being here.

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