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“Alarming number of young NZers leave school and go on to do nothing,” says Chris Hipkins

The Education Minister was on TVNZ 1’s Q+A programme to discuss a potential overhaul of NCEA.

“The question we have now got to ask ourselves is, ‘Where is that leading?’ Because in conjunction with increasing qualification attainment, of course, we have still got an alarming number of young New Zealanders who leave school and go on to do nothing. They don’t go into any form of education, training or employment beyond school.”

The outcome of the government’s NCEA review includes potential radical changes to NCEA including more focus on numeracy and literacy and a proposal for no external exams for NCEA Level 1. It also proposes making NCEA Level 1 a 40 credit qualification.

“Yeah, so what the advisory group have recommended is that it be cut right down to basically being a foundation-level qualification, so this is the certification of your basic skills that you will then need to go on and do Level 2 and Level 3 or whatever you do beyond school.”

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When asked whether our success rate will keep climbing, the Minister said, “No minister of education can guarantee that. What we can guarantee, of course, is that we’re going to put as much effort as we can into getting a rigorous and robust qualification, and then we’re going to resource schools and teachers to deliver on that.”

When asked about the promise to scrap school donations, the Minister Hipkins told Corin Dann, ‘it’s a promise that we’re absolutely committed to delivering on. We haven’t been able to deliver on it in the first budget.’

On the issue of pay the Minister told Q+A’s Corin Dann, ‘there’s a bargaining round coming up. I think teachers need to have realistic expectations around that’

And when asked about the higher cost of living in Auckland and an extra bonus for teachers there, the Minister said, ‘I understand that’s likely to be something that comes up in this year’s bargaining round, so of course, we’ll consider it if that’s what’s being asked for.’

Q + A
Episode 1811
Interviewed by CORIN DANN

CORIN Chris Hipkins, great to have you with us on Q + A.

CHRIS Good morning.

CORIN It is a big job. Researching for this, there is a lot to do. And I want to start first with NCEA. Because you have called for a review of that, and there are some findings of that review you have got this morning. First of all, why did you feel the need to change the qualification for secondary school students?

CHRIS Well, I think NCEA is working in terms of, you know, getting more kids achieving qualifications, and that is a very positive development. Over the lifespan of NCEA, we have seen increasing qualifications, particularly amongst those who weren’t succeeding in education previously. That is a great thing. The question we have now got to ask ourselves is, ‘Where is that leading?’ Because in conjunction with increasing qualification attainment, of course, we have still got an alarming number of young New Zealanders who leave school and go on to do nothing. They don’t go into any form of education, training or employment beyond school.

CORIN So, are you questioning the qualification itself, that it is not credible?

CHRIS Well, no, it is just a question of whether we have got everything right about the NCEA. I think now that the NCEA has been in place for a good 15-plus years, it is a good chance to look at it and say, ‘What is working, and what can be improved?’ Because there is clearly some improvements that can be made.

CORIN All right. Let us start with this. So NCEA Level 1, which, for people who perhaps are not familiar, it used to be School Certificate – that is what I sat many years ago. Under the recommendation you have released today, quite a big change there. You would sort of descale it. It would be halved in the number of points, from 80 to 40, and more focused on numeracy and literacy.

CHRIS Yeah, so what the advisory group have recommended is that it be cut right down to basically being a foundation-level qualification, so this is the certification of your basic skills that you will then need to go on and do Level 2 and Level 3 or whatever you do beyond school. So it actually reimagines it, not quite so much as a replacement for School Certificate, but something quite different. And then Level 2 and Level 3 will be where you demonstrate your skills in a particular area.

CORIN But there are some fishhooks, aren’t there? Because you’re saying at NCEA Level 1, you want a stronger focus on numeracy and literacy. So it’ll be tougher. It’ll be higher standards. And in the report, it does say that this would lead to more students failing in the short term.

CHRIS What the review panel have recommended, actually is that we strengthen literacy and numeracy requirement’s right through NCEA, so including through Levels 2 and 3. So rather than the current focus, which is you get your literacy and numeracy right at the start, and then you assume that that carries through, they’re actually saying no, we need to continue to demonstrate strong literacy and numeracy right the way through the qualification. And I think that’s actually a really useful finding, because one of the pieces of feedback we get is that young people are leaving school without the literacy and numeracy skills that they need.

CORIN But more people will fail, and, I guess, you talked about the success of NCEA at the start, and one of the successes has been the flexibility, the ability for people who perhaps were in and out of school maybe or they are last, but the system was able to be flexible; maybe they could do courses in coffee making or whatever – keep them in school. And then they might go on to higher education. Is there a danger if you scale it back like this and remove some of that flexibility that they might not be there?

CHRIS No, I don’t think there is. I think it raises the bar for us. It means we’re going to have to work harder. But I don’t think anyone wants more people achieving qualifications by lowering the standard or lowering the bar. In fact, what we want to be doing is looking for constant and continual improvement so that we’re actually delivering those young people what they should be getting out of education, which is a pathway to something more beyond school.

CORIN And that’s interesting, because the Level 2 and 3, you are saying you want that pathway through to a career actually formalised qualification in some way so that they work with a tertiary provider or they work with an employer. How is that going to work?

CHRIS Well, that is one of the things the review panel have recommended, that we look more at – how do we build pathways into the qualification, because at the moment, for NCEA Levels 1, 2 and 3, you effectively accumulate a specific number of credits. And it can be a bit of a grab-bag, and therefore, the focus has become on how many credits am I going to get for this particular piece of learning or for this particular assessment, rather than what’s the overall qualification I’m building and where is that going to lead me. So if someone knows that they want to go into the trades, for example, they want to be a builder, well, there are certain maths skills that you need to do that job, but you’re not necessarily guaranteed to get those out of your NCEA at the moment. So the idea is that we sit down with those young people and say, you know, ‘What’s the pathway you want to get on, and what do you need to put in your qualification to make sure you can actually get there?’

CORIN Fees would go as well, remove fees for paying to do the qualification and get communities and parents more involved – how would you do that?

CHRIS Well, I think in terms of the fees, that’s one of the panel’s recommendations. That’s about a $12 million commitment, so I’m not committing to doing that, but we’ve put it out there, and let’s have a discussion about that. We know that for some students who complete NCEA, they don’t then get the certificate, because they’re not paying to get the certificate and so that, you know, clearly, if they’ve gone all the way through, they’ve got their certificate, why would we put that financial barrier in their way? So we can look at that.

CORIN Can you give an assurance that we won’t see those numbers of NCEA results drop? Because we’ve seen fantastic results in the last few years, particularly for Maori and Pacific students. If these tests in Level 1 get harder, you know, you run the risk that you’re going to see some of these kids not make it through, and that discourages them, and then, you know, and we’re not getting that benefit.

CHRIS I don’t think it is about making it harder; I think it’s about focusing down on the core skills that we want people to get at that foundation level, at Level 1. So they’ll actually need to do fewer credits to get Level 1, but they’ll be more focused.

CORIN So that success rate will keep climbing?

CHRIS Well, I can’t guarantee that. No minister of education can guarantee that. What we can guarantee, of course, is that we’re going to put as much effort as we can into getting a rigorous and robust qualification, and then we’re going to resource schools and teachers to deliver on that.

CORIN And employers – this is also tailored for them, because this is giving them more of a set standard, they know what they’re getting. Is that right?

CHRIS Well, what employers say is that they actually want to know a lot more about young people when they leave school. They want to know how well did they collaborate with other people – you know, there’s a whole lot of those what we might call soft skills that employers also view as incredibly important. So one of the questions for the school system is, how can we ensure that employers are getting the information that they want out of the qualification system?

CORIN All right. If we can start moving on to some of the many other things in education – we’ll try. Where is your government’s focus and priority on closing the gaps, on lifting the performance of the Maori and Pacific students who are – unfairly or whatever – are filling those bottom statistics?

CHRIS Well, the government’s objective is to make sure the education system is delivering for everybody, whatever their background and whatever their levels of skill or ability. So I don’t want to see an education system where we say that we’ll raise Maori and Pasifika educational achievement by directing them into a narrower range of educational opportunities. I want us to make sure that we’re putting an emphasis on providing a broad-based education for everybody.

CORIN You want it to be universal?

CHRIS Absolutely.

CORIN There’s no closing the gaps programme?

CHRIS Well, no, you’re conflating two different things there.

CORIN But why not a dedicated, priority target programme at those kids? You know they’re struggling. You know, where’s your programme?

CHRIS Oh, we will certainly have dedicated Maori and Pacific plans and programmes in place to address, you know, underachievement in the education system. But what I’m not going to do is say that because someone fits a certain profile that they should be directed into a certain course of learning. I think, you know, all of the educational opportunities should be available to all young people.

CORIN Because this week, of course, you announced the deciles, that you will stick will the decile system, even though you acknowledge yourself it’s got problems and one day, you want to get rid of it. And I wonder if that’s – and this is instead of the previous government’s policy, which was to target the funding at individual students of disadvantage. And it would have meant potentially another $100 million to $175 million targeting disadvantaged children. You’ve said in your Cabinet paper that that’s not your priority; you’ve got other priorities. Surely, that’s got to be the top priority.

CHRIS That’s not quite what I said in the Cabinet paper. What I’ve said is that we’re not going to continue with the per-child funding amount.

CORIN You say here you have your own priorities and face significant cost pressures in important areas. ‘I do not propose that we displace these priorities in favour of an unfunded promise from the previous government.’

CHRIS That’s right. Well, you’re taking one line out of what is quite an extensive, you know, explanation of what we’re doing. We’re not continuing with the per-child funding amount; we are continuing to look at how we can better use the data to target extra support. Now, the previous government’s whole programme was about targeting around 3% of school funding. What we’re saying is if this data’s given us really good insight into where disadvantage exists, how can we actually use to better target resourcing across the board, rather than just in that 3%? 

CORIN But the work had been done, and you could have targeted more money at those kids, but I wonder if it’s because you’ve invested so much in tertiary education that you don’t really have the money to do these sorts of things.

CHRIS No, that’s not true. So the previous government’s commitment was that they would introduce the new at-risk index as a funding model, but they would do so on a basis that no school would lose any money. So they put more money into schools that met a certain profile.

CORIN And what’s wrong with that?

CHRIS Well, the only way you could do that is to continue to run both systems side by side. So they’d have to keep running the decile system anyway while they introduce the at-risk funding.

CORIN But the point is, their priority was those disadvantaged kids. You’re saying quite clearly you’ve got other priorities, which is fine, but that’s a choice you’ve made, right?

CHRIS Well, no, because actually, what I’m saying is we’ve got better insight now into what that data tells us than they did when they started that exercise. For example, putting a simple dollar amount per child isn’t necessarily going to be the best way to target disadvantage, because we know that schools with high concentrations of students with disadvantage have more challenges in meeting those than schools with low concentration. So simply putting a dollar amount on the head of each child isn’t going to help us really target where the disadvantage is.

CORIN Okay, very quick question here – just a quote from a newspaper story yesterday, Stuff media, from Nicholas Boyack, where he quoted Ian Hastie from Avalon Intermediate. He said, ‘We’ve become a land of haves and have-nots. We are a country with a definite two-tier education system, and that has to stop.’ He says, ‘Children should to their local school, face reality that New Zealand is a culturally diverse society.’ Do you agree with that?

CHRIS Absolutely. I mean, I went to my local schools, and I certainly hope the same for my children. And I think, you know, the government’s goal here is to ensure that every school is a great school, and you should be able to send your child to your local school with confidence.

CORIN What is your policy to ensure that we don’t have – which is what he’s talking about here – white flight?

CHRIS Well, look, I think this is where the decile debate does become important, because I think parents have used decile rankings as a quality indicator, and they’re not. Actually, some of the kids in low-decile schools are making huge amounts of progress, and, you know, that’s comparable or better than they’re doing in higher-decile schools.

CORIN Chris Hipkins, stay there – we will come back.


JACINDA ARDERN: When those young people are at school, I want us to do everything we can to make sure they are ready for work. And that means doing little things like making sure that they’ve got a driver’s licence. Under Labour, every young person will be able to access a learner’s, a restricted and five free lessons when they are at school – for free. For free.

CORIN Jacinda Ardern there on the election campaign trail. A lot of promises, Chris Hipkins, a lot of promises. That was one – haven’t seen that in the budget.

CHRIS Well, we’re still working on exactly how to implement that, because of course, you’ve got to have the capacity to deliver it. So it’s not a question of just shovelling money at it. You’ve then got to be able to deliver it.

CORIN So you’ve got to do the work on that one?

CHRIS We’ve got to do the work on that one, just to make sure we’ve got the capacity to deliver on that.

CORIN The big promise, I think, that you made – and teachers and schools are disappointed about – is donations, and you’ve been pushed on this this week. And you’ve been quoted as saying you were getting work underway, that you were really keen to see this happen. Why isn’t it happening? This is where schools could effectively pay the donation for parents. That was a big promise.

CHRIS And it’s a promise that we’re absolutely committed to delivering on. We haven’t been able to deliver on it in the first budget.

CORIN What happened? Did you just lose the argument round the cabinet table?

CHRIS No, no. Look, there are a lot of financial pressures that we had to deal with in the first budget, including the biggest increase in student numbers in decades. And so the result is we had to make sure we were funding that properly; we were putting extra teachers into schools – 1500 extra teachers to catch up with population growth. So that was a higher priority. But of course, it’s still a commitment that we’ve made, and we will deliver on it.

CORIN But most people in education feel like they missed out across the board. Early childhood did pretty well, but certainly, schools feel that they didn’t do that well out of the budget, that you haven’t actually delivered on these big promises.

CHRIS Well, look, every school principal who I’ve spoken to over the last five or six years whenever I’ve visited schools – every one, almost without fault – has said that the single biggest issue they want the government to address is kids with special needs, learning support difficulties. And this year’s budget made that a priority. Now, that means that there’s a lot of money goes into a relatively small number of children. But unless we actually do that, we’re never going to meet that demand from school principals – and teachers and parents – to provide better support for the kids who most need it.

CORIN The other promises were around adult education. There was getting 100% qualified teachers at early childhood. Are you going to follow through? Are we going to see those by the end of the three years? Because I’m just struggling— When did it become a ‘we deliver at some point in the three years’ as opposed to just delivering. I mean, are we going to see them?

CHRIS Well, we’ve got an ambitious education plan…

CORIN Yes or no?

CHRIS …and we set that out over three years. And one of the things about setting out a three-year plan is you can’t deliver it all in year one.

CORIN But I don’t seem to recall in the election campaign you saying, ‘Oh, these are things we’ll do over three years.’ These were promises you were going to bring in.

CHRIS Well, I think if you look at any government’s manifestos, you’ll find that they’re not all delivered in the first year of a government. In fact, there are commitments the National Party made in 2008 that, nine years on, they still hadn’t delivered on. I can say that we’re going to do a lot better than that and that our manifesto will be delivered across the three years.

CORIN So everything that was in the speech from the throne on education will be there in the three years?

CHRIS Of course. And of course, we’re a coalition government as well, so we’ve got to recognise that other parties in government made commitments that need to be accommodated too.

CORIN National had a policy of community learning, where they got schools to help other schools. Schools that were struggling got help from high-performing principals. Quite a lot of money there – are you going to keep that?

CHRIS The Investing in Education Success programme? Yes, that will stay in. At the moment, it’s part of the review of Tomorrow’s Schools as to how that might be refined and improved, but at the moment, we’re certainly continuing.

CORIN National standards – have you got an alternative to replace that yet?

CHRIS Well, we don’t need it, because we’ve got the New Zealand curriculum. And actually, national standards weren’t national nor standard, and they didn’t measure a child’s progress. So we’re looking at what the tools are that schools have to make sure that they’ve got the tools they need.

CORIN But that’s a problem, because – I can speak from experience – some schools are choosing to keep it, some aren’t. So, I mean, is it a little bit confusing for parents? They don’t know what they’re going to get.

CHRIS No, what we’ve said is that schools need to report to parents in plain language how their child is doing across all areas of the curriculum. How schools choose to do that – there’s a degree of flexibility there. We put a lot of trust in schools to do that well. We’ve put some pretty rigorous requirements around what that needs to look like, but we’re not going to go out there with a set of supposed standards that aren’t national, aren’t standard and don’t measure a child’s progress.

CORIN Let’s come to teachers, then, because we’ve got the pay issue, and that is obviously a big issue. But a big problem along with the shortage seems to be workload, seems to be the pressure, seems to be this constant assessment. You’ve taken that away for national standards. Coming back to NCEA – will those changes to NCEA mean that secondary school teachers have more time, able to do proper teaching?

CHRIS Well, one of the things we’ve got to do as part of the NCEA review or update, if you like, is change the culture around NCEA. Some of those kids leaving school are getting twice as many credits as they need to achieve the qualification as it is now, because the culture has basically become ‘if it’s not assessed, it doesn’t count; it doesn’t matter’. And actually, we want to say, well, the learning that you do at school all counts, but not all of it counts to NCEA. So we’ve got to change the culture around that, and as a result, I think we will significantly reduce the teachers’ assessment-related workloads.

CORIN The questions in terms of viewers’ questions – we’ve had a lot of feedback. I’ll just read some to you – and not surprisingly, a lot on the issue of teachers’ salaries. So you are in negotiations; I know it’s a little bit tricky. But Murray Hodges says, ‘Remuneration is one of the main problems for teacher shortages. Some years ago, teachers’ salaries were similar to back-bench MPs. Now the difference is huge,’ and it certainly is, and to Murray, unacceptable. So what is your response to that? What is the long-term goal for teachers here? How are you going to restore them to a position of status that they deserve?

CHRIS Well, look, as teachers have always said to us, it’s not just about money, although money does matter. The average primary teacher salary is around $73,000 a year, and it’s just under $80,000 a year for secondary schools.

CORIN There’s plenty of extra duties.

CHRIS So we know that they’re not terrible salaries, but of course, there’s always room for improvement, and there’s a bargaining round coming up. I think teachers need to have realistic expectations around that. But we’re going in—

CORIN 15% is not realistic?

CHRIS Well, we’re going into it with good faith, and I’m not going to get into the specifics of it.

CORIN But what about that issue of—? I mean, as you say, it’s not just money. If you’re going to attract teachers, and you’ve got a massive shortage, you’re struggling to find people in Auckland, aren’t you going to need to lift the prestige of the teaching profession over time? I mean, what sort of a guarantee can you give the teachers that in five or six years’ time, it’s something worthwhile doing for a long-term career?

CHRIS Look, it is something that’s worthwhile doing, and actually, one of the things that we need to have an honest conversation with the teaching profession about is that teachers are the best ambassadors for their profession. So we want them promoting teaching as a desirable job to do, something that’s incredibly rewarding, because that’s going to have a big impact on the number of people who want to go into teaching. So we need to work with teachers to get them to help us promote the profession.

CORIN Where do you sit on that issue, for example, of the higher cost of living in Auckland? Would you ever consider giving extra money to Auckland teachers as a bonus?

CHRIS Well, I understand that’s likely to be something that comes up in this year’s bargaining round, so of course, we’ll consider it if that’s what’s being asked for. But there are a whole host of issues there, many of which relate not just to education but housing and other things that the government’s working on.

CORIN But that’s interesting, though, because the last government wasn’t too keen on that. You would consider some sort of an added payment to teachers in Auckland? Because obviously, they just can’t live near their school that they’re teaching at, because of the housing costs.

CHRIS Look, like I’ve said, that’s something for bargaining. And if that’s requested through the bargaining round, if that’s something that is bid for, then of course, I think we’re duty-bound to consider it.

CORIN All right, let’s take another question. Jack and Esme Robertson noted from 2014 to 2017, the number of teachers increased by 1566. ‘Mr Hipkins is promising the same. So is it true that new teachers in the budget is just business as usual?’

CHRIS Well, that’s right. And we’ve never said anything other than that this is about keeping up with population growth. So this is about making sure we’ve got enough teachers in our classrooms to cope with what is the largest increase in roll numbers that we’ve seen in several decades.

CORIN How are you going to, then, address the— If this is just getting you up to scratch, and you’ve got that massive shortage in Auckland— You put $9 million in at the end of last year, didn’t you? Is there more money coming to do that?

CHRIS Well, there was more money in this year’s budget around recruiting and training and retaining teachers in schools, and of course, we’re going to have to keep doing a lot more. But look, teacher training in New Zealand is a problem area for us. We’ve seen, I think, about a 40% reduction over the last decade in the number of people training to be teachers. So we’re going to have to turn that around.

CORIN And you’ll get some from overseas?

CHRIS Yes, we’ve had just over 100 people who we’ve paid for the relocation of, and we’ve got about 100 more places available through that scheme.

CORIN All right, another question. Cameron Meads asked, ‘When is the government going to repeal the Voluntary Student Membership or VSM?’ That’s for tertiary students, right? They’re unions. You can get rid of that?

CHRIS Well, that’s something that we haven’t yet considered. It wasn’t in our election manifesto. I know students will be pushing for this; we’re happy to talk to them about that.

CORIN So a return to compulsory student unionism, effectively, isn’t it?

CHRIS Well, it might not be a return to compulsory student unionism. I think maybe that ship has sailed. But we’ll certainly sit down and talk to them about how we can ensure that students have a strong voice in their education, post-school education around the country.

CORIN All right, and one more. Hamish Barwick says, ‘Why did Mr Hipkins pick former national education minister Sir Lockwood Smith as the guardian of his new education review?’

CHRIS Well, that’s a good question, actually, and one of the things that I said in that summit was I think this is something that we should be aiming to reach out beyond party politics and involve a good cross-section of New Zealand. Lockwood Smith is a former minister of education, a very passionate advocate for education, I think quite a visionary around education. I didn’t agree with everything that he did when he was minister of education, but actually, if you want to reach across the political divide, you need to speak to people on the other side.

CORIN On the issue of Tomorrow’s Schools, which is your big, overarching review of the structure – I know they’ve still got to do their report – but what is your gut feeling? Does there need to be a move back to more central control? Has it got too difficult for particularly disadvantaged areas to run their schools, given they don’t have the resources or the parents they need? Is it time to shift it back?

CHRIS Well, we know that Tomorrow’s Schools has worked really well in some areas. We’ve had really good parental engagement in some areas, and that’s helped. We know that there have been some real weaknesses. We know, for example, the management of school property has not been done very well under Tomorrow’s Schools. So we’ve got school buildings up and down the country that haven’t been properly maintained over the 30-plus or around 30 years of Tomorrow’s Schools. And we’re now having to clean up that mess. So that clearly hasn’t worked. We know that in some communities, they really struggle to get people to be on boards of trustees, and therefore, that puts a lot more pressure on the school principal.

CORIN Sure. So what’s your gut feeling? Do you have a preference for which way it might go?

CHRIS I don’t think it’s going to be one silver bullet. It’s not about saying, ‘Right, we’re not going to have boards of trustees anymore.’ I think boards of trustees are likely to still be there. But the role might change. It’s not about saying ‘we’re going to do this, but not that’.

CORIN Maybe ease the burden for them a bit.

CHRIS Yes, it’s about easing the burden. It’s about focusing principals and teachers, particularly, on teaching and learning, rather than on whether the roof is leaking.

CORIN Education minister Chris Hipkins, thank you very much for your time on Q+A.

Please find the transcript attached and links to part 1 and part 2 of the interview.

Q+A, 9-10am Sundays on TVNZ 1 and one hour later on TVNZ 1 + 1.
Repeated Sunday evening at around 11:35pm. Streamed live at 

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