The coalition deals between National, ACT, and New Zealand First are going to shake up the education system. 

We’ve broken down what some of these policies are and spoke to principals, a university student, and a university student association about what they think about these changes. 

Here’s an overview of the education-related policies in the coalition agreements: 

National Party policy priorities:

  • Banning cellphones in school, regular assessment and reporting to parents, and one hour every day of reading, writing, and maths each.

National’s agreement with ACT:

  • Reintroduce partnership schools and introduce a policy to allow state schools to become partnership schools.
  • Explore further options to increase school choice and expand access to integrated and independent schools including reviewing the independent school funding formula to reflect student numbers.            
  • Prioritise reporting and enforcement action to reduce truancy, including centrally collecting and publishing attendance data.           
  • Replace the Fees Free programme with a final year Fees Free policy with no change before 2025.            
  • Amend the Education and Training Act 2020 such that tertiary education providers receiving taxpayer funding must commit to a free speech policy.
  • Amend the Education and Training Act 2020 to enshrine educational attainment as the paramount objective for state schools. 
  • Restore balance to the Aotearoa New Zealand’s Histories curriculum.        
  • Examine the Māori and Pacific Admission Scheme (MAPAS) and Otago equivalent to determine if they are delivering desired outcomes. (this one is listed under Health but is education-related)
  • Improve the cost-effectiveness of the school lunch programme. 

National's agreement with NZ First 

  • Enforce compulsory education and address truancy.            
  • Focus on doing the basics better through emphasising reading, writing, and maths.            
  • Refocus the curriculum on academic achievement and not ideology, including the removal and replacement of the gender, sexuality, and relationship-based education guidelines.            
  • Stop first-year Fees Free and replace with a final year Fees Free with no change before 2025.            
  • Maintain the Apprenticeship Boost scheme. 

Banning phones in schools

Inspired by other countries around the world like France, Spain, and the UK, the new government will ban phones being used in schools.

When the policy was announced in August, National Party leader Christopher Luxon said eliminating “unnecessary disturbances and distractions” will “help lift achievement” for students.

“Many schools here and overseas have experienced positive outcomes, including improved achievement, after banning the use of cell phones,” Luxon said.

The policy will be enforced throughout the day, which would mean phones are off during breaks as well. Schools will be able to decide exactly how they enforce it, but it could mean requiring students to hand in their phones before school or leave them in their lockers or bags.

Parents will be able to contact students through the school office and students with health conditions or special circumstances will be exempt. 

Principal of Western Springs College in Central Auckland, Ivan Davis, says he doesn’t think banning phones is an effective use of time and resources for schools that have bigger issues to focus on, such as student wellbeing and teacher shortages. 

“We already have a policy here where during class time phones are on airplane mode or in your bag, unless your teacher wants you to use them. In subjects like media studies or art, students are using their phones to take pictures or research,” he says.

“You still need to be vigilant, but we see it as a tool just like a laptop.”

Davis says companies are already sending the school samples of phone lockboxes in anticipation of this policy. 

“We have a roll of 1853 students, can you imagine us trying to deal with 1853 phones being handed in before school? 

‘We don’t want a ban. If we were mandated to do it, we would probably say to parents, ‘the phone ban is in place, can students leave their phones at home?’. Because if the responsibility falls on us, you’re taking up valuable class time.”

Victoria University student Sabrina Gates, who left high school three years ago, says a ban on phones could benefit some students because it would encourage them to be more social at school.

“I would have completely disagreed with this five years ago, but I do actually think that it could provide some benefits. In many ways, they are distracting and can get in the way of genuine social interactions,” the 21 year old says.

“As long as students aren't being severely punished for it and they are being educated around how this could benefit them, I think it could be positive. But kids are sneaky, they find ways around these things.”

Enforcement action to reduce truancy

In the lead up to the election ACT Party leader David Seymour campaigned on several policies to try and increase student attendance in New Zealand. 

ACT says attendance figures are “shocking” and the “truancy crisis” can’t be ignored.

In term one of 2023, the most recent data available, school attendance was 59.5%. This is an improvement from 2022 after the pandemic when attendance was 40%. But attendance has been falling in New Zealand since 2015.

The new government will prioritise reporting and enforcement action to reduce truancy, including centrally collecting and publishing attendance data more regularly. Currently, attendance data is collected for each term.    

ACT also wanted on-the-spot fines for parents if their kids do not go to school - however, this policy is not part of the coalition deal with National. 

Co-principal of Pacific Secondary Advanced School in South Auckland, Fatu Enari, says truancy is a serious issue that needs a holistic solution that encompasses what’s going on at a student's home.

“It's not just a Ministry of Education issue, it's a Ministry of Social Development issue,” he says.

“The families that suffer the most in our school are the working poor. It's the two parents working, and still, there's not enough. Poverty hits and there is no one who has energy to parent.

“There’s a lot of that going on. Students are going to work with parents to help the parents because they are physically exhausted. 

“So it’s not an education issue in my mind. Our kids love coming to school but the ones that are struggling are a reflection of what is happening in the homes.”

Enari says if the government can’t address the situation at home, then addressing the attendance situation is like “putting a Band-Aid on a pumping wound”.

Reintroduce partnership schools

Another agreement in the National-ACT coalition deal is to reintroduce partnership schools as well as introduce a policy to allow state schools to become partnership schools.

Partnership schools, also known as charter schools, are schools that are focused on the needs of groups of students who the wider system doesn’t serve well. For example, Māori, Pasifika, students with special education needs, and students from low socio-economic backgrounds.

In the past these schools were subject to fewer rules and regulations from the Ministry of Education and could employ unregistered teachers. Charter schools did not have to teach the New Zealand curriculum. 

Partnership schools were brought in under the National government in an agreement with ACT following the 2011 election. 

But the following Labour-led coalition government abolished charter schools in 2017 because it said there was a “serious risk that students at charter schools will be delivered narrow curricula of a low quality that are irrelevant to the society to which they belong”.

Pacific Secondary Advanced School is a special character school in Auckland.  The school specifically caters to the needs of Pasifika students and is embedded in Pasifika values, culture, and teaching methods. Before the law change, the school was a partnership school but is now more in line with the state school system and offers NCEA.

Co-principal Enari says New Zealand education needs variety and diversity. 

“I don’t know what the best partnership school looks like but I believe that if we had more special character schools to cater to the needs of specific students it wouldn’t do harm to the system.

“The last government was looking at making these mega schools, up to 4500 students, there's absolutely nothing that supports Māori and Pacific education in that. There is a need for intimate class settings for those vulnerable kids.” 

Changes to history as well as relationship and sexuality curriculum 

Part of the coalition deal with ACT includes restoring “balance to the Aotearoa New Zealand’s Histories curriculum”, and the deal with NZ First includes the “removal and replacement of the gender, sexuality, and relationship-based education guidelines”.

The Aotearoa Histories curriculum was brought in under the Labour government in 2022, and taught in classrooms in 2023, and the current gender, sexuality and relationship education guidelines were introduced in 2020 by NZ First MP and associate education minister at the time Tracey Martin. 

RSE is compulsory but how it is taught is up to the school board and leadership in consultation with the community.

For example, the Ministry of Education recommends teaching years 4 to 6 about “stereotypes about relationships, sexuality and gender, and how these affect wellbeing”.

New Zealand First leader Winston Peters told 1News this week it was a parents right to know what their child is being taught before, not after, the event and the replacement of current guidelines was about transparency.

Victoria University student Sabrina Gates says taking sexuality and gender education out of schools would be a “huge mistake” and could cause a lot more torment among the queer community.

“As a queer person myself, I didn't have any queer or sexuality education. 

“People feel a lot more comfortable with their gender identities if these things were not just taught as an elective at university and are something that's available when people are in high school. I think it’s just going backwards.”

Western Spring College principal Davis says the education sector is struggling to cope with the amount of changes there have been to the curriculum. 

“There is a curriculum refresh to the NCEA, the Aotearoa and New Zealand histories curriculum has just been implemented and so has the new RSE curriculum. The last thing we need is for more change and to review something that’s just been implemented.

“This curriculum has been well-researched. Those policies are just scratching an itch for a certain sector of society.”

Davis says the biggest issue facing schools right now is recruiting teachers. 

“I would have hoped the number one thing the new government would be saying, just like they are saying about doctors and nurses, is that we need to train more teachers. We need to make sure that the profession is attractive from a financial perspective, but also from a conditions of work perspective.”

Replace first year Fees Free with a final year Fees Free

The coalition deal will also mean the new government will stop paying for first-time tertiary students' first year of fees. Instead, the final year of a student's study will be paid for by the government to incentivise people to finish their qualification. 

The Fees Free policy was brought in under the Labour government in 2018.

Victoria University student Sabrina Gates, who is in her third year of a International Relations and Philosophy degree, says she’s glad the Fees Free scheme wasn’t axed completely and thinks there could be benefits to shifting it to the last year of study.

“Firstly, the last year of fees can be the most expensive. I also know a lot of people who left after their first year, so I can see the potential for this to be positive. 

“It allows people to make a little bit more of an informed decision about what they're studying or if they actually want to go into tertiary education.”

Sabrina says student loans are a huge burden on many students and get in the way of people studying. 

“Education used to be free. It’s tough that this isn’t the case anymore so people do need an incentive to go study and we need skilled and educated people. I think it’s a good way to push people to get qualifications.”

Victoria University of Wellington Student’s Association president Jessica Ye says it’s unlikely the policy will help with job shortages and dropout rates because a big reason students aren’t completing their degrees is because of poverty.

“Unpaid placements are causing students to drop out early. Two-thirds of students can’t afford the basics. Just making the final year free isn’t going to help students who are living in poverty.

“This also takes away the best aspects of the old policy, which is the ability to try something that you're unsure about at no cost.”

Ye says a universal student allowance would make a big difference for students and could increase enrolments. 

In the lead up to the election New Zealand First had campaigned on a policy of an investigation into the introduction of a universal student allowance - however, this was not included in the coalition deal.

“There is nothing that has come out from the new government that helps alleviate the real issues that students are currently facing, primarily student poverty which is so normalised within our generation, that is why we're seeing a significant drop in enrollment numbers.”

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