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A look at Labour’s education plan

Labour leader David Cunliffe pulled the covers off Labour’s shiny new education policy at the recent Labour Party Congress. With Education spokesman Chris Hipkins on his right shoulder and Deputy Leader David Parker on his left, he promised Labour will invest $873 million into education over the next four years. This includes smaller class sizes and more teachers, subsidised netbooks for all students, and initiatives to promote expertise-sharing among schools. 

It’s a mega-policy—Labour clearly cares about better educational outcomes for our children. It’s also a smart election year move. Education consistently ranks among voters’ most important issues, and National’s been able to gain some traction in it recently. But will Labour’s policy improve student’s outcomes? 

Labour’s promised to reduce class sizes. This follows some evidence that smaller class sizes help improve student outcomes. But will reducing classes by three students on average really make much of a difference? National’s made the point that teacher quality is more important than reducing class sizes. Yes, there’s evidence for this as well, but in an ideal world, we’d have smaller classes in our schools and we’d have high quality teaching. Labour has tried to capture this by also promising to enhance teacher quality through “pre-screening” teacher training and a “school advisory service” that offers professional development opportunities. 

Labour’s promised to subsidise netbooks for every student in Years 5 to 13. Again, there’s evidence that computers can help enhance student learning. But there’s also evidence that the same principles of learning with no computer apply with a computer. The computer is merely a device the teacher can use to improve student’s learning. That’s why it’s important teachers know how to use computers to good effect. Labour seems to understand this by investing $25 million into teachers’ professional development. 

Labour’s promised to share expertise among schools. Spreading expertise is an idea that’s had success both here (within some school clusters) and overseas. It’s also the principle that underlies National’s “Investing in Educational Success” policy. The operational aspects of each party’s policy will look different, certainly, but improving leadership and teaching lies at the heart of both. 

Overall, Labour’s promised big things and pledged big money. But questions linger, as often with policy. Is the cost to the taxpayer accurate and is it too high? Will Labour’s technology policies produce benefits over and above what National is already doing through its 21st Century Learning initiative? Some may answer “yes” to both of these questions, others “no.” But of course an informed response can really only follow with the passage of time; it’ll be interesting to see how the policy unfolds in our schools if Labour get the opportunity. 

In any case, it’s encouraging to see some overlap between the parties on the importance of school leadership and teaching, and the common, general focus on what many of us care about—education. 

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