The Tragedy Unfolding in New Zealand Education


There is a major tragedy unfolding in our education system. Our children’s ability to read continues to plummet. New Zealand children used to lead the world in reading. Now our literacy rates have fallen so sharply that almost half our students are below their expected reading level when they finish primary school, and 35% of 15-year-olds do not have basic reading proficiency.

The results have been declining for the past decade, and whilst there is great handwringing and debate on what to do to rectify it, the results continue to decline.

Communication is one of the key pillars of commerce. Without reading, comprehension and written communication ability an individual will struggle to survive in business. 

Teaching is such an important job, and we should not underestimate the work teachers do but our question is…are businesses getting people with the base skills of reading and writing? If not, should we be chasing government to put more resources into improving these vital skills?

It is obvious we are not getting the required reading skills taught via our education system.

I quote from the recent “Now I Don’t Know My ABC” New Zealand report from The Education Hub:

“That a child could enter Year 6 following five years of schooling and not know the alphabet seems unfathomable.

“Unfortunately, available data suggest that poor literacy levels are in fact a widespread issue. Kick-starting this whole project to better understand literacy in Aotearoa New Zealand was the statistic, published in a UNICEF report from 2020, that only 64.6% of Aotearoa New Zealand 15-year-olds have basic proficiency in reading and maths.

“Turning that around, a staggering 35.4% – over a third of 15-year-olds – struggle to read and write.

“Research has demonstrated a significant relationship between literacy and the ability to reason efficiently and critically, particularly in the context of solving novel problems. More literate individuals also enjoy better health and wellbeing and live longer”

The Government and Ministry of Education have openly acknowledged the problem, warning earlier this year of a “long-term slide in achievement” compared to other countries, and a failure to address “persistent inequities” for some groups of learners.

In 2019 the Education Ministry said the drop in scores since 2015 was not statistically significant, but it was worried by the long-term trend.

In the past 12-18 years, New Zealand’s scores had declined by 23 points for reading, 22 points for science and 29 points for maths. The OECD estimated that 30 points was equivalent to one-year of learning.

In the intervening three years since 2019 it has continued to slide.

Employers have called for better connections between education and real-life skills and want to work with the education sector in partnership to foster stronger foundational maths and literacy skills. 

From a business perspective this decline is frightening. If 35.4% of our 15-year-old children are unable to communicate adequately in written form it poses huge health and safety risks, productivity issues and restricts their ability to do simple things like accurately taking an order from a customer.

Literacy must be a major election issue by this time next year. If not, all of us will have stolen the gift of communication from our children. 

We cannot let this happen.

How’s this for a simple clear and smart target?

As measured by UNICEF, by 2026 the percentage of 15-year-olds struggling to read and write is under 20%, and by 2030 is under 5%.

Written by Don Good, CEO of  Waikato Chamber of Commerce.



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