Kerre McIvor: Critical maths – our kids are the collateral damage after years of teaching decline


For as long as I’ve been doing talkback radio, which is more than 20 years now, parents and grandparents have known something doesn’t add up in the way we teach our kids maths.

I couldn’t count the number of phone calls I’ve fielded from frustrated parents trying to help confused and despondent kids get their heads around their maths homework (and it’s not because I didn’t learn addition in my years at school that I can’t count the calls).

My maths fundamentals – addition, subtraction, division and percentages – are spot on.Like most people of my generation, we can tell young retail assistants the correct change before the young ones have taken their calculators out of the drawers.

In fact, I loved maths when I was at school.There is a purity to maths – answers are right or wrong – that is really appealing in this age of relativism.Unfortunately, having sailed along getting great marks, come fifth form (what we call Year 11 today) I had a change of teacher and whether it was that, or I’d reached the level of my ability, the wheels came off and the language I had loved became incomprehensible.

I scraped through School Certificate maths and that was the end of that. I still have a dream that I will go back to school one day and nail the algebra and logarithms that were lost to me all those years ago.

But at least, as I say, I have the basics. Which is more than many of our kids have today. And finally, finally, the Government (to its credit) has acknowledged that we are failing our children.

An expert panel from the Royal Society of New Zealand has been convened to shake up the curriculum and change the way teachers are trained and supported. We’ve known, haven’t we, that New Zealand schoolchildren have been left behind the rest of the world when it comes to international surveys and we’ve known it for some time. The findings are many and damning.

• The Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study found New Zealand students’ maths knowledge in the first year of high school is now below that of all other English-speaking countries and the lowest it has ever been.

• The Ministry of Education’s own National Monitoring Study of Student Achievement showed that only 45 per cent of students in Year 8 were achieving at the level expected in Maths in 2018.

• Even more damning, only 20 per cent of Year 8 Kiwi children achieved the expected level in science in 2017.

• Only 14 per cent of NZ Year 5 primary teachers specialised in maths in their training, compared with a global average of 43 per cent.

• Teachers stream students into ability-based groups far more than their global counterparts do, meaning children with potential miss out.

And so on and so forth.

There is nothing new in any of this. In 2013, one-third of students in their first year of high school were being taught maths by a teacher not qualified in the subject. Our children’s performance has been in free fall for years. And it’s not just in maths.

An ERO report found that 73 per cent of primary schools did not have an effective science programme. It’s an absolute travesty, given that this country had a proud tradition of turning out world-class scientists in nearly every field over the past century.

Still, the one piece of good news is that finally, finally, a government has recognised that we have to stop the rot and has appointed a panel of experts to shake up the curriculum.

Once, education used to be a way for a child to escape the circumstances of their birth.Once, a good education was the right of every child in the country, no matter where they lived or where they came from. That’s no longer true.

Our kids, and our teachers, have become collateral damage in the war between ideologues and politicians. We have known this for years, we’ve worried about this for years and we’ve been ignored for years.

If this Government can arrest the decline and give back to our children their educational birth right, I’ll even forgive them KiwiBuild.

Kerre McIvor Mornings, Newstalk ZB, 9am-noon, weekdays

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