Dr Liz Gordon: Welfare and Education


Strong support from me for Labour’s policies for the return of the Training Incentive Allowance for beneficiaries and also for the raising of the cap on earnings to $160 per week before the benefit is affected. Both are important aspects to empower and liberate beneficiaries from the gruelling regime of sad impoverishment, of the body and spirit, that National brought in from 1991 onwards, and that previous Labour governments have refused to unpick.

But what I particularly wanted to talk about this week is the parlous state of schooling, which, despite the best effort of the Tomorrow’s Schools working party, has barely been addressed in this government’s term.

Around a third of New Zealanders leave school without usable qualifications, although some gain them subsequently in ‘stuff the turkey’ youth training schemes. There is a strong link between social advantage and educational performance.  There always has been, because that was how our colonial schooling system was set up, to mirror the class-based education of ‘home’.

The idea was that the poor would just learn enough to participate in the workforce as factory fodder while the wealthy would soar to the heights of university and fancy careers. Everyone in their place, as it were.  It has been a remarkably successful system.  While the rhetoric of ‘education for all’ has always been strong, it has never been achieved.

Schools point to poor home environments as the cause of this gap.  This is correct.  The learning gap at age 5 between top and bottom performers is probably around 2 years, and more importantly kids from enriched environments come to school ‘ready to learn’.  

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A few years ago the OECD noted that the biggest indicator of school achievement in New Zealand was the number of books in the home. Literacy, conversation, discussion of ideas and the use of language are very important indicators of subsequent learning success.

But can’t these gaps be eradicated by skilled teachers in the educational environment?  Well, the answer is, yes they can, but it is not something that our school system has turned its energies to.  Individual schools and teachers have, from time to time, put in place significant enrichment systems in their schools, but these tend to fizzle out over time, because they are hard.

In fact, schools are more likely to be exclusionary and punitive than massively enriching. Chris Hipkins had to opportunity to unpick one of the drivers of this, school competition, by abolishing the Board of Trustees system, but has chosen not to do this. The reality is that under the current system educational gaps have grown and will continue to grow.

Even though the Ministry of Education rushed out to buy laptops and internet connections for thousands of families during the Covid lockdown, my hypothesis is that being away from school will have further increased learning gaps.  Research in the UK has shown this, and it will be not any different here.  Research on this is urgently needed.

While there is concern about the Covid effects on those sitting NCEA examinations, it is younger students who are likely to bear the long term effects, as gaps have increased in basic learning.

I am currently involved in a project that has asked workers in certain workplaces about their schooling experiences one, two, three or four decades ago. If we ever get to publish this work, which is highly confidential, everyone will be shocked at the barriers that people have encountered in schooling.  Being told you are dumb, lazy, bad, thick or useless, by teachers or peers, is not conducive to a great learning experience.  Being told that you are hated, being suspended or excluded, and having the blame or scorn of a school community on your head can end the schooling experience on a terrible note.  

As far as I am concerned, there are three principles that need to be pursued that can, over time, reduce the learning gaps. And what follows from this will need to be significant investment in high quality learning for all children.  It should be a right (and yes, I am strongly in favour of bringing the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, to which we are a proud signatory, into the Education Act).

The first principle is that all children will be supported to learn everything that schooling has to offer in New Zealand.  Instead of creating daft league tables, the expectation is that everyone will leave qualified in a range of ways (and I would go the Canadian way with graduation requirements that include civics, work and community service elements).

The second principle is that schools must be fit for purpose in the modern age. This is also about the curriculum. Including compulsory New Zealand history is a great start, but compulsory Te Reo Māori   and Sign Language (our other official languages), civics (the Covid experience has shown how much we need that!) and other modern curriculum elements are needed.

The third principle is that schools should ditch the colonial attitudes and become learning communities for all. Formal discipline models should be replaced with low-level restorative practices all the time. Bullying would fade away once punitive values are abolished and negotiation skills are taught instead. No-one would ever be removed from a school, but would be managed and supported within the school community.  This is a huge ask, but it must be done.

Our current system is poor value for money because huge effort goes into things that do not bring value to all.  A successful schooling system for all would mean happier and more effective teachers, students, parents and society.

Goodness knows that the ignorance and stupidity unmasked by Covid has shown that an excellent schooling system for all is sorely needed. Get schooling right, and so much else will grow from that.


Dr Liz Gordon is a researcher and a barrister, with interests in destroying neo-liberalism in all its forms and moving towards a socially just society.  She usually blogs on justice, social welfare and education topics.


  1. I suppose that is a good start increasing the income threshold and fully reinstating the TIA. And they also need to devolve Oranga Tamariki services to Maori. Restructure the DHB health system cause it ain’t working no matter how much money is poured into it. I would like to see MSD have highly trained and skilled job/work brokers. These Job work/brokers main objective is to get people of benefits and into sustainable work.
    Pay the job/work brokers a bonus/incentive for every beneficiary they get into work and remain in work for at least a year. People need good constructive help as we already know punitive measures don’t and haven’t worked.

    • Devolve OT services to Maori? That has mostly happened. But it’s a tragic joke. And it’s been captured by the gravy train of lawyers, so called caregivers and social workers. Money is pouring in to conferences, accommodation, flights and meals. The people on the ground are still right there – at the bottom.

    • If you could tear yourself away from watching bullshit American U Tube and read about what is going on in NZ in farming ,horticulture, engineering, building teaching , medical needs the list goes on of jobs in both high tech or manual labour there is so much work out there even now .

  2. All this will not help people on TAS or Special Benefit, their supplements get cut for any increase in the main benefit and for any money earned extra. That is what Winz and advocates tell me. Training Incentive Allowance also comes with tight strings attached. Labour are all about pushing people into work, same as National, just less draconian, and those on health related benefits they continue to get short changed.


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