February 16, 2021

Let’s make all kids wag school!

Is it time to stop tinkering and introduce radical changes to our education system?

Einstein may not have actually said it but surely we can all agree that insanity is doing the same thing over and over again expecting different result?

Reports today reveal that the Ministry of Education has called in the Royal Society to stop the rapid decline in student maths scores. Yet the same article reports on a young lass who is now more confident in mathematics as she has started to attend Numberworks – a private tutoring service that is growing. Why?

In Kate Newton’s article “Marked Absent: The attendance freefall in New Zealand’s schools” she presents data that should shock all New Zealanders. The charts show a persistent decline over the past decade but the number of absentees in 2011 should surely have required urgent addressing: only 70% of year 9 students attending classes regularly was not a call for immediate action then?

She reports that Education Minister Chris Hipkins is at a loss to explain it. “It’s really difficult to know why … We just know that attendance has been falling.” Can’t really blame him when his Ministry provides him a briefing paper which doesn’t include one mention of the subject.

Dr. Simon Smelt, in a response to her article writes: “Schools are increasingly failing to retain students during compulsory education ages – we need to know why.”


The late Sir Ken Robinson speaking in October 2010 pointed to a probable explanation.

“Our children are living in the most intensely stimulating period in the history of the earth. They are being besieged with information and calls for their attention from every platform; computers, from iPhones, from advertising hoardings, from hundreds of television channels and we are penalising them now from getting distracted from what? Boring stuff at school – for the most part.”

It doesn’t take a genius to point out that in the decade since then the ‘calls for their attention’ has multiplied – there was no TikTok, no Snapchat, nor Instagram when he spoke.

Maybe we should encourage more kids to wag – but under supervision? 

In a George Monbiot article “Rewild the Child” he reports that “King’s College London found that children who spend time learning in natural environments perform better in reading, mathematics, science and social studies.” Exploring the natural world makes other school subjects rich and relevant and gets apathetic students excited about learning.

Studies of the programmes run by the Wilderness Foundation UK, which takes troubled teenagers into the mountains, found that their self-control, self-awareness and behaviour all improved. 

Ofsted, the UK schools inspection service, reports that getting children out of the classroom raises “standards, motivation, personal development and behaviour.”

New Zealand is an ideal place to encourage outdoor activities away from ‘boring school stuff’. Let’s not hear all the reasons why not and all the difficulties that such activities might impose. 

Where’s the first maths teacher who will announce to her or his class “We are all going to wag this lesson” and instead take his class to the nearest park and give students an interesting assignment like “Who can find a great example of the Fibonacci series for me?” 

If we spent more time making learning attractive and fun, appealing to the natural curiosity and creativity of our children, we might not only reduce wagging but also produce more school-leavers who can contribute – and then, possibly, we wouldn’t have to finance the New Zealand Now efforts trying to attract immigrants with skills necessary for our economy.

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