Beyond ‘simplistic’ debates – improving education in New Zealand

08 June 2022
Stuart McNaughton and Rebecca Jesson of Waipapa Taumata Rau say the reality behind educational debates is more complex than it seems.

If you follow certain media, you might get the impression that all the news about education in Aotearoa New Zealand is bad.

However, two of the country’s foremost education experts say the reality is more complex. and of Waipapa Taumata Rau | University of Auckland, say New Zealand schools perform well overall. 

“When I look at the PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) outcomes, we sit comfortably above the OECD average,” says Jesson, who is Research and Academic Director, Literacy Education, at , a UniServices-managed provider of professional learning and development programmes for the educational sector, in addition to being an associate professor.

Stuart McNaughton

“The narrative around education in this country tends to be simplistic and sometimes misinformed,” says McNaughton, who is Chief Education Scientific Advisor for the Ministry of Education in addition to his academic role. “We often don’t recognise the things we’re good at. For example, our 15-year-olds have been taught well in their English classes to pick out misinformation, because their test results in this area are among the best in the world. We’re also in the top three or four countries in collaborative problem solving on computers. Education isn’t just about teaching children to read and write; it’s about developing a highly literate and equitably successful population across the life course.” 

“The narrative around education in this country tends to be simplistic and sometimes misinformed. “We often don’t recognise the things we’re good at.”
Stuart McNaughton
“Education isn’t just about teaching children to read and write; it’s about developing a highly literate and equitably successful population across the life course.”
Stuart McNaughton

Challenges in education

There are real challenges in education. One is the drop in international achievement test scores since the early 2000s. The most noticeable drop occurred between 2009 and 2012 in reading, science and maths literacy. 

“To be honest, we don’t fully understand why this occurred,” says McNaughton. “It’s unlikely to be a singular reason. Around that time, our kids started to rapidly use the internet and social media more, but there isn’t a lot of evidence saying that’s the root cause of the drop. 

“Another argument has been that it’s because we don’t teach phonics well in the early years. But the drop in fact occurred around the time our system started to focus more on phonics. That is a bold statement and I need to qualify it by saying we may not have been doing the teaching very well. But to say that ten years later, it led to 15-year-olds not performing well on international assessments – it seems a distant contributor.”

Equity is also a challenge, though not one limited to the school system.

“Children arrive at school already quite differentiated in their literacy skills and knowledge,” says McNaughton. “Having said that, our schools are not good at consistently producing equitable outcomes. Some of the gaps have narrowed but we need to do better.”

A lesser-known issue is that there is a plateau in achievement between years 4 and 8, says Jesson. 

“We need to think about the steps up in areas such as reading comprehension and higher-order writing that we expect between those years and if we’re teaching them appropriately. This issue is masked when we focus overly on early literacy as some commentors do.”

Reading Recovery and Early Literacy Support

Rebecca Jesson

For the early stages of literacy development,, developed by the late University of Ƶprofessor Marie Clay, is a proven intervention for six-year-olds whose literacy skills are significantly behind those of their peers. It provides intensive one-on-one support tailored to what the individual learner needs, whether it’s help with phonics, reading comprehension, writing, or often, a combination of these things. More than have repeatedly demonstrated its success.

McNaughton and Jesson are both trustees of the , which supports research into early literacy research and professional learning and development, including for Reading Recovery.

In New Zealand, Tui Tuia | Learning Circle, which runs Reading Recovery in partnership with the University of Auckland, University of Otago and University of Waikato, has built upon its foundations and now offers 

At the whole-school level, specialist teachers support the school with literacy strategy and help teachers build programmes for their classrooms.

“Activities designed for one-to-one support are difficult to adapt to groups but the close observation skills, problem-solving skills and assessment skills that Reading Recovery teachers have transfer well to the classroom,” says Jesson. 

At the small-group level, Early Literacy Support (ELS) teachers provide support for children who are not progressing well after their first two terms at school. Started in 2021, ELS has already seen encouraging results.

“The new approach was initially rolled out to 40 schools last year, and as a result of a real shift in student achievement, it now has more than 400 primary schools registered to take part. Over an eight-week programme, we are seeing reading and writing rates increase at double the average classroom progress,” says Jesson.

At the individual level, Reading Recovery teachers provide traditional one-to-one support for children who are behind after a full year at school.

The debate over reading

In recent years, much of the debate in the media about early literacy has been between those favouring a phonics-based approach and those favouring a more holistic one. 

“I get frustrated by this simplistic dichotomy,” says McNaughton. “I also get frustrated when the way we teach reading and writing in schools is called ‘whole language.’ It isn’t a hands-off immersion approach and never was. It’s a structured method that involves teaching phonics as well as important foundational skills such as understanding how books work, the language of books and the interactions you can bring to books.” 

“There’s also a false binary between a skills focus and an enjoyment focus,” says Jesson. “In all classrooms, all over the world, all teachers focus in some measure on teaching children to love reading and the skills they need to access that enjoyment.”

Some of the debate has focused on Reading Recovery. Recently, a  found that the benefits of Reading Recovery don’t last was widely reported in the media.

“It’s surprising because there have been a number of other recent studies that show that Reading Recovery children’s outcomes are in fact sustained,” says Jesson. “It is quite selective that a conference paper is picked up and publicised over other published research studies that have found positive long-term outcomes.”

“In some jurisdictions, like Singapore and Finland, teaching is well-paid and high-status. As a result, teacher education is highly competitive – only the top students get in. Teaching is incredibly complex. We need to better acknowledge the expertise required at all levels.”
Stuart McNaughton

“Reading Recovery is probably the best-researched educational intervention ever and this result adds important evidence to a complex picture,” says McNaughton. “Our  that found positive effects at the school level three to ten years later – small effects but detectable.”

Jesson and McNaughton don’t take issue with the study itself but would like to see more research in areas such as how well Reading Recovery interventions are implemented, the long-term effects of phonics-based programmes and what happens to children in the years after reading interventions.

“There are studies out there that add a highly focused phonics programme to the school and – guess what? – find it has an effect on phonics,” says McNaughton.

“Typically, though, these don’t have an additional effect on comprehension outcomes, whereas Reading Recovery does.”

Bigger-picture ways to improve education

Looking at the bigger picture, McNaughton and Jesson have evidence-based ideas about how to improve education in New Zealand.

Alleviating poverty and social inequity would help children arrive at school on a more even playing field. So would improving early learning practices at early childhood education centres and in homes. Teachers should also be better trained to look for and understand differences between children and adapt their instruction based on different children’s starting points and learning strengths, say the experts.

Another issue is the relatively low prestige accorded teachers in New Zealand. 

“In some jurisdictions, like Singapore and Finland, teaching is well-paid and high-status. As a result, teacher education is highly competitive – only the top students get in,” says McNaughton. “Teaching is incredibly complex. We need to better acknowledge the expertise required at all levels.”

Training and hiring more specialist teachers would also make a difference, say the experts. This includes literacy specialists in years 1–3 and subject matter experts in years 4–8.

“One of the reasons for the low progress in science and maths between years 4–8 is because teachers are saying they’re not well enough prepared,” says McNaughton.
There should also be more emphasis on the roles of families and communities, say Jesson and McNaughton.

“Before the small-group tier in Reading Recovery, the first thing we do is talk to whānau about the skills, expertise and interests their children already have,” says Jesson. “Across the board, we need to better engage whānau.”



  • Hurry, J., Fridkin, L., & Holliman, A. J. (2021). Reading intervention at age 6: Long-term effects of Reading Recovery in the UK on qualifications and support at age 16. British Educational Research Journal.
  • D'Agostino, J. V., Lose, M. K., & Kelly, R. H. (2017). Examining the sustained effects of Reading Recovery. Journal of Education for Students Placed at Risk (JESPAR), 22(2), 116-1