Is a perfect storm brewing in New Zealand's schools?

by Virginia Larson / 12 February, 2018
North & South Editorial
Where's the teacher? Photo / Getty Images

Where's the teacher? Photo / Getty Images

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The new school year is underway, but is there a "perfect storm" brewing in the teaching sector as one departing secondary school principal suggests?

“When you’re on your OE, living in some cramped, dingy flat in London, you can tell people you once went to a school with a multimillion-dollar view.” I used to say this to my son as we cut through the playing fields of Auckland’s Macleans College on our way for a swim at Eastern Beach.

Laurence didn’t end up backpacking his way to a London flat. Instead, at 23 his career has taken him to Beijing, where the idea of a public school with a glorious sea view and a beach at the bottom of the cross-country track is even more other-worldly than it would be in a European city.


Inspiring stuff also happened inside the classroom during Laurence’s five years at Macleans; he left with Cambridge (CIE) qualifications, firm friendships and an outstanding musical education. His science and English passes I attribute almost entirely to good teaching, in light of the hours he spent in the music block.

All this happened under the steadfast leadership of principal Byron Bentley, who I’d met first as a North & South writer in the early 2000s when the NCEA juggernaut began replacing School Certificate and University Entrance – and there were stories to be written.

Bentley was one of a handful of principals who could be relied upon to take a journalist’s call, then deliver a salvo of pithy quotes unfiltered by educational mumbo-jumbo. So his retirement at the end of last year was a surprise, end of an era-ish; I had imagined him annoying bureaucrats at NZQA and scaring, slightly, Year 9 newbies for some years yet.

I caught up with Bentley as the 2018 cohort of Macleans students – more than 2500 of them – were filing back after the summer holiday. It was the first time since 2000 that Bentley wouldn’t be delivering the headmaster’s welcome from the stage of the school hall. He’d not long returned from a week in Melbourne, and had a caravanning tour of the South Island planned. He’s also keen to remain involved with the Victoria University Faculty of Education’s graduate diploma of teaching – having helped set up its partnership with Macleans where graduates are trained to teach on-site, mentored by the school’s experienced teachers.

“They learn on the job with some of the best in the business, and even get a meagre wage,” he says. “What the government needs to do is further incentivise graduates into teaching by bonding them for a few years, in exchange for paying off their student loans. There could be an extra incentive for those willing to work at hard-to-staff schools.”

Bentley warns the teacher shortage has reached a critical stage. “The perfect storm has already brewed… Teaching is not attracting enough Kiwi graduates, especially in science and maths. The pay is poor and the current workforce is ageing. Even the overseas well is drying up, especially for Auckland schools. UK teachers are put off by the horrendous cost of housing here. Frankly, we risk losing our first-world status in education.”

Bentley’s brewed storm includes modern learning environments (MLEs), which he describes as a nonsense perpetrated by people who have few clues and a bunch of misconceptions about how children learn. These vast, open-plan classrooms – so-called “flexible learning spaces” – coupled with “student-led learning” he sums up as “faddism… in New Zealand, we follow these fads blindly and blithely. Meanwhile, Australian and UK schools that embraced MLEs are putting the walls back in,” he says.

“There’s a teaching orthodoxy that means the teacher is in charge of the classroom, but proponents of MLEs equate this with ‘chalk and talk’, which is absolutely untrue. It’s not about regimentation and rows of desks. At Macleans, the aim is to give kids direction and goals for each lesson – a road map, if you will – and increasing independence. But how much learning is happening in MLEs with kids left to their own devices and teachers giving little or no direction? None.”

Perhaps Bentley’s views on NCEA have softened. I tiptoe in: “We don’t hear as much about problems in NCEA these days… is it working better?”

“No.” He never was one for the tiptoe response. “It’s the old story – you get weary on it. In some subjects, it’s just okay. But NCEA most definitely has limitations in maths and science. There’s a review planned, supposedly, but we will see.”

For all the battles, Bentley leaves with no regrets after more than 40 years in education, spanning schools from rural Murupara to high-decile east Auckland. Macleans is in good hands, the kids will turn up with shining-morning faces. But among colleagues – and journalists who were promptly put through to the principal’s office – Byron Bentley will be missed. 

This article first appeared in the March issue of North & South.

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