We’ve been talking about it for a long time. It’s casually referred to as dumbing down.

I always thought it was an accidental by-product of experimenting with different approaches to teaching and learning. But I’m starting to wonder if it’s intentional. I’m also starting to wonder if it’s permanent.

The issue is education. The impacts are growing by the day. For some reason, despite the efforts of some very good people, the system is failing us and it’s starting to hurt.

The problems are many, and they’re showing up in our literacy and numeracy statistics.

They’re also there for all to see in our truancy levels. In the past few weeks the issues have become more visible again, in the form of a ram raid-based crime wave.

Our education outcomes have slipped substantially by every measure over the last generation. Our performance in core subjects such as maths, English and science is such that we are now in a continual decline down the rankings rather than sitting at or near the top as we once were.

There are plenty of studies about the effectiveness of education. What those studies say is quite telling. Our own National Monitoring Study of Student Achievement (NMSSA) is designed to assess student achievement across the New Zealand Curriculum (NZC) at Year 4 and at Year 8.

In English, the most recent results tell us that 63 per cent of Year 4 students are meeting curriculum expectations for their age level in writing, but only 35 per cent of Year 8 students are doing so. The comparable figures in reading are 63 per cent at Year 4 and 56 per cent at Year 8. That means that 44 per cent or more Year 8 students (the old Form 2) are not meeting basic reading and writing expectations.

In mathematics, most Year 4 students (81 per cent) achieved at or above curriculum expectations. However, by Year 8, just 45 per cent were achieving at or above curriculum expectations.

Research by the New Zealand Initiative states that we have had a 32 per cent increase in education spending per pupil since 2001. And yet the Tertiary Education Commission found that 51 per cent of Year 11 students with NCEA level 1 did not achieve the international reading benchmark, and 47 per cent did not reach the international numeracy standard.

The OECD Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) data tells a similar story. PISA assesses the skills and knowledge of 15-year-old students across the big three subjects: reading, maths and science. Across these core subject areas, we’ve been sliding down the rankings for the past 20 years.

Of course, education starts in the home. Some kids grow up in an environment that encourages conversation and learning. But other kids, many kids, do not.

We can blame the parents if we want. But the reality is, those kids who don’t have the benefit of a learning environment at home don’t necessarily have bad parents. They may have an overstressed single parent, or busy parents working two jobs. Some will have parents who just can’t help.

Many of my generation will remember asking Mum or Dad for help with our maths homework. The “new maths” of the day was too much for them and we had to work it out for ourselves.

The “new curriculum” of today is similarly daunting for many parents for whom education wasn’t a priority in their young lives. So we have to stop blaming parents.

In fact, we have to stop blaming everyone. Blame doesn’t solve anything.

We simply need to turn our attention to the impact of our current dilemma, and look forward to what we can do about it, in order to ensure a better future with better options for tomorrow’s students.

But we’re starting at the back of the field. With almost half of our students failing by Year 8, the problems become worse. Like anything, poor performance, or worse, failure, leads to frustration, withdrawal and disengagement.

This disengagement ultimately plays out in our truancy statistics. Pre-Covid, some 40 per cent of students were not regularly attending school. Then Covid came along and gave people permission to disengage. So the problem is worse.

The outcomes are now out there for all to see. Most recently the impacts have manifested themselves in disengaged youngsters — some as young as 7 years of age — participating in their own self-made crime wave, joining the ram raid circus at the expense of the nation’s retailers.

But there are other impacts that we don’t necessarily associate with education, but which are absolutely related.

Poor health outcomes are often a function of poor education. We have high levels of obesity and related illnesses such as diabetes. Education gives understanding that can help to solve many of these problems.

This week’s dialogue about children with rotting teeth highlighted the propensity of some parents to put fizzy drink in baby bottles. Again, some parents don’t know not to do that. We still hear of people falling for online scams or being cornered by loan sharks. Simple lessons about financial management could help many of our struggling communities.

I often encounter young people who can’t hold a conversation. I see letters or emails that don’t make sense. Spelling is atrocious. And yet, if you take the time to sit down and explain the issues with these young people, they are like a sponge. They soak it up. Because no one has ever done that with them before.

My real fear is that as education continues to fail people, we will lose the good people. Those who find it too difficult to operate within the underperforming environment. People like the teachers, health workers and police who have to deal with the failures.

We seem to be living in a society where the government continues to throw poorly directed money at the “have-nots” while asking for more and more contribution from the “haves”.

In my experience, the “haves” don’t mind contributing if they see progress and success.

However, right now, the “haves” — those bright young people with education behind them, aspiration within and opportunity ahead — are taking the obvious path. They’re leaving for fairer shores. So we also lose the doctors, builders, drivers and entrepreneurs who don’t want to live expensive lives in a “dumbed down” country.

So what can we do? Job number one is to get young people back into school. I remember being dead scared of getting caught skipping a class or an afternoon. In those days there were consequences, including the barbaric disciplines such as caning and strapping. I’m not for a minute advocating a return to corporal punishment. But kids need to be in school and there need to be real consequences for every individual who doesn’t turn up. Our schools need support to make that happen.

Once we have them there, we need to engage them. That might mean changing teaching methods, modifying content and changing the way we communicate to get the message through. It might mean we need different types of teachers. We certainly need more male role models in education. But if we can convince the kids to believe that there is opportunity in education, we can turn some of them around.

We need subject options that are relevant to the children we are asking to learn. We all need the “three Rs”. But today’s kids also need health and diet advice. Many need support to participate in and stay in sports. They need to learn simple financial management.

Those who don’t see it at home need to understand aspiration and what it takes to succeed. Technical skills are as relevant for computer analysts as they are for carpenters. It’s easy to engage people when the content is relevant. And don’t forget to install careers advisers who don’t give up on them.

And given our current parlous state, they need time. Time to catch up. Time to become better. Repeating a year is a good thing if it helps someone succeed. Returning to school as an adult student is good if it helps someone turn their life around. Let’s stop embarrassing those people who want to pursue an education against the odds. We should celebrate those cases.

Last week I found myself drawn to a Herald interview with a young ram raider. The interviewer asked him what he wanted to do when he grew up. Real estate and property development was his answer. A great aspiration. However, it was very clear that the child had little concept of the relationship between his current status and his aspiration. He hadn’t been to school for a couple of years, and he’d now started a life of crime. Someone needs to connect the dots for that child. He has some aspiration. However, he doesn’t seem to understand that his current path won’t enable him to achieve his goals.

And the more society fails that child and the many like him, the less likely we will be able to prevent the wider consequences of that child failing society. And at that point, we all fail.

It’s a big ship to turn around. It might take a generation to do so. But we might save a generation too. We’d better get on with it.

This article first appeared in the New Zealand Herald on Saturday 22 May 2022.