Sitting reading the Herald this morning as my oldest child headed out the door for his first day of the new school year – two more still on holiday – I noticed that National MP Nicola Willis was making a bid for the state to do more child-minding for her and her husband She has an op-ed trailing a private member’s bill she will seek to introduce to reduce the summer holidays for school children by a week or two.
That had me wondering how our school year compared to those in other advanced countries. For some reason, the OECD doesn’t have data on New Zealand in their tables showing the number of hours per year of instruction at primary school. But the Ministry of Education website says that our primary school have to be open for 390 half days a year (195 days). The standard primary school day seems to be from 9am to 3pm, and if we subtract an hour for lunch and fifteen minutes for another break, that leaves 4.75 hours per day of instruction time, for a total of 926 hours per year. Here is how that estimate compares with the other OECD countries for which there is data reported.
In other words, we already have one of the higher primary school hours requirements among the OECD countries. (Accordingly to one website I looked at, Australia has slightly shorter school years, but slightly longer school days.) And recall that these aren’t voluntary hours, but coerced ones. Finland is sometimes touted as having an excellent education system, so I was particularly interested in the hours numbers reported there. There are some odd looking numbers – South Korea has a reputation for long hours and very intense schooling, which doesn’t seem to square with these numbers – but I can’t see any credible way in which New Zealand is not already in the upper half of the OECD for schooling requirements. And everyone recognises that schooling has a considerable element of (compulsory) child-minding about it: home-schoolers rarely spend 900 hours a year on the equivalent learning.
Perhaps also not entirely irrelevant when an MP wants to reduce holidays for kids is to look at minimum annual leave requirements for adults. It wasn’t until 1944 there were any. When I was the age Nicola Willis’s kids are now – and the school year seemed the same length as it is now – that minimum was two weeks. In 1974, the minimum was increased to three weeks, and in 2007 it was further increased to four weeks. These weren’t changes proposed by the National Party, but there is no sign Nicola Willis or her leader wants to undo them, so why does she think our kids should be conscripted to the state’s service for even more weeks of the year, even as (most) adults appreciate the greater leisure?
Willis claims a high-minded motive
Most importantly, Kiwi kids feel the impact. Research shows the “summer slide” in student achievement is real. Kids’ literacy abilities can decline over the six-week break, with one study showing students losing months of progress over summer. Much of term one can be spent getting kids back to where they left off the following year. This is a real barrier to achievement.
Count me a sceptic on that one. “One study” can be found to support almost any argument. But even if it were true (a) plenty of workers come back to their desks after the summer holiday at a bit of a loose end, less focused than they might be for a few weeks, (b) formal literacy abilities are not the only capability we want our kids to develop, and (c) it would surely depend a great deal on the specific child (my wife and I both recall going to library almost every day in our school holidays, and one of mine tells me she has read 33 books this month so far). And if New Zealand’s PISA scores have been dropping – under Nicola Willis’s party’s term of government – that isn’t because we shortened the school year. And if the holidays sometimes drag a little (a) boredom is often good for children (as they find ways to amuse themselves), and (b) so do terms and school years. I presume I’m not the only parent to have noticed children getting tired towards the end of terms, especially towards the end of the year. They are children, and primary schools ones in particular don’t have the stamina of heathy adults.
But National Party MP Nicola Willis – a party that once claim to stand for freedom, family etc – now wants to compel kids into state-run schooling for more weeks of the year.
And why? That alleged summer time literacy drop isn’t the real reason – despite that “most importantly” the argument is only introduced late in her article. What she wants is the state to force kids into school – away from beaches, climbing trees, picking blackberries, reading, trying out cooking, hanging out with friends, siblings, parents, or whatever – for longer to make it easier for parents to work long hours (over the course of a year). It is really as simple as that.
I do have some sympathy for some parents – not high income ones like Nicola Willis and her husband, for whom these things are purely choices. Thanks to successive National and Labour governments, good housing in our major urban areas has been rendered ridiculously and totally unnecessarily financially out of reach of many people. I have no idea how young couples manage to buy a house in this neighbourhood (I bought my first house here at 26 for the equivalent of $300000 in today’s dollar – the median price in the suburb is now $900000), but part of it is both parents working full-time, not really from “choice”, but from something closer to “necessity”. But how then do you manage school holidays?
I’m fortunate. Not only did I get into the housing market before the absurdity took hold, but in the five years we both worked fulltime we had a nanny, and I (enjoyed) taking all January off to be around with the kids. And now we are comfortably a one income family and I (most of the time) really enjoy the holidays and the time with the kids (grown up before you know it anyway).
Not everyone has those options – although I’m sure Nicola Willis and her husband could, despite her claims of how tough it is for them – but that doesn’t make the appropriate answer to have the state coerce your kids into school for even more weeks (at the hottest time of the year). Before you know it, people like her will pop up wanting to have kids in school to (say) 5pm each day as well – much more convenient for workers I’m sure.
For a National Party MP to fail to recognise that substantial distinction between compulsory attendance (school) and voluntary childcare arrangements tells you again how statist the National Party itself has become. Perhaps there are regulatory barriers to more after-school or holiday programmes – one imagines the National government’s OSH rules might be part of that – and it might be sensible to identify any of those and advocate removing them. It would certainly make sense to deregulate the land market and make decent housing affordable again, in ways that would give many more families options around part-time work, longer holidays, or one parent or other not engaging in market employment at all for a time. It might even make sense to explicitly encourage strong two-parent families. Those are the sort of measures a National Party might once have proposed. But these days they seem to be mostly statist me-tooers, proposing to deal with one egregious state stuff-up (the housing market) with yet more state coercion. And this from a party that barely even supports effective school choice, so that more coerced time in schools also typically means not forming our children in the academic heritage of our civilisation, but quite a bit more (mostly unthinking) indoctrination in the values and political beliefs of the teachers.
And now, when the wind drops a bit, I’m off to the beach with my daughter.