School days and years

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.

school hours per year

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.

31 thoughts on “School days and years

  1. Hi Michael.

    I have done some research into Kiwibuild and the government’s housing agenda. I believe they have had a setback with Kiwibuild’s ‘buying off the plans’ initiative. This was always the weakest part of the program. ‘Buying off the plans’ had a stopgap aspect to it while the longer term institutional structures were implemented.

    I remain excited about Kiwibuild, especially the Urban Development Authority aspect.

    The difficulty will be finding a good candidate to head Kiwibuild. Here is my description of the needed skillset.

    View at


      • Michael is concerned about housing affordability, which he wrote about in this article.

        “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 thought it might be helpful to give some thought on how the government’s kiwibuild program could be implemented successfully.


      • If you don’t have at least $20 billion incorporated for basic infrastructure then forget about the 100k houses that Phil Twyford dumbly put forward as doable with $2 billion.


      • It is about time Jacinda Ardern and Phil Twyford came clean and admit that they lied at election time to get into government about the prospects of 100k Kiwibuild houses. The use of aspirational is just a complete lie and coverup for failure to meet extravagant election promises.


  2. Agree with your sentiments about (not) extending the school year but note that Willis’s bill is a private member’s one not a National Party bill. Could be a stalking horse of course.


      • I did think it was a National Party initiative and bill. Had a conversation with my older daughter about it this morning and the conclusion we came to that it was a rather silly initiative serving a very small niche group and not even worthwhile pursuing as an issue. You can’t win this as it is a teachers perk. The day you try and change that extended holiday period, expect teachers to walk out and strike.

        For many parents, it is an offpeak overseas travel time and in Auckland, a convenient longer weekend especially tied to Auckland’s Anniversary public holiday. Also I do enjoy the weeks of easy travel to work. Makes it easier to ease back into work after a long 3 to 4 weeks holiday break for workers.


    • Yes, that boredom sure drives a craving for more activities. My younger 10 year old daughter even begged me to play a couple of chess games with her last night which she never usually do. Also she managed to churn out a number of hand paintings getting after getting rather bored with gaming on the computer.


  3. I taught for 37 year from the early 1960’s to the middle 1990’s including 9 years as a primary principal and then 18 years as a secondary teacher. In the 1960’s and a good deal of the 1970’s at least the school year was 400 half days and no less. I am still stunned by the teachers who have said that its always 390 or whatever. The other point I would make is that it not just the hours spent at school but how they are used. In the 1960’s and before each and every classroom had a timetable in the front of the room and the hours on it added up so that you could see what time was spent each week on maths, reading etc. Now I am aware that many schools spend many hours every week outside the classroom doing kapa haka or going on school trips-often not well planned at all I think.
    Most interesting posting.


    • What you are coerced to do you don’t do well.The stronger the will and intellect the stronger the resistance. Fortunately for govt and most educationalists the majority of kids are easily led and we churn out young adults with qualifications. Pity they are not well qualified to deal with the modern world – simple tasks such as budgeting, raising children, driving a in responsible way, controlling consumption of legal alcohol and illegal drugs, turning up to work on time are picked up eventually. Unfortunately our natural love of learning is often lost for good.

      So less schooling gets my support but then I don’t have school age children. Judging from the small sample of Finns that I have met their educational system does produce capable people.

      It is a miracle that curiosity survives formal education. – Albert Einstein

      Liked by 3 people

      • Interesting comment but unfortunately it doesn’t really get us very far in education. The current trend (which has happened countless times before and been found wanting each and every time) is to have children study just those things that interest them. They may do so but unless they have people (usually called teachers but often parents, older siblings etc) to point them on the way, then they are unlikely to even discover some of the strange and wonderful things that captured us when we were younger. As an example-when I was at secondary school there were things like jazz and the Goon shows that we found independently
        of the school organisation and were able to chase down in our own way – sometimes to lifelong interest. Somehow I don’t see that being the case today.
        p. s. I regret that I wasted a year on French instead of taking typing which would have been of much greater use!


      • Quite. Joe Bennett, an ex-teacher, always reckoned school was the best child-care system we’ve come up with yet, enabling parents to work. Tounge-in-cheek obviously, yet not. I never understood why parents fuss over schools but thats another topic. I suppose.


      • Partly true-the other thing it does is to enable your child to be socialised to ther people and also exposed to other ideas – other than yours that is. You should remember I think just where Joe Bennett was teaching……

        Liked by 1 person

      • “It is a miracle that curiosity survives formal education. – Albert Einstein”

        Totally agree. The school system needs a complete overhaul to keep it relevant and interesting, and to raise productivity.

        a) The curriculum needs to be broken into very many unit standards.

        b) Students should be required to do only those unit standards which give them the basic reading, writing & maths skills needed to function

        c) Students should then be free to follow whatever other units standards interest them

        d) The range of unit standards available should be a lot wider and include budgeting etc

        e) Students should be able to progress at their own pace. This would leave teachers more time to assist the slower learners.

        f) A lot more teaching can be video based/supplemented. There is almost enough on youtube & other online eduacational sites now to be able to do a full school curriculum – schools are almost redundant. The gifted could get through many subjects without a teacher and just using the teacher as a mentor.

        g) There will clearly still be many classes that need to be done as a group – eg drama.

        h) Universities and polytechnics etc would still set minimum the set of units that need to be past for students to enrol.


      • Mr Strong, you have the great disadvantage of knowing something about education. The trouble is everyone has memories of school and they all consider themselves equally expert. My own opinion of teachers has recently shifted dramatically from the “those who can do and those who can’t teach” to major admiration of fellow members of my local U3A who are as far as I can tell all retired teachers. They display admirable open minded curiosity. I’m hoping their example will influence me into being less dogmatic.

        There is serious value in failure. Every child deserves to be pushed to a level where they fail. Six years of French, bottom of the class every year. My daughter dropped Japanese and took typing – a terrible waste of her talent – I wish I had taken more interest and had stopped her.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Bob Atkinson: You are absolutely correct about the value of failure and how we teach children to deal with it. Since it’s part of everyday life to deny children the experience is terrible but that is an important part of ‘modern’ education. Indeed I spent a year in Ontario, Canada at a very poor school-poor in organistaion-incidentally some of the elements that the new Minister proposes to bring into our system were in theirs. The school I was at was what is called a basic grade school in a city about the population of Christchurch. The motto of the school was ‘success for every student’ and indeed no one ever really failed. Terrible. I recall going to their ‘commencement’ which is their graduation ceremony where I saw kids get their graduation certificates for doing almost nothing for 4 or 5 years. Kids who I had seen in front of me, caps on backwards and cigarettes behind their ears who had got 1/4 credit for attendance had got enough to graduate.
        And yet we scrapped School Certificate mainly because it was ‘about failure’.


      • Kiwi Overseas – it all falls down at your point c). We are discussing children; they don’t know what will interest them. An acceptable idea for university.


      • We like to blame the schools but I find that most of the passion and drive of my own kids come from what myself as a parent can do with my kids after school that makes the most difference to their entire attitude about learning and what their future goals are.

        I try and take every opportunity to teach my child something new each day. It can be as simple as just switching the radio channel from rock music to classical music or even to keep the RNZ 101.4 on all the time in the car. It is surprising how much a child pays attention to on that radio on the drive to school. It opens up a whole range of discussion topics which you and the child get agree or disagree or just discuss.


      • As a parent you also need to be able to identify what your childs potential strengths are. One of the keys is actually memory recall. My 2 children each have very different attributes. The elder one have a very strong memory recall which meant that she only had to be taught things a couple of times and she is on to the next topic. For her we had to manage her time in school as she was running too fast ahead of the the school curriculum which meant that she got bored and became troublesome in class. So we gave her time off from school whenever she required it. She completed her law degree in the University of Auckland and is now working with a multinational company with a 2 year training program in London.

        My younger child does not have the same memory recall which meant that she had to relearn things many many times which slows down the learning progression. But she does keep pace with the school curriculum now after a year and a half in after school programs like Kumon maths and Kumon english acceleration classes, but for her regular revisions are necessary which meant that the workload was getting harder as the subject matter got harder so I allowed her to quit the Kumon program of daily homework. The Kumon classes was helpful as it moved her from being at the bottom of the class to the top of the class and now roughly average in the class. Instead, I have moved her more into art and have given her more discretion to explore her creative nature encouraging her by putting up her paintings on the walls of her room which she seems to enjoy being successful at spending many hours in the weekend trying to create a new painting for her wall.


      • The objective was to give her an incentive and to drive some passion to cover all the blank spaces on her 4 walls with all her paintings.


      • Roger, I never realised RNZ 101.4 was a Red channel? I thought it was a rather informative news channel that ran most of the day and evenings with regular panel discussions?


      • RNZ has always the same point of view – always the same slant (well to the left) sorry that you never realised this as its so blindingly obvious. When did you last hear any debate about anything like climate change? Maori sovernignty or indeed anything at all contentious? It’s Red Radio!


      • In (partial and slight) defence of RNZ, while they do tend to be rather one-sided, they have given quite a bit of coverage over recent years to my far-from-left-liberal consensus views on immigration, economic performance etc.


      • Not just that they are one sided (which they are!) they just seldom have any debate-well never when I last listened. The set debate they used to have on a Sunday afternoon- all participants were on the same side!
        Why is the government in broadcasting at all? Apart from obvious historical reasons – how would you feel if a political party or a government started a newspaper in this country?
        Nine to Noon always has the same commentators on-always the same…..
        When would you hear something about a iwi getting their sixth settlement? Ever??


  4. The Koreans have a reasonably similar school day to ours. The intensive schooling comes from the after school academies, which many children go to. When I was teaching at one of these hogwan, the primary age children came for a couple of hours from 3.30, while the intermediates came from about 5.30 until anywhere until 9. So I worked from 3pm-9.30pm. But in the school holidays I worked from 9-5. You get the picture…


  5. Nicola Willis’s proposal is tantamount to “Let them eat cake” while making it easier to buy cake. The proposal is explicitly about housing and affordability and balancing parents earnings ability.

    Willis said that most parents worked, had four weeks annual leave and obtaining childcare during holidays poses problems. “The modern family is juggling childcare and work and the school holidays turn the pressure and costs up a notch” “Making the summer break just one week shorter could really help”

    Why the red-herring about schools hours. That’s not what the proposal is about


  6. Teachers will be rapt – Another over load, stressed sector. Agree need spend more time with our kids. We want a better educated child not baby sat longer. National and now labour have be mindlessly boring in any solution to some significant problems we – Another example!


  7. We don’t need more school hours – we need better pedagogy to ensure that the school hours are used productively. In my opinion that new inquiry based approaches are very inefficient and lead to atomized, fragmented learning and poor basics. There is a reason why humanity has developed subjects over the centuries called Maths, Geography, History etc – because that has proven a useful way to research, group and develop knowledge. Throwing that out in the name of cross-curricula progress is mistaken in my view.

    I would suggest having a few days off at Christmas and then starting the long break mid-Jan so that kids can benefit from the height of the hot weather rather than swelter at school. What European kid sits in a classroom in August? Madness. We live in the southern hemisphere people. Feb is our hottest month.

    I would support a government subsidised network of summer camps for kids. Great employment for uni students in the break, get kids out into the great outdoors. Allow parents to work if they need to.

    It is a bit of a scramble for parents at this time of year. But back to school earlier would be a silly response in the heat.


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