Kia ora, researchED

Briar Lipson is a research fellow at the New Zealand Initiative in Wellington. Before that she was an assistant principal and maths teacher in London. Here she writes about why she was inspired to campaign for more evidence-informed education, and how she brought researchED to Auckland.

The list of past researchED speakers includes many of my heroes. These are the people who taught me to expect all children to learn to read; how to take back my evenings and weekends; and why knowledge precedes expertise.

So when I left my London classroom for a job in New Zealand, I folded away my autograph book alongside my underground Oyster card.

Historically, New Zealand ranked highly in the international league tables of educational performance. But it no longer does. Real scores and equity have been falling for some 15 years.1

And most worrying of all, there is no consensus about why.

And so, less than a year after arriving, I dusted down my autograph book and brought researchED to New Zealand.

A little country background

Since 1989, New Zealand has operated a devolved administrative model called Tomorrow’s Schools. This hands school management and accountability to communities, through local Boards of Trustees. But national, standardised assessments are hardly used. This means perceptions of schools’ quality rely on other, questionable proxies – like the socioeconomic make up of the intake, or the availability of IT.

According to the Ministry of Education, the New Zealand curriculum (NZC) is world-leading.2 Its ‘front end’ describes the vision, principles, values and key competencies to which schools should align their curriculum planning:

  • Principles like future focus, community engagement, and learning to learn
  • Values like equity and ecological sustainability
  • Key competencies like thinking and managing self

Its ‘back end’ details ‘light-touch’ achievement objectives for Years 1 through 13. For example, Year 8 and 9 Social Sciences constitutes seven generic statements including: ‘Understand that events have causes and effects’ and ‘Understand how people participate individually and collectively in response to community challenges.’ Beyond this kind of high-level guidance, schools decide what and how much to teach.

Introduced in 2002, New Zealand’s only national assessment is its end of secondary school certificate, NCEA. And like the NZC, NCEA is wide open to interpretation. Under NCEA, subjects from Meat Processing to Mathematics attract equal esteem.3 Pupils and schools can select the parts of subjects for assessment, e.g. integration but not differentiation. And most assessments are ‘internal’, meaning classroom teachers design, deliver and mark them. It is possible to achieve NCEA avoiding external exams altogether. And even where exams are used, in many subjects questions hardly change from year to year.4

Finally, despite the devolved management model, the Ministry of Education still works with schools in various ways. For example, when funding new school buildings and refurbishments it assumes they will be flexible, open spaces. The materials it provides to support curriculum delivery emphasise personalised learning and ‘the rethinking of learners’ and teachers’ roles’.5 The Ministry also provides targeted funding to schools to run Reading Recovery.6 This ‘whole language’ approach to reading is owned by the University of Auckland.

And so, with some notable exceptions, policy settings here encourage diverse approaches. But without data, teachers cannot identify the schools and colleagues from which the best lessons can be learnt.

When teaching in England, I used standardised, nationally collated data to identify neighbouring schools (and even classrooms) with similar intakes but better outcomes in, say, Year 11 maths, or early literacy. This guided where I went for professional development. In New Zealand, whether you’re a teacher or the minister, there is no reliable way to locate the schools from which you can learn. Collaboration is minimal. And where it does happen, teachers run the risk of ‘learning’ that makes their teaching worse.

Complex questions proliferate in education; all the more so in a former British dominion where underachievement is worst among native Māori and Pasifika children. Untangling the parts of complex problems that are answerable with science, from those that rely on value judgements, is essential. And this is where researchED comes in.

researchED NZ

In late 2017, Tom agreed to fly to New Zealand for four days in June. It was a reasonably mad idea even back then, and not only because I was starting maternity leave in April.

But it turns out that if there are seven degrees of separation worldwide, where researchED is concerned there are notably less! No sooner had I approached Auckland Grammar School about hosting, but I had found a fellow researchED enthusiast – their brilliant Teaching and Learning leader, Dr John Etty.

With this boost under my already bulging belt I put the word out to my nascent networks. The quantity and quality of session submissions was inspiring.

Complex questions proliferate in education.Untangling complex problems that are answerable with science from those that rely on value judgements is essential. And this is where researchED comes in.

New Zealand’s population may be smaller than Yorkshire’s, but by the time the event rolled around there were 240 attendees, and 28 expert speakers, including:

  • Four early literacy and phonics specialists, from England, Australia and New Zealand.
  • Three researchers from Auckland University’s Knowledge in Education Research Unit (KERU).
  • Two Teach First NZ teachers on how standards-based teaching impacts the English classroom.
  • The headmistress of one of London’s most transformational schools.
  • A Victoria University academic on cognitive automaticity in maths.
  • The former director of Auckland University’s Starpath project on the factors that enable Māori and Pasifika students to get into university.
  • Four teachers (then unknown to me) from a school in the far north, on their journey to using evidence from cognitive science and quantitative research.

Since that day, KERU has launched The New Zealand Knowledge Curriculum Research Project. At least six attendees have started blogging; and many more are writing in the press. Our Minister has sought the voices of a wider group of experts in his consultation over changes to assessment. And the NZ edu-Twittersphere grows by the day.

Kiwis are humblingly friendly, and refreshingly laid back. However, while attendees to researchED NZ lived up to the first stereotype, on the latter they most certainly did not. After 15 years of falling outcomes and rising inequity, they were impassioned and hungry for evidence and fearless honesty.

If you have been inspired by Briar’s story and want to host a researchED event of your own, get in touch with us at


1. p. 13

2. p. 20

3. p. 76

4. Ibid., Table 9, p. 62