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Please Sir, I want some more!

Stuart Middleton


24 July 2017

When little Oliver went to Mr Bumble with his soup bowl held out to say “Please sir, I want some more!” he went because the other boys, scoundrels all of them, forced him to. And was Mr Bumble right to react in the way he did? “Whaaat?”

I feel that we are in a situation somewhat akin to this with offers to spend an additional $4 Billion on education. More money for education sounds good but what does the “more” mean? Is more of the same in terms of what we are doing?

  • More NEETs arriving at the end of their educational journey to a place of little hope?
  • More of the severe skill shortages that hold us back?
  • More rigid adherence to the lock-step approach to navigating through the years and over the sectors?
  • More students dropping out of school?
  • More increases in truancy.
  • More children going to school to be fed?
  • More difficult children testing the system?
  • More disgraceful fights and goings-on between school students on social media?

If it is any of these outcomes and a whole lot more are not addressed and the money used to carry on the same ways then it will be money squandered. The key issues in education are really about the way current money is distributed and spent rather than the quantity. Without the detail, around both the spending of new money and the better use of existing money, we are simply ensuring that we will do the same and get the same – and that should not be acceptable.

One measure of the spending in the public sector is the % of government spending that goes into the different sectors. A comparison between the education spend in four countries is interesting: New Zealand, Australia (they are so like us), Germany (we would like their outcomes) and Sweden (we seem to envy much that they do).

Expenditure on Education as a % of Government Expenditure

  New Zealand Australia Germany Sweden
1985 9.1 % 10.0 % 9.0% 10.1%
2015 18.0 % 13.9 % 13.9% 15.1 %

Those raw figures might suggest that money is not the issue. We seem to all start from a similar base and New Zealand has moved well ahead. And yes, there is more complexity in such comparisons than I have suggested here. But…..

I am not arguing that we should spend less on education, rather I am asking whether we can point to gains and advantages over those three other countries that are commensurate with the spend, especially when in NZ so many little Olivers still have no soup in their bowl and many big Olivers are stuck in the rut of idleness?

I also wonder whether a better spend of extra funding should be tackling child poverty in ways that see all young people arriving at school ready to go, ready to learn and ready to succeed. There are critical features of children poverty that education cannot address despite the habitual promise of education “that if we are given the tools we’ll do the job.” The job that education can do is critical in seeing that expenditure in children’s health has been invested wisely, that reducing child poverty brings real benefits to the economy and the nation and that supporting families the critical contribution to creating the capability of people to earn a family sustaining wage, to support children that they have and to live a healthy life in which they contribute to their community.

If only Mr Bumble had seen the wisdom of giving little Oliver another bowl of soup!

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