I want New Zealand to be built on our skills and talent that is finely tuned to compete with the best in the world. I frankly doubt that the education system we have today can do what we will be asking of it.
We know that education is everything; get that right, and everything flows from it, as I have learnt from my own experience.
I was once hired by ‘Save the Children’ to work in Sri Lanka where a war was being fought between the government in the south and the Tamil Tiger rebels in the north. I was given a job of taking exam papers across the front line from the government side to the rebel side.
It meant travelling down a single road that was mined on either side. Eventually we got the exam papers around the various schools.
I stopped to talk at one place to community leaders about why exam papers (of all things) were so important to them. I asked them, “Why had we not we brought them medicine, or food, that were critically in short supply?”
They told me that all those other supplies would help with the needs of today, but only education offered opportunity to those children.
Education could break their cycle of deprivation.
If you are prepared to invest in the future, your fate can change.
Now, what happens if we put this in the New Zealand context?
The first thing we can say is, “We have some very high-achieving children and some high-achieving schools. The best and the brightest do very well and I am proud of them.
I am not just interested in the bunch that leads the marathon into the stadium. Some of them are outstanding and the very best of them finish their race in world record time. They are an inspiration for others.
Not good enough
If you track back along the rest of the field, it does not look so world class.
Many of them are coming in hours later. Many of them are giving up before the finish and too many of them are not even turning up at the starting line.
We have a long tail of failure and we have to fix it.
It is important to acknowledge that some of the fixes need to happen outside the school gate, in homes where children grow up in poor or dysfunctional families.
I have spent my life fighting for children in this situation. I want them to succeed.
That is why my goals for education are ambitious.
I will not be satisfied until every child in New Zealand gets excellent education, and until every child in New Zealand is being equipped to flourish.
There is so much more we can do than we are doing right now.
Instead of the distraction over national standards, we need to focus on how we get the highest quality teachers in the world and the best performing students; not just a better system, the best.
I want the best educational achievement in the world.
What do we have to fix, then?
Study after study shows that the most important ingredient is the quality of teachers. We need to value teachers.
We need every teacher in our classroom to be a good one. While a vast majority of them is good, the truth is that some are not good enough.
We will work with teachers to develop their professional skills, but ultimately we cannot afford to have bad teachers in our classrooms.
As a parent, I want to put badly run schools on notice. I expect excellence from every school. We need to spend more on early childhood education.
Experts agree a dollar spent on a child before five will save $11 spent on crime and welfare later. We need to make the most of our great early interventions, such as reading recovery programmes.
We know they do a great job of picking up children who fall behind. They have been copied all over the world, and yet they are not available in every school in New Zealand.
We know that once children miss that early start, their chances of catching up are slim. We cannot miss that golden opportunity.
We know that if we reach into schools and give 16 year olds a track into other training before they drop out, we give them a chance of an entirely different life.
That opportunity should be available to every student.
David Shearer is the Leader of the Labour Party and Leader of the Opposition in Parliament. The above is an edited version of the speech that he delivered at the Cullen Breakfast Club in Wellington on March 15, 2012.