The new Coalition government – comprised of Labour, New Zealand First and with support from the Greens – is ushering in an era of review that has been largely welcomed by the sector.
In his first interview with EducationHQ New Zealand, Hipkins spoke of updates and positivity – and some of the biggest changes have already been foreshadowed.
Many of the new government’s education policies centre on ensuring the sector is equitable, Hipkins explains.
“My passion is for education and to make sure that school is a level playing field.
"It shouldn’t matter whether you have parents who can pay or parents who can provide you additional support, every child should have the same shot at education,” he says.
“And I don’t think that’s happening in our education system now.
"I don’t think it’s ever happened to the extent that it needs to, and I want to really address that.”
One of the first policies to be announced was the scrapping of National Standards.
Hipkins says this is essential to ensure students are accurately graded and receive a well-rounded education.
In their place, there will be a greater focus on the key competencies listed in the New Zealand curriculum, and plain-language reporting to parents.
“The first and most obvious [problem] is that National Standards are an arbitrary hurdle, they’re not a measure of a child’s progress,” he says.
“And that means that if a child starts their first year of school well behind, they’re making an enormous amount of progress but [don’t] quite hit the hurdle, then they’re judged to be not achieving or not successful or a failure."
The second issue, according to Hipkins, is that National Standards are only focused on measuring literacy and numeracy – leading to the neglect of other subjects.
“We know that, particularly in those primary school years, where children are developing into people, they develop ... their communication skills, their interpersonal skills, a whole lot of things that are much more difficult to measure.
"We want them to focus on those as well as basics like literacy and numeracy.
“We want to focus on the whole curriculum.
"New Zealand’s curriculum is internationally recognised as a very, very good one.”
He says that parents have told him they are frustrated with National Standards reports, which don’t give them an overall picture of their child’s achievement.
“They want more and richer information.
"They want to see some data, not whether they’ve jumped a particular hurdle but whether they’re making progress,” he says.
But what will be replacing National Standards is not yet clear.
“We’re going to leave schools with the professional discretion to use the range of tools that are available to them ... provided they’re using them to provide good information to parents about how their kids are progressing,
"I don’t see the need for government to be collating that data and putting it into a league table.”
Concerns from teachers about low pay and working conditions have dominated education news for some time.
Hipkins flagged working with teachers unions to make “significant progress” on concerns about working conditions, but said he would approach the issue of pay next year in a “reasonable” manner.
“We will do what we can within the fiscal constraints that we have,” Hipkins says.
Charter school repeal is also still on the table, however it won’t be the immediate slashing that some people envisaged; Hipkins admits there is a process to work through before repealing the legislation.
“We’ve got to make sure that the children that are currently attending are well catered for.
"I will never make a decision that results in uncertainty for those children,” he says firmly.
“So for now, they will continue to attend the schools that they’re attending, those schools will continue to operate as normal, while we work through that process.”
Also on the cards is a review of the curriculum as a whole, but Hipkins says this isn’t about overhauling it.
“I don’t see it as being a wholesale rewrite.
"It’s an opportunity to say 'OK, the curriculum was adopted ten years ago...what’s changed in that time, are we still cutting edge or could we make a few changes?'”
He says feedback about the curriculum from parents and schools will be taken into account, and that learning should be relevant to students and the community.
“I want schools to have the flexibility to think about the content that they’re teaching in light of the needs of their local community or the history of their local community ... relevant to the young people that are going to be in their classrooms.”
“I’m not going to rubbish everything that the previous government did, I reckon that they did some good things and the digital curriculum is an example of where they did really adapt to growing demand.
"We’re not going to ditch things just for the sake of ditching them,” Hipkins states.
“I think that they had an agenda to drive greater degree of collaboration between schools that was commendable, I think that the mechanisms they were using to do that were flawed but their objective was the right one.
"I think that we can build on that.
“We’ve already got a lot of momentum.”