Archive for March 2009

Tear down the wall

Stuart Middleton
New Zealand Education Review
Vol. 14 No.11, 27 March 2009, p.16
APN Educational Media (NZ) Ltd.
Wellington

Something there is that doesn’t love a wall….[1]

I wonder from time to time whether the notion of sectors has outlived its usefulness. It seems to me that the walls we place in the way of young students have become something of a series of barriers. I wonder whether the walls that divide the sectors serve a real purpose that is related to the progress of students. Or are they an historical anachronism?

From time to time the landscape would send shivers that challenged the walls. There is a developing debate about the location of early childhood services. Intermediate schools grew in response to the demographic earthquake after the Second World War sprouting from the ruins of the Junior High School experiment that never went anywhere. Various reforms attempt to dislodge the rocks. We have several integrated campuses that bring primary and secondary together. We are developing Junior High Schools and Senior High Schools. Much attention is starting to be paid to the transition from secondary to postsecondary.  But this all happens in the absence of any debate about sectors. If gaps occur we find new and ingenious ways to plug them.

That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it,
And spills the upper boulders in the sun,
And makes gaps even two can pass abreast….

Refoms and various developments do not, it seems, challenge what we do to any great extent. Largely because, just like the two farmers in the poem, we carefully replace any fallen rock.

And on a day we meet to walk the line
And set the wall between us once again.
We keep the wall between us as we go…..

Reports, commissions, even the royal ones, tend to confirm the status quo and as steady as the farmers, set the rocks back in place again. When issues of pay parity were being argued there was strong support for a view that said that distinctions between the sectors were to some extent spurious. But when it comes to teaching and learning, to school organisation, to the organisation of teaching labour there is no debate. We simply assume that because it has always been thus, it should always be so.

Oh, just another kind of out-door game,
One on a side. It comes to little more:
There where it is we do not need the wall:
He is all pine and I am apple orchard.
My apple trees will never get across
And eat the cones under his pines, I tell him.
He only says, ‘Good fences make good neighbors’.
Spring is the mischief in me, and I wonder
If I could put a notion in his head:
‘Why do they make good neighbors? Isn’t it
Where there are cows?
But here there are no cows.

There is a need for us to have a discussion about why sectors should have the hard edges around them. Could it be that the best location for early childhood services really is inside a primary setting? And what logic deems that children should go away for a particular Christmas holiday to return to education as something else. Could it be that some students should move earlier and others later? And why are some Christmas holidays more important than others.

What is it that demands the walls? We sometimes hear the comforting clichés such as “We’re teaching children they teach subjects!” Would that we did both in all sectors! Is there a curriculum justification for the placement of the walls? Is it based on some understanding of how learning occurs? Is it related to social development? Physical development? Why this obsession with grouping students in age cohorts? What are we protecting here?

Before I built a wall I’d ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offence.

And this is the crux of the matter. We are busily working on a new curriculum for schools and this presents an opportunity to ask how the lack of seamlessness in the organisation of education contributes to the development of lifelong learners who are connected.

An education system with many flexible opportunities but without barriers is not a new idea. “The Minister of Education is currently working with the education community to design a way of resourcing this seamless education system to allow these educational opportunities to flourish and to build an education system for the twenty-first century. Education must provide strong foundations, and a wide range of opportunities thereafter, to meet the diverse needs of all New Zealanders. The education system must be without barriers to participation and life-long learning.”[2] The Minister was Dr Lockwood Smith, the year was 1993, the government was a National government.

The farmers continue until the wall is once again strong and the one that wonders about walls make little progress with his neighbour who has been brought up to believe in certain things.

Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That wants it down…..’
He will not go behind his father’s saying,
And he likes having thought of it so well
He says again, “Good fences make good neighbors.”


[1] Mending Wall  Robert Frost
[2] Ministry of Education (1993) Education for the 21st Century, Wellington. 

A role for education

Stuart Middleton
New Zealand Education Review
Vol. 14 No.10, 20 March 2009, p.16
APN Educational Media (NZ) Ltd.
Wellington

We have been left in no doubt that as far as economic crises go; this is a big one, overshadowed in terms of scale only by the Great Depression and in terms of government intervention, only by the Second World War.

Inevitably, just like all the men and women on the streets, education will be hit and will have a role to play.

During the Great Depression of the 1930’s education spending was reduced through closing the Auckland and Dunedin teachers colleges. Dental clinics and kindergartens were also closed and the school starting age put up to 6 years old. Teacher numbers were reduced which resulted in larger classes. Public servants took a 10% wage cut.

Expenditure on education fell by about 30% between 1930 and 1934 – so it was pretty savage.

The latest economic crisis is not likely to see such a response from any sort of government in New Zealand these days since it would be counter-productive. But education can be expected to both take a hit of some kind and to be required to play a role.

In the 1930’s the response was to seek to find work of any kind for those out of work. Some had to travel to remote places to undertake useful work such as the Te Anau / Milford Road. Others stayed closer to home to engage in less obviously useful work such as the construction of stone walls such as those around Ellen Melville Park and Newmarket School in Auckland. Those left at home had simply to fill the gaps and get on with it.

Despite the disappearance of training from the 9-day fortnight at this early stage, it is clear that education and training will be the work camps of this crisis. Those who cannot be employed fully and especially those who cannot be employed at all should be given access to free education and training. We know with certainty that on the other side of any downturn is the swing back up. Placing those who take the negative impact of this downturn into a position where they can make the most of the upswing is the only decent thing to do.

But this will require tertiary education providers – Institutes of Technology and Polytechnics, Private Training Providers, Wananga and Universities – to think a little differently about how they work in terms of scheduling courses, how they accommodate more students around the margins at little cost, how they make ends meet without seeking a student contribution from those already struggling.

This is not a time for intra-sector squabbles (names are withheld to protect the guilty) – it is rather a time for unity and co-operation. Nor is this a time for esoteric arguments about the “cap” and other interesting issues of funding from either the government or the providers. It is a time for unity and for spending as much or as little as is required to lift the skills and the spirits of those bearing the impact of the financial pressure.

Schools will similarly feel some pressure. Tony Simpson’s wonderful chronicle of the great depression – The Sugarbag Years – notes various impacts of the times on schools. There was a clear decline in the rolls of private schools which placed pressure presumably on the state system. There were fewer resources but remember that this was a time when the schools relied heavily on teaching and student resources provided centrally. There were the cutbacks and closures mentioned at the start of this piece.

Perhaps the biggest contribution schools can make is to work on the pleasing increase in senior rolls reported this year to ensure high levels of students leaving to continue their education and training.

Schools might also have a capacity to entice back young people who are doing nothing. Boot camps might sound all very well to some people but boot-strap camps sound better! Increasing the use of facilities and offering teaching to groups of these young people out of conventional school hours and terms and in different ways, might have some attraction to the layabouts who think that the world owes them a living but now see that the world doesn’t even feel obligated to give a living to decent good people who are prepared to make an effort.

The first Chairman of the Board of Trustees at the then Nga Tapuwae College in Mangere was Brian Edwards, son of Jim Edwards, the famous workers’ leader through the depression years of the 1930’s. Brian had seen plenty of struggles in his younger days and he knew that education was critical if people were to avoid the worst and most brutal vulnerability brought about by economic deprivation. Skills and the ability not only to be employed but also to be employable were at the heart of his view of the school and all that it did.

He was perplexed by the seeming disengagement that was already then becoming apparent. I recall him saying to a group of young people “You have to work hard now so that you will be OK when things get tough.” He knew that those who filled the ranks of the low-skilled and the unskilled were the ones most at risk. He knew that inevitably tough times were always waiting up ahead.

While that is now a little simplistic, essentially it remains a truth. New Zealand is being presented with an opportunity through this crisis. It can reposition the skill sets of many who are already in the workforce. It can tackle the issues of the leaking educational pipeline. It can lift the levels of literacy skills, of technological skills, or managerial skills.

Perhaps the crisis will also teach us that simple lesson, the only lesson that will address issues of productivity: we will all have to work harder. And if we want to work shorter hours (as do the French) then more of us have to be ready and equipped to work.

If education hasn’t got a role to play in all this then I will eat several hats!

Helping the first to finish

Stuart Middleton
New Zealand Education Review
Vol. 14 No.9, 13 March 2009, p.16
APN Educational Media (NZ) Ltd.
Wellington

Overseas they are starting to use the term “First Generation Student” instead of the “First in Family” label that we have become familiar with in New Zealand, This describes those students who go on to postsecondary education but who have no parent who went past high school.

We have known that this phenomenon is important and that the impact a successful First Generation Student has on other siblings and future generations of the family is profound. Get one child through from such a setting and the family is changed forever. What we have not known so clearly is just why this presents such a challenge to us.

A recent survey from North America drills down into the issues and comes to a conclusion that suggests that we should be able to address this issue in a positive manner.

Conventional wisdom has always been that it is the educational aspirations of First Generation Students that is the factor that limits performance and persistence at the postsecondary level. New Zealand is the third from the bottom of the OECD in terms of the proportion of students who enter a tertiary programme and leave without at least a first tertiary degree. (Only the United States of America and Italy are worse.) So persistence is a wider issue than merely that which affects First Generation Students. With them, therefore, there must be other factors and there is a growing body of opinion that aspirational factors are only part of the picture.

Certainly by the end of high school, there is evidence that First Generation Students have “lower” aspirations when measured in comparison to other students. But there is not clear evidence that this is the result of having lower ambition, or having a lower regard for the importance of education.

It is more likely that at behind this apparent brake that is placed on progression from secondary to postsecondary education is a simple question of lack of information. When parents have had no experience of postsecondary education and therefore of the transition between secondary and postsecondary education, students are less likely to develop a pathway that will take them there. Nor are they likely to develop a realisation that they lack the knowledge to do so. Educational institutions do not by and large focus on the First Generation Students as a category of students that requires specific and early interventions. Some might not even know who they are!

This suggests that there is nothing inherently handicapping in this situation since it should be possible to provide the information. The condition of First Generation Students should therefore be seen less as an intrinsic or insurmountable disadvantage and more as a mere lack of information and role models. We ought to be able to address this issue by providing the information.

That begs the question of whether role models (as in for instance parents who have been educated beyond high school) are important and whether others can perform this function. Well there are no substitute for parents so it would take a pretty radical intervention to adequately substitute a role model for a parent. No, it will have to happen outside the home and is probably the school.

Of course having an adequate level of academic preparation is also essential but that is why education institutions exist. Ensuring that students are enrolled in courses that contribute to this is critical. There is evidence that First Generation Students enrol in courses that are less rigorous and even, especially in the USA, courses that are simply not able to have them qualify for progression into college or university. Similar suggestions have been made that this is also the case here in New Zealand.

Providing knowledge has a deceptively simple look about it. But it is not that simple at all. Knowledge about education, the pathways through it and where they go, start early in a home and are cumulative. It is information that is internalised not simply a brochure that is read at the point of decision-making. The excitement generated by starting school after several years of quality early childhood education build on engagement into an ethic that sees reward in early success that underpins a capacity to develop and sustain long term goals. But where these cannot be nurtured and cultivated by parents who often through no fault of their own, simply doesn’t happen. Not without intervention and who, in such a setting, is to do this?

It is not only about what happens before the point of school leaving is reached. After that, when a First Student Generation has got across the divide into a postsecondary institution, the experience they face will be different from other students. Studies from the USA report that these students are less likely to live on campus, to develop relationships with lecturers and staff (who they do not see as being concerned about their progress) and they will work in jobs earning money off campus. As a result they do not develop strong relationships with their fellow students nor do they engage in campus activity.

Now if we look beyond the USA characteristics of these findings, we can translate these findings into questions about New Zealand students who are First Generation Students. Do they tend to live at home rather than amongst other students? Do they develop a more distant relationship with staff? Are New Zealand staff members interested in their progress? Do the realities of student finances force students from such a background into work that interferes with study?

It is a vexed question, this business of getting First Generation Students into postsecondary. A recent study of the topic came to the conclusion that an institution of higher education cannot change the lineage of its students. But it can implement interventions that increase the odds that first-generation students “get ready,” “get in,” and “get through” by changing the way those students view college and by altering what they do after they arrive.

Stepping off the summit

Stuart Middleton
New Zealand Education Review
Vol. 14 No.8, 6 March 2009, p.16
APN Educational Media (NZ) Ltd.
Wellington

The recent job summit focussed predominantly on the here and now as it should indeed have done so.

A recent report published by the Committee for Auckland – “Growing Auckland Growing New Zealand” – gives cause for us to think that we should also focus on the medium term. We baby boomers are in our working prime but will soon start to exit the workforce in significant numbers. In fact a pattern has already been detected where more are leaving the workforce than are joining it. Bernard Salt, leading Australian commentator on demographic trends, calls the period when this figure approaches and then reaches zero, perhaps dips into negative territory and then pulls slowly back into a positive position, the demographic faultline.

New Zealand’s demographic faultline will occur in New Zealand between 2022 and 2032. That’s not that far away. During that, we will simply be unable to renew our workforce. As people leave they will be unable to be replaced. Other, that is, than by immigration.

The issue with this is that countries that experienced the baby boom will all experience the demographic fault-line at about the same time. During that period, competition for immigrants will be fierce.

Immigration will solve our problems will be the cry. It might well do so but how good are we at managing immigration and immigrants?

Well, we can attract educated immigrants. In fact, as a group, foreign-born New Zealanders are more highly educated than native-born New Zealanders. New Zealand attracts the educated and talented migrant. Rather than there being a brain drain, there is a brain gain. In terms of secondary education and at the bachelor degree level, New Zealanders born overseas are more highly qualified than those born in New Zealand.

But there is a catch to all this. Foreign-born New Zealanders are twice as likely to be unemployed. And we all know the stories – taxis driven by qualified medical doctors, qualified nurses emptying bed-pans in old folk’s homes. We attract immigrant talent but then waste it. Why do we do this?

Partly it is because of a completely foolish attitude towards English spoken with an accent. Hundreds of nurses who can speak English well are not allowed to practice their vocation because it has been decided that an irrelevant English language test has more validity than sound training programmes, experience and commitment. The only valid test would be one based on the English needed to be a nurse, or an engineer, or a teacher. Sitting a generalised test of English language is not a test of language in the real world other than in the real world of sitting a generalised test. Nurses, teachers and accountants are here and available to contribute but are locked out because of these attitudes. There should be an enquiry into this.

It has been reported that if Canada were to solve the issue of unrecognised qualifications it would mean an additional $4.1 – 5.9 billion of income each year. I wonder what the gains would be to New Zealand. Do we even want to know?

I frequently hear employers complaining of the need to recruit new staff from overseas. Are qualified migrant workers here being overlooked or being placed into work that is well below their qualification level?

Then there is the matter of the young ones. One response to the threat of the demographic faultline waiting out there for us in about 12 years time would be to solve the issue of young New Zealanders, both native born and foreign born, who slip through school without achieving, who disengage from learning and who become a liability rather than an asset. If the NEET estimates are right, the 25,000 young people not in employment education or training could be very handy when we get short of workers.

That should be a goal.

The one thing we know about an economic crisis is that after the downturn comes the recovery. The current declining employment opportunities present an opportunity for some creative thinking about the work force and how to nourish it.

A very good thing about the job summit was that ROSLA (raising of the school leaving age) never made an appearance. School leaving ages have never worked and raising it never results in higher standards achievement. Quite the reverse. Proportionately fewer 16 year olds are engaged in schools now with the leaving age at 16-years than was the case when the leaving age was 15-years.

Jurisdictions that raise school leaving ages (for this read Australian states and the good old UK) have simply run out of ideas.

What is needed is a legally enforceable education and training requirement up to the age of 20 with an employment requirement for two years after that. And this should be monitored. Other countries do this and so should we. Most young people will be engaged and require only the lightest of monitoring. The hard core will require insistent and clear monitoring.

 Perhaps another area would be that of the students in summer employment. This year could be tough with fewer jobs available. Local authorities and tertiary institutions could be harnessed on this one. Creative employment that enhances communities and institutions would be paid with a $4,000 scholarship that can only be cashed up for the following years tuition fees. The University of Auckland has suggested that research would be an area with many opportunities for such a scheme.

Keeping students out of the conventional workforce this year would probably be a useful move.

Harnessing the skills of foreign born New Zealanders. Education and training release time. Innovative student holiday employment schemes. Increased management training. And so on. And so forth.

There are lots of ways we could get this country working