Archive for August 2011

Talk-ED: Education creates jobs

Stuart Middleton
29 August 2011

There is a lot of talk currently about the importance of job creation if economies are to position themselves to grow out of the recessionary murk that pervades. But a lot of this obsession misses the point.

Education creates jobs. Jobs won’t create education and the benefits that go with them. So the focus only on a so-called “pipeline” that has jobs at the end of it misses the point. There is another pipeline that matters more – education.

The reason that so many young people are unemployed is not solely because the number of jobs has decreased but significantly more so because so many young people are unemployable. Even if the jobs appeared overnight the impact on the great pile of unfulfilled potential would be slight. The creation of youth employment rates would similarly put a few into work but they would not make the unemployable ready for work.

Years ago, the Manukau City Council, in a move rare among territorial authorities at the time, wrote an economic development strategy. It then was obvious that alongside that there was a need for an employment strategy. Having completed that, it was clear that the final piece of the jigsaw puzzle of a well-educated and knowledgeable community was an education strategy. Education begets employment begets economic growth.

It is no coincidence that Silicon Valley grew around Stanford University –indeed it got its start on Stanford land and with a great push from the Stanford Research Centre, established to give impetus to economic development after the Second World War. (Stanford University could also benefit from the income from land it couldn’t sell!) People like David Packard and Bill Hewlett weren’t recruited through an employment programme and subsequently turned out to be quite good – they were proven graduate students invited to pursue their work in the Stanford area. Education leads to job creation which leads to economic growth.

Some of the mythology around Bill Gates talks of how he “dropped out” of Harvard. Burst through the top would be more accurate than drop out of the bottom. He was greatly successful at every step of his education, well supported by his parents and got a great start at his exclusive primary school. He got opportunities to explore computers both in school and through parental connections in private companies; he produced the computer programme for scheduling classes at his school; in his sophomore year at Harvard the development of new computers presented him with what he saw as an opportunity to set up a company which he did with his parents’ support and approval. Educational “dropout”? Not for a moment. Education leads to job creation which leads to economic growth.

If there is a challenge in terms of economic growth in New Zealand and Australia it is the challenge of so many young people who at the point of completing their basic schooling do not have the skills to continue with an education that would make them employable. Once upon a time there were opportunities for such youngsters – low skilled and unskilled employment offered a chance to them to get a foot in the door and on the ladder. But that has dried up. Once upon a time a benign employer would give a raw kid a chance and that often turned out well. But that has dried up.

The young person who has the skills of employability – team work, communication, leadership, time management, creative thinking, striving for excellence – and can back these up with good literacy, numeracy and digital skills will be likely to be able to successfully seek employment. More so, if they have completed an educational programme in disciplines relevant to the field in which they are looking and can clearly demonstrate a few personal skills of energy, commitment, enthusiasm and good verbal skills. It probably helps not to have bits of wire stuck through odd places and tats on the forehead. None of that seems too hard and those who successfully complete their schooling and a postsecondary qualification will generally measure up.

We need a steady supply of such young people into the labour force at all levels so that those ahead of them can create the new jobs. Growth comes from such leadership and will never be created simply by wishing it could be. It is not the new recruit who will produce growth, they simply make it possible for the experienced and the developers and the entrepreneurs to do so.

Therefore is it pointless becoming paralysed by the clichés? We need to prepare people for jobs which don’t yet exist – what about preparing them for the ones that do? Everyone will have seven careers in a lifetime – what about getting them ready for the first one? We need new kinds of integrated skills – it helps to have skills that can be integrated. Growth happens because successful and highly educated professionals pull disciplines and activity in new directions creating new opportunities for those coming in. Businesses expand because they can do so with some confidence that there is a skilled workforce able to support the growth.

Economic growth is reliant on our creating more people who instead of taking from the public purse are able to contribute to it. And that requires high level educational success for all. Education creates jobs. When education fails, it only creates jobs in education. Education outcomes trump labour market outcomes every time!

Pathway-ED: Sir. I am against … [fill in the blank]…

Stuart Middleton
25 August 2011

The first three letters to the editor in my newspaper yesterday were about education – Teach First New Zealand, Don Brash’s “let the successful schools set up franchises and National Standards.” They were all against what they wrote about which seems to be the prevailing mood in education discussions these days. Everyone seems to know what they don’t like, won’t have and can’t tolerate. You get very little sense of a positive contribution based on what they would support, will have and can believe in.

I think it too simplistic to say that all this is simply the mood of the change averse. Teaching is too hard and education too difficult an environment unless you have resilience that, it seems to me, has at its heart not only in understanding that change happens but also a commitment to making it happen. So what is behind all this?

The notion that there can only be one track into teaching and that is through the conventional pre-service or postgraduate teacher education programmes has never been true. Teachers have come into teaching without that track for a good part of the history of education systems, have come into teaching with little or no qualifications at different times, have come in as pupil teachers at other times – there has not always been this one way that has developed especially in the last thirty years.

In 1980 I wrote with a colleague a proposal for a different kind of teacher education programme based in the secondary school, supported by the teachers college through a short preparation, block courses etc. It had all the components of a professional teacher education but was located in a different place. This was in response to the view held strongly at that time in the developing of multicultural schools that the colleges were not meeting their needs. The proposal was read with politeness and shelved.

So it is not new to think that there might be a different way and Teach First New Zealand might well be that way. It is to happen in the controlled and professional environment of the school so school students will not be at risk. If it attracts more quality young graduates into teaching then it will be a good thing. That it is supported by the Faculty of Education at the University of Auckland suggests to me that the quality will be sound.

Now the franchise idea. There is a franchise of Catholic schools operating in New Zealand, one of certain private schools – this might be an idea that has some merit. There is certainly a logic in the centralised administration of a franchise that says that resources might be more effectively used and various functions might well be managed better. But is it the solution to lift schools of moderate performance and would all students under such an approach benefit? Who knows?

The experience in other countries of highly “successful” schools taking over “failing” schools is mixed but there are examples where the one kind of school has informed improvement in the other. What accounts for these dramatic changes? In North Caroline USA, the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools has responded to the national call to close failing schools down or to hand them over to outside expert organisations to fix and instead is linking schools and swapping staff and seeing marked changes. Now Brash went much further than this and I wonder what frightens us. If we have got it right with our current model then such an experiment would not have impact. On the other hand, what if it worked? I remain doubtful. But it is better to both promote and reject ideas through argument rather than blind faith.

Finally, the old chestnut of National Standards – I still wait to hear from the education community, a new argument based on a better idea. If educators are not going to come up with one then the field is wide open for anyone to have go. Letters to editors that say that schools are already doing it and much more, seem to me to support the idea rather than reject it. Why isn’t the case against National Standards put succinctly, in plain language and based on evidence? That is after all what the National Standards is seeking in reporting to parents.

All three letters are essentially about topics that coalesce into one – a desperate search for solutions to what is seen as the intractable issue of failure in education – failing to get the right people into teaching, replacing failing schools by replicating schools perceived to be successful schools and addressing issues of students who fail.

Letters to the Editor are an interesting read. I acknowledge that they are selected and I know who does the selecting and wonder about that – they are certainly not a reflective slice of opinion. But why are they too often simply a rejection of an idea rather than a contribution to a discussion?

PS:  I acknowledge that the writers of the letters might not be teachers or have any specialist knowledge of education but that is another issue and a challenge that faces us.

Talk-ED: The Great Big Smouldering Issue!

Stuart Middleton
22  August 2012

It’s funny how you can be busily engaged in something at home and yet you can smell the pot starting to burn on the stove. You only hope that it is not too late and that neither the veges or the pot are beyond retrieval.

I instinctively feel that I can smell an educational pot starting to burn – the issue of youth unemployment, youth disengagement from school and teenage parents.

Increasingly you read reports and studies that have titles such as The Silent Epidemic and The Forgotten Half. Such titles capture pretty well the nature of this building crisis. It is reaching proportions where half of youth between 15 and 24 years are caught up in youth unemployment and/ or disengagement and it has crept up on us. This is at least worrying and at worst disastrous.

In twenty or so years time this considerable part of a generation will be aged between 35 and 44 years old, be parents, and be a critical segment of a New Zealand economy. Can we maintain our standard of living if this group has little potential to create wealth? Can we expect their children to succeed where they have failed? Can we expect this large group not to be a charge against the state?

I have written plenty about disengagement and policies such as the current Youth Guarantee set of initiatives that will help. But more fundamental changes are required in our schools. Multiple pathways through which young people have a range of options that lead them through to university and polytechnics, through to real qualifications that will ease their entry into the workforce, bring incomes (both to them through wages and to us through the tax they pay) and provide them with the wherewithal to support their families well through education.

So we need to keep on working on those areas but with greater urgency, wider reach and more marked impact.

I read in the newspapers that the Irish are to supply some of the labour required for the reconstruction of Christchurch. I can accept that we could be short on middle level experience – just as a basketball coach cannot teach height, an education provider cannot teach experience. But when it comes to raw grunt that is qualified to entry level, those jobs should go to New Zealanders and young New Zealanders at that.

This might require the Government to create jobs. But we are dealing with crisis here, both in post-quake Christchurch and in the slowly awakening education community. It would be my guess that we could easily train 5,000 young people to enter the workforce in Christchurch to work under supervision within 6 months and to maintain a supply after that. We did it after World War II, why not again now? Polytechnics could be challenged to meet these deadlines and to put into place an ongoing training capability in Christchurch. What about reinventing the “night school”? Drawing a workforce for Christchurch from across the youth of New Zealand has the advantage of returning qualified and experienced workers to many parts of New Zealand when the task is done.

What a golden opportunity we could make out of the unfortunate events. Construction, infrastructure, plumbing, painting, concrete workers, structural engineers and many more – we are here presented with real work to put alongside real training and real qualifications.

I can imagine that all this would not be greeted with joy by those managing the construction contracts but surely some additional support could be given to them to get this major training endeavour under way.

It is said that the needs of Christchurch in terms of rebuilding will take 10 or more years to complete so the timeframes here could change a whole generation and be the step change required if we are to return to an education system that will set most young people off on the pathways to prosperity. An approach like this could take the shape of a NZ Trades Corp.

Teen parents also require a special effort. There are it seems 28,000 young parents who were they not young parents, would be included in the statistics for NEETS (those not in employment, education or training). It seems crazy to simply accept that this group should be inactive (granted there is the not underestimated activity of parenthood) and special programs could easily be put into place for them surely. The great success over many years of units for teen mums would encourage us to set our sights high for the larger group.

There is an urgency about our seeking responses to the unsustainable size of the half of our young people who are dropping out of education and training and possibly out of sight. Bill Gates used to say that we should do something about all this because it is hurting them. He now says we should do something because it is hurting us!

Do I smell a pot burning or is it Rome?

Pathway-ED: NEETs or Not NEETs?

Stuart Middleton
19 August 2011


Sometimes the media is capable of inventing differences in opinion and arguments where none exist. Such was the case when yesterday a television journalist, pursuing a story about unemployed youth, interviewed the Prime Minister and was given a figure of 16,000 and from the Minister of Social Development a figure of 58,000.

Shock horror! Who is telling porkies? Government in disarray? All the usual beat up as the journalist sought to show that the Government was confused beyond comprehension.

In fact it was the journalist who was confused and had little comprehension of what she was being told.

 The Prime Minister was speaking about Unemployed Youth and gave a figure of 16,000 while the Minister was talking about NEET Youth (those Not in Employment, Education or Training) and gave a figure of 58,000. There is a difference between the two groups. In addition, the Prime Minister was speaking about 15 – 19 year olds while the Minister was using the convention used in labour market descriptions of defining “youth” as 15 – 24 year olds.

Unemployed youth are exactly what it suggests – those youth who have been in the labour force but who are now out of work. Up to June this year the youth unemployment rate was 17.3% which was almost three times that of the general unemployment rate. The recession impacts on this area.

But the group which should concern educators is the NEET group – those not in employment, education or training. These are the disengaged, the ones who are simply doing nothing – it does not include those engaged in activity that could potentially benefit them such as travel, are between short periods of employment, taking a break from study etc. More recently it has not included those “engaged” in care-giving.

What do we know about this NEET group?

  •  Most are there because they have disengaged from education and have no useful qualifications.
  • There are more males than females in the group with the male group increasing and the female numbers falling – school attainment patterns are the thought to be the cause of this pattern and of course young mothers at home are now excluded from these calculations.
  • There are more Maori NEETs than any other group – 17% of Maori aged 15-24 are NEETS compared to 14% of Pasifika youths and 8% of European youths.
  •  The proportion of NEETS peaks at 11% around the age of 18 and 19 years quite dramatically as a result of those who fail to make the transition from school to work or postsecondary education or training. It then remains constant at around 8% until age 24 years, the upper limit for this group. Presumably NEETs then graduate into the general unemployment, benefit dependent statistics.
  • The rate of those joining the group of NEETs is constant and in some areas (male, Maori, Pasifika) is increasing subsequently frustrating any progress in reducing the overall group. The only reduction achieved has been through removing caregivers from the calculation.

This is not a pretty picture given the demographic profiles of the different groups, the relatively greater proportion of young people are Maori and Pasifika,  and the increasing numbers of males are becoming NEETs.

It is also a cause for concern that youth caregivers have now been excluded from these calculations since it is also known that youth parents (especially teen mums and dads) tend to have lower levels of educational achievement if they have any. They have low levels of visibility as a group. The prognosis for their futures when they are free of the duties of care is not good. Excluding this group from NEET calculations has reduced the total NEETs figures – is there a message here of the educational preparedness of young people for parenthood in this?  There are nearly 28,000 young people in this category!

Again this NEET phenomenon is one we share with other English-speaking countries. We might despair of the size and seeming intractability of the issue in New Zealand but we still have scale on our side compared to those other countries.  How long will we be able to say this.

Tinkering around with the pocket money of a small group within this larger issue won’t have any impact beyond a possible populist appeal to those who believe that NEETs and other like them should be “dealt with”.  A more rational approach would demand a plan to tackle the issue of NEETs and to get the pipeline working on qualifications and educational success at school. While that work is going on others need to be developing a labour market more benign to youth employment and that includes the creation of many more jobs.

So who was right, the Prime Minister or the Minister of Social Development? Both were. They were talking about different groups. It doesn’t help when journalists add to the confusion.

Talk-ED: Nec Tamen Comsumebatur – Rooting out the Causes of Failure

Stuart Middleton
15 August 2011

Years ago I bought some land that had a lot of gorse on it. Some of it was huge with trunks 5”-6” in diameter. I sprayed it and burned it and it came back. I slashed it and burned it and it came back. In the end I realised that if I didn’t get the roots I was doomed to an inevitable defeat at the hand of this prickly nuisance.

Cutting off the growth above the ground and pouring a little creosote on the exposed stump did the trick. The next year I was able to walk around and pull by hand the stumps out of the ground. It never came back.

I think that this is a parable that governments might wish to heed when addressing the issues of youth benefit dependency. The announcement that youths on benefits are to have their control of money withdrawn could be a good thing and it could be a bad thing.

If it is simply slash and cut and burn it is doomed to fail. If it is the start of a careful system of tracking and monitoring and intervention such as those in Scandanavia then it could be a good thing.

Think Lisbeth Salander in Stieg Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Of course Nils Bjurman was a bad bastard in every way, but the Scandinavians have careful tracking and monitoring and supervision systems and placing someone under complete supervision with control over their money is the most severe intervention. But that level of intervention doesn’t sit there on its own. All Scandinavian young people are tracked and supervised in an attempt to ensure positive outcomes and there is a series of graduated interventions before the complete “ward of state” response.

A recent report from Sweden details the concern because truancy rates in some areas are approaching 2% – we dream of reducing ours to that! Young people have options in education and training. Someone is responsible for educational failure, someone has the job of tracking students to minimise failure and negative outcomes.

It should also be pointed out that to promote an intervention with only this group ignores that there is in operation a pipeline that effectively delivers many more failing young people to that NEETS group. Even if the announced intervention works very well, it will not make a difference as many more youths take their place – without a balanced set of interventions I see a bureaucratic backlog growing at great expense.

What is needed is a complete package and the government has made a good start with this. The Youth Guarantee package is starting to show signs of being a comprehensive set of interventions and new ways of working. It will lead to multiple pathways for young people that will lead them to increased success in education and training, will lead them to qualifications and finally lead them to employment. Trades academies, service academies, fees free places in tertiary, vocational pathways, tracking and monitoring students and effective careers advice and guidance – this is where resources should be directed.

Dealing with the very group that has been targeted in this announcement requires attention to the three dots – access to early childhood education, successfully attaining NCEA Level 2 (and that is the biggest challenge in all this and requires a huge rethink on the part of primary and secondary schools) and the successful attaining of a postsecondary qualification.

The youths on benefits have been created by the failure to address these three issues and by our watching increased levels of behaviour develop that lead to unprecedented levels of dropping out of a positive future. When statistics that point to a creeping upwards of various participation figures are trotted out, they simply fail to acknowledge that we are seeing the development of unprecedented failure among young people.

The recent New Zealand Institute report, Fewer Snakes, More Ladders, is clear – “there are no signs of trends for improvement”.

It is good to see action but tinkering with the major issue of our time will not cut it, just as I did not get a result with the gorse when I tried naively to cut it.

Young people on benefits are a symptom, they are the part of the gorse bush that is above the ground. It is no good dealing to that which is highly visible without also paying attention to that which is hidden but is the root cause.

Talk-ED: Institutional Dating in the Internet Age

Stuart Middleton
8 August 2011

The world of education is a funny place. It remains one of the last bastions of the struggle between the classes only in this instance it is the struggle between academic and vocational.

In Canberra a decision has been made to merge, amalgamate, bring together – what ever word you choose – the University of Canberra and the Canberra Institute of Technology, a TAFE institution. This was recommended by the Bradley of The Bradley Report fame and such a recommendation is entirely within the framework of that report.

But immediately it was announced the discussion attracted the rather inevitable headline – Planned merger of uni, TAFE unwelcome! (The Australian, 5 August 2011). The ration packs were broken out to ready the troops on both sides for the scrap that inevitably lies ahead.

Such announcements mean that some will be winners and some will be losers. And whatever word you do choose to describe this process (which was something of an Australian sport in the late 1980s), there will be a major partner (which wins) and a minor partner (which loses more than it wins).

So what decides the winner/loser designation? It is not size or even quality and especially not the needs of the community – no it all still boils down to good old fashioned status. Education has never managed to develop any sort of willingness to understand or practise parity of esteem. And we all know what that means!

This state of affairs is fuelled by a strange belief that there is a difference between “academic” and “vocational”. Thinking about this distinction for a second or two exposes it for the hogwash that it is. What is more vocational than becoming a medical doctor, a lawyer, or an engineer? What is more academic than becoming an electrician, or a builder or a jewellery maker? All the old distinctions attributed to those two words and the pretentious behaviour they spawn no longer apply.

Yet still the immediate reaction to the suggested amalgamation sees the university Vice Chancellor assuring people that the university would seek to establish a polytechnic as a teaching-only institution for higher vocational qualifications. This was to be a “tri-sector” institution whatever that might be.

On the other hand, Dr Wheelahan, a specialist vocational education specialist, was adopting a defensive stance – it makes sense she claims but she is suspicious about a university takeover – it might not be a “marriage of equals” she fears. Is an institutional merger ever a “marriage of equals”?

It all boils down to the love affair of western education systems with the baccalaureate – status really is a matter of degree or in this case, degrees. Australia is one of those countries (others are the USA and the UK) which believe that goals which establish percentage target for students getting degrees will be the educational action that leads them to the promised land.

Apart from the fact that the countries haven’t much hope in meeting the targets they set (most young people who are qualified to go to university actually get there and the universities have seemed unable over a very long time to lift their successful completion rates), it is not increased numbers of degrees that we need but greatly increased numbers of young people with technical skills and older people with new technical skills.

This is exactly what a vocational institution does, it is why TAFE systems exist. Bringing together the two kinds of institutions – the university that would brand itself as academic and the TAFE institution that would be comfortable with its vocational reputation is an opportunity for rethinking the relationship between the two. It is a chance to think more carefully about the academic dimensions of vocational programmes and the vocational nature of academic programmes.

Instead I predict that both sides of the amalgamation will set out to “protect” the “very special and different” approach that they take to their work. We know that amalgamations do not save money despite financial gains being listed high among the reasons for them more often than not. We know that amalgamations can be managed so as to allow the same old ways of [1] working to continue, most of them have proved just that.

What would be exciting would be for Canberra folk to get together to craft a new approach based on multiple pathways that make opaque the hard distinctions between academic and vocational and offer flexible and linked pathways for students who would have options a little more subtle than pass or fail.

I have always enjoyed the description by Knight and O’Neill in a contribution about amalgamations in Wollongong to a study of mergers in that orgy of getting together in the late 1980s in Australia. They give a hint in the title which is “Mating and Amalgamation” I think they get it right.

Consider the position of some of the then threatened parties, particularly those universities and colleges which were to merge. The cliff edge is no place to indulge in philosophic discourse nor for romantic exploration. There were certain doctrinal problems, for university-college conjunctions amount to what used to be called mixed marriages. Such cross-sectoral mergers contradicted the rhetoric of those government agencies who for years had maintained that one party was refined and academical and the other (no less equal of course) was practical and responsive to needs. Universities might have seen themselves in the former garb but colleges actually came to believe their place was at the kitchen and laundry end of the tertiary abode. In short, it was generally supposed that college/university partnerships were a mis-match and to be opposed by both sides. The universities feared a pollution, the college a subjugation. In uppity circles the University of Wollongong was spoken of as if it were the Whore of Babylon for accepting the local college. As we know from Revelations (17:3), that lady sat upon a scarlet beast having seven heads and ten horns – not a bad description of the academic structure in many a combined institution.

[1] Knight, D., & O’Neill, A. (1988). Mating and amalgamating. In G. Harman & V. L. Meek (Eds.), institutional amalgamations in higher education process and outcome in five countries (pp. 67-72). Armidale: Department of Administrative and Higher Education Studies. 

Pathways-ED: Planting seeds in the garden of Babel

Stuart Middleton
4 August 2011

One of the exciting and challenging ways in which New Zealand has changed over the past forty years has been the explosive flowering of linguistic diversity in our communities. Where once English was heard pretty well everywhere, at least in public, and those other languages were confined to the homes, the churches and the places in which those who shared languages other then English got together, now on the streets and in our daily lives we hear a rich symphony of many languages.

This change has been an uneasy one for New Zealand and from time to time various people have put forward the view that if only everyone spoke English we would all become a happy band of homogenous New Zealanders. Such a view is both delightfully innocent and dangerously ignorant.

When a native speaker of a language other than English learns English they do not become an Englishman or woman – they remain a Samoan, a Sikh, a Somali and so on. But they now have two languages in which they can be Samoan, Sikh and Somali citizen. It could be that in fact that these new skills allow for a confidence that intensifies the feeling of identity.

Where these languages are new to the English-speaking community, they add richness and it is the community that now has  new skills and capabilities. But do we respond positively to this? 

Not always. It is a tired old joke that has more than a grain of truth in it that if you speak two languages you are bilingual, if you speak many languages you are multilingual and if you speak one language you are English. Language learning has never been a strength of English communities so we struggle with linguistic diversity. We struggle to find comfort with indigenous languages in English speaking countries and we continue to believe that if you are going to be a valuable citizen you had better measure up in gems of English language.

Take for instance those professions that stamp arbitrary English language requirements on students and new citizens from language communities other than English. Nursing is one such example. If you arrive in New Zealand as a trained and experienced nurse you cannot offer your skills in nursing for the service of your new community until you have demonstrated a level of skill in English. Well is it more a case that you have to demonstrate the skill of passing an examination in English rather than actual communication. And you have to do this in an examination that a sizeable number of New Zealand English-speaking people would fail – not that they will be stopped from practicing. We simply assume that if by accident of birth you are English-speaking you will be OK. Of course the programs and tests and examinations that you have to pass are evidence of a certain level but it cannot be assumed that it is the level that we require of people from other language communities.

Why are we able to communicate with babies and toddlers easily and yet assume that adults require degree level English in order to communicate with us?

One of the explanations of levels of educational success (or more accurately, failure) for indigenous communities is the extent to which we have removed the first language and expected them to proceed on the basis of a second language. I suspect that this helps explain Maori student educational patterns over a hundred years and that of Pasifika students more recently.

Where students retain a robust first language that they to continue to develop and grow, they are able to learn a new language easily. Metalinguistic processes enable them to learn that new language by reference to their first language -in what ways is this new language the same as or different from the language I already know?

In Sweden, when a student from a particular language community enrols in an institution, that institution is required to find and employ a native speaker from that language community to support the student. This is very enlightened. We could do this easily as we have a rich vein of community members available who would be pleased to be employed in this way. Yes there is a cost but the cost of making education difficult for those who do not bring the correct language into the classroom is much greater.

I strolled down Queen Street in Auckland recently and noticed the rich range of languages I was hearing around me. Perhaps they were all tourists or students from English language schools. But I do hope that they were not. We are the all the richer for having a community characterised by linguistic diversity.

It is one of the great ironies of the modern world that in California, part of the country of E pluribus unum, half of the population cannot speak to the other half. The rift of monocultural obsessions is now complete.

Talk-ED: No excuse for delaying changes

Stuart Middleton
1 August 2011

It has been the mid-year, between semester break for education institutions – even EdTalkNZ had a wee rest!. But it is not that educators get a break really and the conference season has been in full swing.

I get a sense that a mood for change is developing.

New Zealand has moved ahead of other English speaking countries in putting together the pieces of the educational jigsaw that will allow for new approaches to be made in tackling the issues of disengagement and the development of more effective pathways between secondary school and further and higher education.

Those jigsaw pieces are the development of a policy setting that allows for flexibility, the existence of a legislative framework, the solution of cross-sector funding arrangements and the development of new and innovative programmes.

Two conferences held in the break have driven home the points that the educational environment in New Zealand needs to change and that there is no longer any excuse not to change.

New Zealand and Australia share a pretty grim set of statistics of failure, of disengagement, and of poor performance by priority learner groups (i.e. indigenous groups, migrant groups, students with special needs). It is clear that continued tinkering with the current education system cannot lead to the changes which improve results nor can it result in changes that are achieved quickly enough to beat the speed of the demographic changes.

The first conference brought together a wide group of educators involved in working across the interface of secondary and tertiary – secondary/tertiary programmes, trades academies, service academies and mentoring schemes. It was exciting to learn of changes happening in small ways, to hear of results being that thrilled and offered new hope for many students.

It was even more exciting to see the energy that was being brought to the challenges of providing new and multiple pathways that reach out to students and led them into higher level programmes and qualifications. It was the view of one international speaker that something very special was happening.

The conference was put together by the Centre for Studies in Multiple Pathways at Manukau Institute of Technology, the site of New Zealand’s first Tertiary High School – a radical new programme that integrates the school qualifications (NCEA) with postsecondary career and technical qualifications. It has reported some encouraging results after its first year of operation especially in the performance of Maori and Pasifika students.

This was of particular interest to the second conference that brought together a wide range of educators engaged in different endeavours in the field of Maori education. Again the focus was on pathways and pipelines and the need to promote pro-active interventions in both if we are to lift the performance of Maori and Pasifika students – something we simply cannot afford not to do.

A project reported to the conference has seen the development of a web-based tool for Maori students to design and to identify pathways into programmers that already exist. We know that the provision of accurate and detailed information is central to intelligent career advice and guidance and this is a great start.

What has been exciting is that both conferences were evidence of action that encourages us to believe that there is a hope developing that by working differently we really can get different results. As the title of a major report released by the NZ Institute in the past fortnight said – we need “more ladders” and “fewer snakes”.

What educators are realising is that action is possible and no longer, well at least in New Zealand, is there any excuse for inaction. It is no longer a case of “us” and “them”. You know the scenario – “We want to change but they won’t let us!”  “The regulations are so restrictive!” “It’s the curriculum that isn’t appropriate!” “Secondary should be …..!” “Tertiary should be …..” “If only others would do this, that and the other thing!” Same old, same old, boring , boring!

I pointed out to the conferences that while the education pipeline may be badly leaking, quite a number of students are getting through it with great success. Long may that continue. But now is the time for us to once and for all fix those leaks.

Bill Gates summed it up: “We used to say that we needed to do something about all those young people who were failing because it is hurting them. Now we say we need to do something about all those young people who are failing because it is hurting us!”


For those interested the material presented at the two conferences mentioned above is available at and at