Archive for May 2014

Not Recommended Without Qualification

I have just emerged from Graduation Week – 4,500 certificates, diplomas and degrees awarded in person or in absentia through a number of ceremonies. They are marked by great excitement on the part of the graduates and even greater excitement from families and the wider community. And the whole lot brings great pleasure to all the staff – those who teach and those who support.

Such a week drives home the importance of qualifications. They are the currency of learning, the passe-partout for the journey from education and training into the next journey into employment and advancement. It is all very well for those who teach to speak in lofty terms of “learning” and “self-improvement” and other such aims and goals of education. But to the students, at that moment, it is about the parchment.

The quality of the course is neither immaterial nor to be treated in any way other than one that results in high quality in all respects. But the old saying “never mind the quality, feel the warmth” has no place in our work.

Students know the importance of the track that takes them to that moment of triumph when they walk across the stage. As Steve Jobs insisted – “The journey is the reward”; the experience is what leads to learning which leads to a qualification. But the qualification is the exclamation mark that states to the wider audience that the holder has learnt, the holder has skills, the holder is ready to proceed.

It was there with some irony when during that same week I had one of my qualifications taken away from me. A check was being made on my qualifications and a University in New Zealand from which I had three qualifications advised those making the enquiry that I had not fulfilled the course requirements and therefore did not have one of the qualifications claimed. The irony lies in the fact that I was in possession of a lovely signed and sealed Diploma issued to me in 1979 that stated clearly and in beautiful calligraphed script a simple fact – I had fulfilled the requirements.

I knew immediately that this was the result of error. But I was a little surprised at the indignation I felt at it being denied and the level of that is in direct relation to the feeling of delight that those graduates experienced.

This was not the first time that qualifications have caused me momentary anxiety. When I was in Form 4 the school I was at decided to introduce a Form 4 Certificate so that “most students” would get a qualification before they left school. In those days a clear majority of students left without sitting School Certificate on or soon after their 15th birthday. Well a special assembly was called and the certificates were to be presented. The names were read out alphabetically and as they approached the “m’s” excitement mounted – not everyone was getting them.  The names proceeded, “Marks, Andrew; Meddling, Patricia; Middleton, Ewen;…” He was my twin brother so I would be next. But the names continued….”Mitchellson, Clarossa; Mousey, Thomas; Mustique, Francoise; …” I had missed out.

Mixed emotions flooded through my mind, mostly around the tricky question of how I would break this news to my parents.

Fortunately an alert teacher had spotted the error and before day’s end the matter was put to rights. Getting the piece of paper mattered.

And so we take great care with graduations and the result is just and fair recognition of people for having “graduated”, not for having enrolled, not for having passed a paper, but for getting the qualification. And families share in this – the pain of the journey ios one that is shared with them, the rewards quite properly are also shared with them.

And when students leave the stage holding their proof of hard work, of progress along the journey of life, the world seems a better place because of their efforts.

 

It’s not the party it used to be.

“Those were the days my friend
We thought they’d never end
We’d sing and dance forever and a day…….”

We would sing songs such as this lustily at parties when I went to university in the 1960s and we really did believe that “they would never end.” Especially when it came to free tertiary education.

Well, it was as close to free as you could wish – I recall paying a services fee of perhaps $70 and that was it. Added to that was the fact that I also had a Secondary  (it might even have been Post-Primary then) Teacher’s Studentship which meant that a wage was paid while I was at university and this bonded me to teach for the same length of time as I had been supported. And…. In addition to all that, holiday employment was easy to get.

So we worked hard and had a really great time at university. I say we because my twin brother and I stuck pretty closely together on these matters. And our only academic distinction is that we were the first set of twins to graduate from the University of Waikato.

These things come to mind as I face going down to Hamilton on Saturday to meet with the “Early Students Reunion”. This is for those who attended Waikato in its first two years 1964 and 1965 and it is part of the year’s 50 year celebrations. It will be great to see what was a pretty tight bunch of students who formed the core student body in those first two years at the Hillcrest site. There were some part-timers as well and especially so after the teachers college opened on the site in about 1965.

And thinking about students and money it is hard to see that the current situation where students stack up debt to quite a considerable degree in order to get a degree is actually an improvement on what used to happen.

This might have driven the odd (in all senses of the word) “professional student” out of the system – there weren’t such people of course in provincial Hamilton back then but when I spent a year at the University of Auckland I was surprised by the apparent occupational class of “full-time-students-not-engaged-in-serious-study and perhaps-in-no-study-at-all!”.

But worse, it leaves graduating students not with the thrill of making a real start in life, a job that might lead to a career. Now, it’s a case of getting an income that will allow them to pay off debt. This means that it takes time for them to develop savings. I wonder, is this part of the issue of young people not being able to afford homes in their mid-twenties? They will just be starting to gain momentum free of debt when other sets of responsibilities come along.

It is pleasing that the Government is countenancing increasingly programmes and initiatives that are free of fees – Youth Guarantee is a good example although this is also driven by the issue of allowing students the same right to a free education that secondary school students enjoy to the age of 19 years. The Maori and Pasifika Trades Training initiative is another good example but again this is in one sense simply giving priority to an under-served group labeled as “priority learners”.

The tired old argument about whether tertiary education is a public good or a private gain needs to be put to one side – it is clearly both. And both outcomes – public good and private gain – are good for the family, the community, the economy and the country. And finding ways of engaging our best young people in teaching by schemes such as the old Div C Studentship should be considered. Ignoring quality can be the only way that the old tired market view that there is no shortage of people wanting to teach therefore there is no need for such an approach can be pursued.

We need top students who will become top teachers, students who are excellent in mathematics and sciences and other subjects, those who are clearly destined to be good leaders, the articulate and the enthusiastic – all qualities and characteristics that can be gauged at a school leaving age.

We thought they’d never end and those might well have been the days – but they did end and these days are not so great for students.

I hope we don’t get morose thinking about this at the reunion.

Cue in music. Start singing.

Once upon a time there was a tavern
Where we used to raise a glass or two
Remember how we laughed away the hours
And dreamed of all the great things we would do

 

Two out of three just isn’t good enough!

 

Universal, secular and free were the concepts that underpinned the establishment of the New Zealand education system in the 1877 Education Act. It was considered to be forward looking in world terms at that time.

The same sentiment was captured in the Beeby / Fraser statement in 1939 which tried to restate the 1877 commitment in a system that was growing quickly and admitting to a greater diversity.

“The Government’s objective, broadly expressed, is that all persons, whatever their ability, rich or poor, whether they live in town or country, have a right as citizens to a free education of the kind for which they are best fitted and to the fullest extent of their powers. So far is this from being a mere pious platitude that the full acceptance of the principle will involve the reorientation of the education system.”

This greater diversity spawned the Thomas Report (1942) which fiddled with the secondary curriculum with regard to School Certificate and later The Currie Commission of 1962, undoubtedly at that time, the most comprehensive review of education since 1877, reinforced the qualities of inclusiveness. Since then a succession of governments have interpreted through policy their own particular bent on what it all meant.

Universal? Well if you put to one side the students who are denied early childhood education and those who drop out of the school system, the system can lay some claim to being universal. So we will give that a pass mark.

Secular? By and large you could say that our schools are secular. Except for the state integrated schools that have permission to be non-secular and a range of schools with special character that reflect different sets of beliefs. It is unclear in the 1877 Act whether ‘secular’ meant ‘free from all religious observance’ or simply ‘non-sectarian’ but that might simply be a construction put on the Act to allow for the use of prayer and the singing of hymns that characterized school assemblies when I went to school. But certainly the system could be said to be secular in as much as the bog-standard school (not private, not state integrated, and not special character) is considered to be not based around or promoting religious practices.

Free? Well this one is the joke. Of course education is not free! Huge amounts of government funding in early childhood education ends up in the hands of business who charge huge amounts to parents for early childhood education. Yes, some get it for free but a large number do not. And the 20 Free Hours give parents some relief in accessing  ECE services but often as a supplement to the other 20 hours that they pay in order to work a 40 hour week.

The school system? Free? Now this issue has really surpassed itself in its annual outing which came later this year then previously. It has become apparent that the differences between compulsory fees (never, of course, called that) in high decile schools runs hugely above that able to be sought as community contributions in low decile schools. Not only that, the attempt of some high decile principals to describe the demands made of parents of primary students as “compensating for the advantageous funding that low decile schools get” should be treated as the joke that it is. Or perhaps it is simply delusion.

Of course, they righteously claim on the one hand that such fees are for activities and not tuition and on the other speak about the importance of a wide curriculum that involves the very same activities. The funding advantage of high decile schools over low decile schools is a very serious attack on the principles of equity and in these practices lie some explanations for the continued stubbornness of some of the statistics of disengagement and student achievement.

If it is appropriate for communities to fund education through direct contributions (school fees / contributions etc) as well as through indirect contribution (income tax) then some level of equitable funding across all schools should be achieved even if it calls for a lowering of the level of funding for high decile schools.

We spend as a country quite enough on education. The issue is not the quantum of funding but rather the use to which it is put.

And have we achieved an education system that is “free”? Not on your life and that is without mentioning post-secondary education – I shall take that up on Thursday!

 

“…For the loser now will be later to win…”

Just back from Australia and it is interesting how such a visit brings perspective to issues and topics of interest.

I have been feeling for some time now that things are about to change, especially in the Anglo-Saxon countries which for 50 years have by and large got a lot wrong in education.

Three connected themes are emerging:

·         earlier access to quality career and technical education which brings about improvements in educational outcomes;

 ·         the questioning of the absolute dominance of the university-bound “academic” pathway both for its appropriateness for many students and for its insatiable appetite to absorb funding;

 ·         the need for reconsideration of current sector organization models of the education systems which are increasingly seen as a troubling block to lifting achievement.

Each of the Anglo-Saxon educations systems is now seeing an increase in the numbers of students gaining earlier access to career and technical education. The pathways schools in Canada, the university technical colleges in the UK, many academy / charter schools in the USA, initiatives in Australia and, of course, the youth guarantee stable of secondary/tertiary programmes in New Zealand are each examples of how the integration of sound and continuing academic preparation can not only be combined with but is in fact enhanced by a closer focus on postsecondary qualifications in career and technical areas at a younger age.

The Anglo-Saxons simply have to come clean – the experiment of comprehensive high schools proved to be neither comprehensive nor very successful. The result was a set of educational and employment outcomes that were inferior to those achieved by the schools they replaced. I think I want to reject the view that the development of the comprehensive high schools were essentially based on snobbery – Germany had a dual system of both academic and technical tracks, we beat them in the war, so the American Dream was born – college for all, equity of access to top universities and so on. Well it never happened. Schools lost their variety, pathways disappeared and the so-called academic university-bound track became dominant. Good for those it suited and always had, disastrous for the rest.

But it is not simply a return to what used to be offered to students in a diverse set of schooling options – academic, general, technical, commercial and other tracks which defined outcomes at the outset of secondary education. The new and refreshed approach is one of multiple pathways that are both academic and vocational, which have flexibility, which provide a clear direction with different people delivering programmes in different places and with multiple purposes for learning. So talking the old industrial arts facilities and programmes and organisation out of mothballs won’t be sufficient.

This development in no way undervalues the university-bound pathway – this pathway is also both academic and vocational for many. There is though likely to be a competition for resources as the performance of the education system encourages funders to see that a more equitable spread of funding is a good and necessary investment. This emerged a little in Australia last week. In working to “real identifiable work” the schools will be required to find a new level of flexibility.

“Our kids need to know trades and training are first class career options just like university – they shouldn’t be made to feel like they’re playing on the ‘B Team’ “ says Aussie Federal Asst Minister for Education Sussan Ley. She also sees the need for schools to be more flexible in programme delivery allowing for “real work experience” – the challenge as to what constitutes “being at school” and the “school day” are in the wings and yet to come.

That leads to the third issue – the challenges to the sector organization of schooling. The Catholic education system in Australia is getting ready to shift Year 7 (the equivalent of our Year 8) up to secondary schools in order to provide for a transition that comes at a better spot in the students’ pathway, allowing for a more coherent “junior” high school and therefore opening the way for increased flexibility in the “senior” secondary school.

It is still my view that New Zealand should be seriously discussing the benefits and issues of placing the senior high school (i.e. Years 11-13) into the tertiary sector – now there’s a big topic. Such a shift would allow New Zealand to consider the features of education systems that we admire and give to them a New Zealand flavor.

Are the times a’changin’? If they are then lets hope for more than hugs and bean bags this time round.