Archive for February 2015

Standing by the till or a hand on the tiller!

There was a bit of a flutter last week when the Victoria University of Wellington students’ association publicly spoke out about “internships” and the exploitation of students.

One of the issues with internships is that the term has been captured up till now in New Zealand by only perhaps two employment areas – medicine and law. It has been a long established practice for hospitals and law firms to troll the top of the graduate pile in an effort to lure excellent students into their pool of employees.

But overseas the situation is very different and the work “intern” is applied not only to that sort of experience but also much more generally to describe a student working as an intern in order to get experience or sometimes undertaking work as part of a course requirement.

Internships therefore are not by definition paid positions necessarily. It is over to the employer to decide on these matters. The experience is the reward and will come to sit well in a CV. So why the grizzle that the interns were doing work which was important and mattered?

It is critical that the work be important and crucial that it matters. “Work experience” by and large has a bad name simply because it is neither of these two things. I note each time I am in Australia and see in the retail sector scared and timid school students, lapel-badged as a “work experience student” or a “trainee” standing by the till looking nervous while someone else does the work.  This is not “work experience” but simply a form of employment tourism.

In the 1990s I was Principal at a school close to Auckland Airport. Commercial students (for there was still then such a group) ran the Business Centre at the International Terminal dealing with the demands of international travellers. If they did this during school hours they were not paid, after-hours and weekends they were.  The Food Technology group working under the guidance of their teachers and a professional chef employed by the school operated a canteen that served up to 500 meals a day. The Special Needs Units were in charge of some gardens at the airport.

Now all of this was real world, real work for real people. The students immediately grasped the fact that if they didn’t do the work it would be undone. They appreciated that a satisfied customer was satisfied with them- conversely a grumpy customer …..!

Internships are no frivolous field trip. They offer to university graduates an opportunity to place some practical experience alongside the theory, to demonstrate personal skills suited to the workplace rather than simply to the classroom and lecture theatre. In the polytechnic setting they are appropriate to many levels from say diploma through to degrees and are best integrated into the programme. This requires institutions to see ways of allowing students to be “at work” in another real world from the reality of being in a programme in an institution.

It is clear that “intern” and “internships” will become more commonly seen as a valuable bridge between education and training that makes demands not only on the education and training institutions but also on employers and those who work with them. That is the challenge – are we all up to it?


More blessed to give donations than to receive a compulsory fee?

Something seems to have gone a little awry when the principal of a large Auckland school calls for state schools to be allowed to charge a compulsory fee especially when that school collects $1.9 million from 78% of its families through school “donations”.

The claim is made that a student in a low decile school gets $932 more than a student in a high decile school.  This might be true but I do know that some time ago I did a little exercise to compare the low decile school of which I was Principal with a particular Decile 10 school and, when roll numbers were equalised and other factors such as incidental costs and other forms of income taken into account, the high decile school had an overall funding advantage of about 25%.

Now that was a long time ago (mid-1990s) and I accept that the gap has narrowed a little as governments have set out to address the differentials in student achievement and student need.

That is why it is a little less than the whole picture to claim advantage for low decile schools – that is perhaps why the principal was careful to note that the differences were for state funding. The whole picture needs to include:

  • the capacity of the school to collect “donations” from its parents and a high level of fee (oops, that should read “donation”) from a very high percentage of parents;
  • the capability of the school to attract international fee paying students which is generally income at the margins with perhaps additional support with English – but it is a worthwhile income stream for high decile schools;
  •  the willingness of parents to pay the costs of participation in many activities;
  •  the support that is derived from alumni of the school;
  •  the response of parents when asked to provide digital devices for the students
  •  the generally large size of the high decile schools’ rolls;
  •  and so on…

The fundamental principles of the New Zealand education system are that it be universal, free, and secular.

The first of these, universal education, is clear and remains the goal. The level of children under the school leaving age who disengage from school challenges the system in achieving universal education which could well be better measured in terms of outcomes rather than the simplistic and now inadequate measure of whether they can get to a school.

The third of these, secular education, was strengthened with the development in the early 1970s of the category of “state integrated” schools. Most school systems have their church school with varying degree of independence and that provides for parent choice in the matter of values and religious observance.

But “free” means “free” – no child should be denied an education because they cannot pay. It does not mean that those who can pay more shouldn’t do so, but in “state schools” parents cannot be forced to pay more. Of course schools all over the country test this principle with donations requested in a manner that implies compulsion, extravagant school uniforms that cost ridiculous sums of money, demands that students have their own digital devices, and increasingly charges associated with activities.

State schools are state schools. I am not troubled, as Chris Hipkins seems to be, by the thought that the schools raising the matter of compulsory fees would become more elite. Too late Chris. They already are. Look at housing costs in the XYZ Zone. The recent report in the newspaper about all this concluded that rather than buy houses at inflated prices to get into the XYZ Zone and taking into account the subsequent cost of schooling, parents might be better off to buy outside the zone and send their child to an independent school. That is a telling conclusion that surprised me.


Sauce for the goose but not for the gander

It was clear in the fall-out from the reduction in the numbers of students gaining university entrance in the recent round of NCEA results that the changes to the rules were driven by several principles that are of themselves quite worthy.

The first is that students should study a narrower range of subjects in order to know more. Or put another way, knowledge is gained vertically rather than horizontally. It is clear that the universities have believed this right from the very introduction of a standards-based assessment system when the move towards credits was described as the process by which knowledge had been turned into intellectual finger food!

That was not entirely true but there may have been a whiff of truth in it. Certainly depth of knowledge was thought to be in danger when students were given the opportunity to study subjects that are outside of the standard academic canon.

The second principle is that there should be a set of approved subjects that would be acceptable in making up the university entrance qualification. The existence of such an academic canon was the result of hundreds of years of development of universities as places of privilege and so certain subjects were also privileged. Such a list of privileged subjects was promulgated by the University Grants Committee and indeed even School Certificate maintained that privilege by on the one hand pretending to be norm-referenced while on the other using a procedure called “group mean referencing” whereby subjects undertaken by “brighter” students were scaled to a produce a higher set of results.

Now the education system has, some time ago, debated what real subjects were. “Twilight Golf” never made the cut, meditation had no observable actions that could be assessed, and language CDs handed out in cafes were thought to have had too few demands on the students. No complaint about all that.

But the firm grip that such views have enjoyed has seen a distortion on what was valued in terms of pathways to an education and to later success. Gradually only the track to university was valued in the school system and the capability and capacity of schools to provide programmes in areas that would grab the attention of young students was allowed to atrophy. The bog standard “academic” diet was going to nourish all the students.

When now there is a call for students to have the opportunity to study subjects based on applied learning and to specialize in technical areas that require skill and knowledge in greater depth in order to pursue fulfilling and useful lives in the community, that the argument is put forward that what students need is a broad and general education.

Is there a contradiction here?