Archive for August 2015

Trades Academies, research and reflection

A recent report on Trades Academies is pretty luke warm in its assessment of their success in terms of retention and progression.  A key methodological feature is the comparison between the group of participants and a comparison group of students which are matched to them.

I have a hesitation about one aspect of the matching and that is the use of “disengaged” with its particular definition. In my view, you cannot be a “little bit disengaged” – not any more than a US student can “drop out of school a little bit”.

In New Zealand the word “disengaged” has become our way of describing what the educators in the USA call “drop-outs”, the Pacific calls “early school leavers”, the French call “abandonnant l’école, the Finnish “avhopp från skolanand the Chinese “. Everyone knows what it means and agrees that it is a bad thing!

To have matched those in the research on the basis of “disengagement” is, I think, a risk. That risk might be acceptable but the meaning attributed to the term is not. It is quite clear that this means:

“School engagement: whether had one or more instances of disengagement from school or not (stand-down, suspension, serious truancy)”

If we accept that “disengagement” has come to mean what “drop-out” means in the USA, to start using it to include such episodes as stand-downs and suspensions and truancy is to water it down and this is a great pity because “disengagement” in the sense of having disconnected from a school is a very serious and damaging thing.

I have developed and use a taxonomy of disengagement that notes three kinds of disengagement.

Physical Disengagement:
The student is no longer at school

Virtual Disengagement:
The student is at school but nothing to speak of is happening in terms of learning – poor or no positive outcomes are likely.

Unintended Disengagement:
In this category, disengagement is delayed and occurs when a learner achieves to some degree but has a basket of credits that are not robust enough (or perhaps even the right credits) to sustain further study.

But none of these categories admit those who are stood down / suspended in themselves or even serious truants on the grounds that many well-behaved and, indeed, capable and successful students are likely to be and are included in each of these categories. Selective truancy is  a deliberate tactic used by many students especially in the senior years and might best be described as tactical attendance. One hopes that the other matching criteria dulled the impact of engagement as a matching tool.

The other issue I have with the report is not the fault of the researcher. To include the MIT Tertiary High School into the group generically described as “trades academies” is misleading and inaccurate – it just doesn’t fit there. Yes, it is a secondary / tertiary programme but there are key differences that mark it as unlike any of the trades academies. Its target student group is distinctive. The merged nature of secondary and tertiary curricula is totally different in that secondary and tertiary programme components are not consigned to different days nor to different locations both of which are features of the traditional trades academy model. The location of the programme is completely and wholly in a tertiary setting – the students are expected to act as tertiary students, all day every day. Finally, The MIT Tertiary School is a four-year programme and not the 38 day programme that Trades Academies are able to offer within the time allocation given to trades academies.

And there is another difference – this targeted group of students achieve both high levels of NCEA and technical qualifications within the programme that can take them into many higher level qualifications including degree level study. NZQA reports the 2014 NCEA results as Level 1 – 100%, Level 2 – 91.8%, Level 3 – 83.3%. What a pity that such stunning success is not reflected in a study of trades academies.

Hon Steven Joyce got it right when, in response to the report, he noted that it was early days and that it was difficult to get good data.

Make no mistake about it, trades academies are already demonstrating an ability to excite students about learning and to open up for many, pathways to success that the conventional school programme is unable to do. Time will show that early access to technical and vocational programmes is a key to success for a significant proportion of students. This research report does show an emerging trend towards increased retention despite its rather coy conclusions and there can be confidence that an impact on successful outcomes will follow.


Trying to keep the baby in the bathwater having thrown out the bath!

A friend was cleaning out the cupboard the other day and came across a little publication from the Department of Education in Auckland dated 1967.  It was a school by school listing of the courses that they offered.  Apparently in those old days it was considered to be in the interests of parents and their children to have this information impartial and undiluted by the “marketing madness” that would get its grip on such a publication now.

It highlighted several things.

By and large secondary school back then offered far more choice to students than they do now (albeit that this is changing in some schools).  A reason for this was that students could chose from Year 11 to focus their schooling and they could even match this with a selection of options that got them onto the pathway.

Now, before people take to twitter to point out to me that this was in the BAD old days when students were STREAMED!  Well, let’s use the more neutral term “tracked”, no, let’s get right up to date and call them pathways, for that is what they were.  Students could see a pathway to skills, to employment (for there were jobs for all), to a family sustaining wage and if the schooling system was to do its work it should have been able to do so in the 10 years students spend up to the age of 15 (then) or 16 years.

We then faced the death of choice as the system became more and more devoted to the notion of the comprehensive high school.  This was a bizarre way of coping with difference by having all students do the same programme.  Another Department of Education publication puts it like this:

“The secondary schools, no longer selective, must now cater for students of widely differing skills, abilities and interests. The range is little narrower than in the adolescent population as a whole.  Much remains to be done before it can be said that the schools have completely adjusted their curricula and methods to the facts of this situation.”

This extract is from the Thomas Report, the work of the Committee established by the Minister of Education in 1942.  The style changes but not the basic issues.  The Thomas Report went on to reshape School Certificate that, in tune with the time internationally, was believed would be the school leaving qualification for most.

What strikes me is that the approved list of optional subjects for School Certificate included such subjects as:

Animal Husbandry

Applied Mechanics


Commercial Practice


Engineering shop work

Field Husbandry

Heat engines


Shorthand Typewriting

Technical Drawing

Technical Electricity


In short there was then, and it persisted into the late sixties and early seventies, a wide selection of what can be described as “vocational education and training.” 

The committee actually noted that it was “not exalting ‘general’ education at the expense of ‘vocational’ education and that it is now recognized that the antithesis is largely a false one.” 63 years ago they saw it but still the split between “academic” and “vocational” persists.

Percy Nunn got it right when he said….

To train someone in the tradition of these ancient occupations is to ensure … that they will throw themselves into their work with spirit, and with a zeal for mastery that teachers usually look for in the elect….a student’s whole intellectual vitality may be heightened, their sense of spiritual values quickened. In short, the vocational training may become in the strictest sense liberal.

He goes on to say….

To ignore this truth, to overlook the desire of the healthy adolescent to get to grips with reality, would be fatal. Indeed, the ‘general’ education of many students would have much greater significance to them if it was brought into a closer relationship with their strictly “vocational” studies.

The liberalisation of the school curriculum through multiple pathways, trades academies, options for vocational education and training at age 16 years and suchlike activity has a long history. The tragedy has been that it has taken close to seventy years for us to substantiate it.