A Small Country Outstrips the Big Countries

Stuart Middleton

EdTalkNZ

15 November 2017

I write this in a plane as we fly to the Kingdom of Tonga for an educational highlight – the graduation of 200 students from Year 10 and 11 with a Certificate in Vocational and Technical Skills. They have studies four different technical areas and shown that they can achieve Level 2. And this Level 2 is a match with the NZ Level 2.

Wind the film back. In 2013 MIT applied for and was successful in getting a Partnership Programme Project accepted in the first round of such projects introduced by the NZ Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trades. The idea is the MFAT funds two thirds and the partner picks up the other third.

When the idea was discussed with colleagues in Tonga there were high levels of enthusiasm and a demand for an immediate start. It was, they said in so many ways “exactly what we need.”

Early school leaving (what we would call “disengagement” and the Americans, “dropping out) is at high levels throughout the Pacific and that includes Australia and New Zealand. A critical point where this becomes an issue is around the age of 14 years / second year high school – and that includes NZ and Australia. The conventional academic curriculum spread from and by New Zealand and Australia simply wasn’t suited to all students – nor does it in New Zealand and the Pacific.

The idea was simple. In order to encourage students to stay in the schooling system beyond Year 10, a programme would be offered a Certificate in Technical Skills CITS. Schools were quick to see that this might be most easily done by creating a cohort who studied for the Tonga SC in other subjects.

The programme would have three objectives:

It would introduce students to a different kind of learning, applied learning, and a new set of curriculum options, the trades. At the same time it would assist postsecondary providers to widen the range of subjects and the levels at which they were taught.

  1. The programme would encourage students to follow a trades pathway for which there were post-secondary training opportunities in Tonga.

MIT knows through the experience with its Tertiary High School and the many Trades Academies, that applied learning in trades will re-engage students who cannot see the point of what they were learning and indeed might even on the edge of dropping out.

  1. The programme would lower disengagement levels by re-engaging students in learning – either by pursuing a trades pathway or returning into the conventional school programme with skills for learning, with renewed confidence and with a sense of purpose and a surprising number are in this category.

But inappropriate curriculum and the conventional reasons for dropping out are exacerbated in an island community by economic factors, the hardships of living in isolated settings, the difficulty of getting to school and so on. Ordinary life is a challenge in ways not encountered in New Zealand. Inevitably some students would still fall by the education wayside. Or as one church leader so eloquently describes it – “they are the ones who are left behind.”

  1. If a student undertook the programme and then became early school leavers they would return home to their villages and communities as people with skills.

They would be able to build a house by themselves but having done courses in building and construction electricity, and plumbing. They would be a great help to someone who was. They could help with the gardens and plantations having done a programme in horticulture or fix elementary things that go wrong with cars or machinery.

Wonderful things happened:

  • Secondary and tertiary providers developed strong partnerships;
  • Some schools privileged the CITS students through developing a different uniform that was the envy of others;
  • Students in the different programmes undertook work that really helped the school – building furniture and developing school gardens are a couple of examples;
  • Old Boys Associations became enthused and in one school made sure that the facilities were improved and then provided the materials needed and covered some of the costs;
  • Parents were enthused and a number of schools now report waiting list for the programme.

And there are the graduations. Last year’s graduation was the first and a huge crowd turned out for it, traffic chaos, nationally televised live and broadcast over the radio, five cabinet ministers, the Presidents of the church school systems, government agency leaders and just hundreds of family members supporting their “graduates”, and, because it is Tonga, a brilliant brass band.

What awaits us this year?

As we descend my anticipation rises. I shall report back on Friday.

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