Archive for March 2018

NCEA and the Performing Seal of Approval


Stuart Middleton

14 March 2018


Teachers are reported (NZ Herald, 13 March 2018) to be “gobsmacked” by revelations that in NCEA some subjects have higher levels of performance than others. This utterly astonishing information shows that 69% of students in Home and Life Studies pass while in Languages 93% pass. The story gets worse! In Languages 43% achieve “excellence” but only 9% in Home and Life Sciences get “excellence”.

It should not be news at all to teachers that students who study some subjects are better at their school work than students in some other subjects. Teachers know only too well that some students bring into the secondary school a higher level of academic preparation and perhaps aptitude and disposition than others. And the process of moving through the school system sees this reflected in subject choice and perhaps even the advice given to students. While schools would advance the view that the old approach of streaming / tracking students has well and truly gone, it could be that it is as clearly defined now informally in the practices in school as it has ever been.

But other things puzzle me. I thought that some of the issues teachers had with NCEA was that it failed to discriminate between different levels of ability in students and ignored the differences between “hard” subjects and “soft options” as they are frequently described. Well here is evidence that it does discriminate.

The suggestion advanced in the recent The NZ Initiative report “Spoiled by Choice”[1] that we introduce a “weighted relative performance index” which would even out the differences or, at least, reorganise them into a more acceptable pattern.

This would take us back into one of the worst features of the old School Certificate approach with its “hierarchy of means”. It worked like this. Student’s performance in a set of “gold standard” subjects (English, Maths, Science and Biology if my memory is right) would establish their true ability. The performance of a set of students in another subject, let’s call it Medieval War Machines, would be referenced back to the performance of that group of students in the gold standard set. This would establish with “scientific accuracy” the mean for Medieval War Machines and would be the basis on which the students were scaled.

One of the factors that blew the whistle on this was the scaling down, to low levels, of Māori students with high levels of fluency in Maori but less impressive performance in the gold standard set of subjects – it was all highly open to challenge and quite hidden – the boffins in the back rook controlled the future lives of so many people.

Actually the replacing of “not achieved / achieved” with “not achieved / achieved / merit and excellence” was the most significant compromise made to NCEA and The NZ Initiative Report rightly notes this in the excellent section on compromises. However my recollection is that it was not as tied to the introduction of Achievement Standards as the report records. I remember the day when the notion of some passes being formally recognised as being better than other passes.

Dr Lockwood Smith, Minister of Education, at the time, established a Principals Lead Group to assist with the final development and introduction and I was fortunate to be able to serve on it. It was a group of two caucuses – the more liberal and the more conservative. One day, at a meeting in Wellington, an NZQA official came into the meeting and proposed the “achieved, merit and excellence” categories for recording success. I and several others saw this as a fundamental abrogation of the principles of standards-based assessment. The conservative wing were joyous, at last their students would receive the recognition they so deserved and it would be clear that they were better students than those in the schools represented by those of us who had reservations.

A grand irony of this is that very soon, those who had supported the differentiation of recognition of performance by and large turned their backs on NCEA and imported an examination into their schools that would allow them to carry on without change. That is their right and I have always respected it. But a key issue in the development of NCEA is that it was a development that would benefit markedly the students who were not in the university-headed group which current stands at 28% of the school cohort but great weight was placed on the views of those who led schools full of students for whom NCEA did not have the relevance it had for other students.

NCEA has a capacity to allow the other 72% to proceed along pathways that will help them become well-qualified and employed. It is not an accident that the recent figures released show that the institution that leads the tertiary sector in terms of earning power of students measured five years after completion, is a polytechnics strongly committed to standards-based learning and to seeing NCEA as a most powerful pathway across the divide between secondary school and tertiary providers. It works!


[1] Lipson, B (2018) Spoiled by Choice, The New Zealand Initiative, Wellington

The Balloon goes up for the NCEA Discussion

Stuart Middleton


5 March 2018


The hasty and ideological call for a review of NCEA was certain to achieve one thing – all the tired old arguments carefully assembled to stop NCEA being introduced 15 years ago and trotted out for an airing each December when the media feasts on stories related to the NCEA examinations and again in January when students receive results, would be certain to be dusted off.

The first shot at this is the report coming from the NZ Initiative which on its release was given wide coverage by the weekend newspapers. One story begins with the assertion that “We have been deluded ourselves into thinking that we are doing well, the NZ Initiative report argues.” No-one would refute this, New Zealand has for some decades and long-before NCEA came on the scene dined out on the belief that we had the best education system in the world.

But some educators knew otherwise as the system continued to fail to deliver equitable results for all students – the university-bound were doing well and this was in fact the only group that was. The other 70% were either simply not succeeding in the conventional school curriculum to an acceptable standard or were receiving a diet of teaching and learning that was disconnected from their life and devoid of any clear connection to the world of work.

It took a government official who was leading a major education agency, in an Emperor’s New Clothes moment, to declare that just as the new clothes were invisible so too was the notion that the education system was meeting the needs of all students.

Indeed the coverage of the NZ Initiative notes the improvements for NCEA completion among Maori and Pasifika and the increase in the proportion of those groups getting University Entrance. Something’s working. But the reported aspersion cast on that performance by the dark suggestion that the improvement might have been based on “learning that is of dubious value” reveals another set of beliefs about the curriculum. The value of learning is invested with value by the purposes for which it is both intended and applied. Clearly the learning required of those intent on becoming doctors of medicine is different from those wanting to work in building and construction and the anatomy of a motor vehicle is very different from that of a human being.

The remains a belief that the curriculum required for entry into university sets the standard to which should aspire.

“Harder” is not a very valuable description of learning – and even a cursory reading of the descriptors of learning on the NZ Qualifications Framework would reveal a carefully crafted set of outcome statements that progressively require a high level of performance by students as they travel through Levels 1-3 in the secondary school, then through certificates, diplomas and first degrees (levels 4-7) and, if their pathway requires it, postgraduate work up to Level 10. Now 5 is higher than 2 and 10 higher than both of them. It is the level that describes the extent to which learning is “harder” to use the vernacular and as students progress through the levels they are being prepared for the level of work required of them at each step.


The call for a core curriculum is puzzling. A look at the NZ Curriculum document would ease people’s minds. New Zealand has always had a core curriculum and continues to have a core curriculum. It is hard not to think that what people are seeking is to ask for that core curriculum to be extended well into the senior secondary school. That is an entirely different discussion. Prolonging a student’s exposure to a set of curriculum areas that they have engaged with for 10, 11, or 12 years is unlikely to achieve much. Raising the school leaving age has a poor reputation internationally as a means of raising performance and, indeed, the notion of a school leaving age is in tatters as 20% of students have disappeared from the school system by the age of 16 years.

What is greatly to be desired is a curriculum in the senior secondary school that will engage students and take then on to pathways that excite them, offer them a sight of the future and start the process of equipping them for employment. In short, the differentiated senior school curriculum rather than a diet of the stuff you need for university study will be the way forward.

Indeed, many secondary schools are doing this and the growth of secondary / tertiary programmes (which is another story) has been made possible by a system of credit that is flexible in terms of both subjects to be studied and the site where that is done. NCEA has been a central instrument in allow this to happen.

I look now to read at leisure the NZ Initiative Report rather than the press treatments of it. With the impending review of NCEA starting, there will be much to engage our minds in the near future.



We are all in this Bird Cage Together


Stuart Middleton


1 March 2018

It seems appropriate given its location on the West Coast of New Zealand with its many coal mines, that the Tai Poutini Polytechnic should be something of a canary caged in the labyrinth of funding and operational constraints that is the ITP and Polytechnic world.

Yes, the institution has pretty serious issues that cannot be ignored or denied and these have been well publicised – the lowest rating possible from NZQA in terms of quality a declining student enrolment, the tyranny of distance (the West Coast is the equivalent of Auckland to Wellington in length) and a horrific financial position. The Government will “inject” a further $8.5m to sit alongside the almost $25m previously written off because the institution could not afford to pay back the debt owed to the Crown resulting from the under-delivery of its programmes.

But while the canary might be close to croaking rather than singing, none of this a justification for lumping all polytechnics into the same basket. The sector does face issues but they are not the issues of management, or of governance, or of the difficulties of location. The major element the sector shares with Tai Poutini is that of declining numbers which in large measure this must be managed through manipulating its portfolio and staffing – it is not easy.

The TEC got it wrong when it characterised the issues as being “outside the metropolitan centres” with the assertion that the impact of “increase in costs, and little or no money to invest in capital works or operational improvements” left those institutions with little or no money to act as a “buffer against a downturn in revenue”, (this in the TEC briefing to the incoming Minister). For different reasons this could equally be said of the metropolitan ITPs.

The warning signs are right across the sector but the way in which issues impact on different institutions is in itself different. Tai Poutini is not typical. To attempt to address the issues of the sector in a single way is about as useful as a doctor going into the crowded waiting room and announcing that “Today I am going to treat everyone for urinary infection!”

For instance, the issues faced in Auckland are different and are caused somewhat by the sector itself. There is decline in enrolments but this is exacerbated by competition from ITPs whose home regions are outside of the Auckland region. By my reckoning, nine of the 14 ITPs who are not domiciled in Auckland are operating campuses in Auckland targeting international students and offering a small number of other popular programmes. The TEC is complicit in this situation in as much as it has at some time and one way or another, approved this. The two ITPs that are of Auckland, rather than simply being in Auckland, are in essence competing with the sector. The net result is that the performance of both groups is distorted.

I welcome the Minister’s promised review especially if it addresses the measures required to return ITPs to their regional mission and to enact the intention of the TEAC reforms (early 1990s?) in spelling out the “distinctive contributions “of the tertiary sector.

An early view of the polytechnic sector resulted in the establishment of the “Hawkes Bay Community College” in 1974 which would provide technical and vocational programmes alongside a mixture of ACE-style programming aimed at the social and intellectual needs of the community. It became a one-off and morphed into EIT- the Eastern Institute of Technology. Returning ITPs to the commitment to community would allow Investment Plans and special funding to reflect the particular and demonstrated needs of communities.

TEAC was quite an influential set of reforms (indeed it established TEC). One of its themes was “distinctive contributions” – the idea that Universities, ITPs, Wānanga, ITOs and PTEs would each contribute to the needs of the community is ways that were different, a sound and worthy goal. But just as once the road to hell was paved with good intentions, in the future at some point the road to hell will be packed with sign-written SUVs of education providers, windows down, all playing ABBA’s “Money, Money Money!”. The Minister would be well advised to read those TEAC Reports (I think there were four of them).

In a recent release (22/02/2018) the Minister started that what was needed for a “better and fairer tertiary sector” was one in which differences between public, private and community providers are clearer and more consistent.” So what is the response to this wish? “To set up CTEP (Community Tertiary Education Providers that are not-for-profit community groups providing tertiary education for the public good. This change will allow the public to distinguish them from for-profit providers.”

Responses such as this do not bode well for a review that addresses the real issues and arrives at serious and appropriate responses to them!