Archive for Transitions

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

Bookkeeping

Commercial Practice

Dairying

Engineering shop work

Field Husbandry

Heat engines

Horticulture

Shorthand Typewriting

Technical Drawing

Technical Electricity

Woodwork

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.

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?

 

The science of earthquakes prediction by the bovine community

They say that cows are warned about earthquakes for they occur by a sense that something is changing, that something is about to happen. This might be true. Although I have no bovine features, I too have a sense that something is about to happen.

I sense that after a number of years, for me about eight years and for the education system perhaps five, I see signs that critical shifts are about to happen in the schooling system in New Zealand.

Back in 2008 and 2009 when I argued for legislative changes that would allow MIT to start its Tertiary High School I was motivated by a sense that the changes were not just about that programme but were in fact changes that would lead to side developments that would be in the interest of students who were underserved by the education system.

The changes to the law (which allowed for many other changes) were specifically made to allow the Tertiary High School at Manukau Institute of Technology to go ahead. But the next year, in the 2010 Education Amendment Bill, those changes were expanded to allow for other secondary / tertiary programmes to be introduced. By then the Trades Academies were starting to get a policy around them and a shape to what they might look like. Youth Guarantee had morphed from a couple of words in an election campaign into a policy setting.

Increasingly the discourse was using words such as “multiple pathways” and “transitions” and “partnerships”. Of course there was resistance as the tired and well-discredited cries of “give schools the resources – they can do the job”. But that was simply code for “give us the money and we will do the same old thing for the same old results.”

It is now not hard to find excellent examples of……

Trades academies, which are giving students the experience of trades, oriented disciplines in Years 12 and 13. And this in no way resembles a return to the old technical streams. These programmes are taught in ways that give students an experience of the kinds of training that will, would, get, should they make a decision to follow that pathway. The work they are doing is real and done in the same setting as others being trained for the trades. There is an authenticity about it that goes well beyond the school-based technical stream programmes which could certainly produce highly skilled craftspeople in the metal and wood crafts, outstandingly skilled and clever, but it isnot trades as we know them in this iteration.

The trades academies are conservative in that they are restricted to Years 12 and 13 typically and they pose little challenge to the structures of the schools with their simple one day a week out of class approach. But they are a great start.

Partnerships. There are examples of sophisticated relationships and partnerships between schools of different levels. Intermediate schools show that they can work with contributing primary school in the one direction and with high schools in the other. Again, this is conservative but it is a start. Excellent partnerships can lead to managed transitions more easily than a bunch of slightly hostile folk sitting down together to initiate them.

Some schools are forging great relationships with community. This is clearly evident in much of the work being done by wharekura and there are examples where such schools are outperforming many high decile schools that pride themselves on their results.

While this is something of a revelation to some, to those who have promoted such developments, it has always been a clear and confident expectation. Students who have access to vocational and technical education earlier, who can work in different ways, who can see themselves in what they do, who are culturally respectful simply perform better than they would have. In fact they perform to stunningly high levels.

The relationship between tertiary and secondary has developed in some instances with remarkable speed to find ways of working together.

And there is starting to develop a view that 14 years to 18 years is where the action must be concentrated. And not just for “low performing students” or for those who disengage from the education system. Changes have started that have wide implications for the future, implications that suggest we could start to perform in ways that match the education systems we envy. It is dangerous to be not doing well at school at the age of fourteen in New Zealand.

High performing students in the UK are being given the opportunity to start university level STEM qualifications at the age of 14 years and are then ready to pursue postgraduate study or to go into highly skilled technical employment at age 18 years. Lord Baker who is a key force in this development explains they they “start at age 14 because 15 is too late to specialize and they finish at age 18 because 17 is to early to start employment.”

Just as cows might sense an impending earthquake, I sense that a shake-up of another kind is on the way! But this one while causing distress to some will by and large be wholly to be welcomed.

 

 

We are not the only ones

A response to my blog last week about the gap in the middle has made me aware of some interesting developments in the UK. The respondent was a senior member of the staff of Edge Foundation whose tag line is “Champion of technical, practical and vocational learning”.

The Edge Foundation has six key planks in its belief[1]. They want politicians, practitioners and the public to:

  1.        recognise that there are many talents and paths to success;
  2.        ensure the “learning by doing” is valued equally with academic learning;
  3.        provide technical, practical and vocational learning as an integral and valued part of every young person’s education and as a recognized route to success;
  4.        from the age of 14, give young people a choice of learning experiences and pathways based on their motivation, talents, and career aspirations;
  5.        ensure that the technical, practical and vocational education and qualifications offered in schools, FE and HE are high quality and recognized by employers;
  6.        ensure all young people, whatever their different abilities and interests, leave the system with confidence, ambition and the skills to succeed and the skills the economy needs.

Britain, just like the other Anglo-Saxon systems, are appreciating that they got it wrong after the Second World War when they started to systematically remove vocational and technical education from their schooling systems. I recently read an argument that this was partly for reasons of snobbery and a desire to not be like Germany. The irony is that now such countries look at Germany and wonder whether they were right all along that it is we who  might have got it wrong as Germany continues to bring large numbers of young people through its schooling system well qualified and ready for work.

The Chairman of Edge Foundation is Lord Baker of Dorking, better remembered as Kenneth Baker, Sir Keith Joseph’s successor as Secretary for Education in the Thatcher government. This sprightly 80 year old has developed a passion for doing something about the young people being spat out by a schooling system that suits fewer young people while at the same time the country suffers from extreme skill shortages. A familiar story.

The vehicle he has pushed for leading this charge is a new kind of institution – the University Technical College. There are now 17 of these colleges in the UK and all share four key qualities[2].

1.       They aim to provide a high quality technical education involving 40% practical application and a balanced study of subjects that include maths, science, English and a modern language.

 2.       The practical and academic components of the UTC curriculum are developed through active cooperation with local employers and universities.

 3.       They serve children aged from 14 – 19 on the basis that “11 is too young and 16 is too old to specialize”.

 4.       They stretch students by making them work a longer day than the average high school or college from 8.30am to 5.00pm – and through five eight week terms – meaning children study for a 40 hour week rather than a 38 hour week year.

A recent article[3] comments that if the development succeeds “…. it will eliminate the problem of “neets”, youngsters who are not in education, employment or training. Baker says “Every student who leaves a UTC will go into a job, an apprenticeship, a higher apprenticeship, or to university.” The writer muses that all this seems better than “…. the pent-up energy, frustration and rage of those who should have been equipped for good jobs [rather than being] dragooned into classes they hated” that he had witnessed in his own schooling.

We grapple with the same issues in New Zealand and slowly programmes are emerging that are turning the tables of failure over and showing students who otherwise would have failed in the system, that success is within their grasp. The success of what is happening under the Youth Guarantee banner, the MIT Tertiary High School and the preparedness of communities to seek improved outcomes are all signs that we are seeking similar goals to those that Lord Baker of Dorking and Edge Foundation are seeking on the other side of the world. Our focus is greatly on those whose struggle is evident. When we have addressed that we will be able to focus on those who are doing well but would love to be educated in a different way. But, first things first.

Nevertheless, the worm turning as we discover that we are not the only ones.