A fair share in an unfair world – The Demise of Deciles

Stuart Middleton

EdTalkNZ

3 August 2017

 

At last the decile system has gone! Announced in the early 1990s. it was intended to be a mechanism to take account of the socio-economic status of schools in assigning resources to all schools or, to put it more crudely, it was meant to deliver increased funding to schools who taught students who were at risk of failing.

The formula was built around five factors related to the socio-economic standing of parents and caregivers and their level of education, their occupations, the number of people living in the house, and the degree of benefit dependency.

Through a complex process of ranking across the five areas, the numbers were crunched and a “decile rating” tattooed firmly across the forehead of each school. This was to become a badge of honour for those in Deciles 8-10 or a mark of shame for those in Deciles 1-3. Schools in the Decile 4-7 range were in something of a state of suspended judgement in which the reputation of the school depended on other things.

At a time when it was launched there was a developing maniacal level of the worst sort of competition between schools. There was no show at all of the decile rating system being used as a neutral means of assigning resources more fairly. At that time, I was a Principal of a low-decile school. Rather than hugely increased resources which the high-decile schools alleged was being delivered to low-decile schools, I was instead the beneficiary of commiserations and voices lowered as a sign of deep sympathy by others when they discussed the school. That scheme could hardly have been launched at a worse time.

So, let’s be clear – when it came to reputation, high deciles were the winners and low deciles were the losers regardless of school quality. The shocking history of the way low-decile schools were regarded over many years was certain evidence that our national system was broken and that New Zealand could harbour no false impression that it was a united country at least in terms of schooling, This was a situation that flowed from the perceptions of groups of people about other groups of people; it flowed from the “secret courts of the hearts and heads of men and women”; it flowed from a media with a voracious appetite for slinging the dirt at those who were down; it flowed from real estate agents whose views on schools were based only on decile-ratings and “what that told you” about one area or another.

But those going to the low-decile schools saw themselves in this way. Of course, those who went to high decile schools knew they were better than others, those who went to low decile schools often enjoyed going to school, were taught by many excellent and a fair proportion of superb teachers. Teachers who knew that education was about helping people to grow and making changes were attracted to low decile areas. Never make the mistake of thinking that ‘high decile’ and ‘low decile’ are or ever have been an automatic proxy for ‘high quality’ and ‘low quality’.

But that has all changed with the announcement that deciles are out as a risk assessment of the student body in each school replaces it, perhaps 2019 students is in. While not a lot of detail has yet been revealed, some clear distinctions emerge between the old and the new.

  • The money will be follow the students assessed as carrying a risk into their schooling rather than being apportioned on the basis of a statistical generalisation based on a set of untested assumptions about a demographic group in a geographic area.
  • Schools who have disproportionate numbers of students with considerable risk will receive their fair share of the funding that reflects the actual proportion of their student numbers who meet the criteria and not be limited because they have been assigned to a category based on a relatively crudely decile or some part of a decile.
  • The early information suggests that the assessment will be on risk factors known to have a close association with low achievement, be based on actual families and young people who go to the school. The assessment will be based on data which reflect the actual issues faced by a student which impact negatively on their school progress.

The actual categories are a comprehensive list of factors that are known to directly impact on a young persons school performance:

  • Proportion of time spent supported by benefits since birth
  • Child has a Child, Youth and Family notification
  • Mother’s age at child’s birth
  • Father’s offending and sentence history
  • Ethnicity
  • Youth Justice referral
  • Benefit mother unqualified
  • Proportion of time spent overseas since birth
  • Most recent benefit male caregiver is not the birth father
  • Mother’s average earned income over the previous 5 years
  • School transience
  • Country of birth
  • Father’s average earned income over the previous 5 years
  • Migrant /New Zealand born
  • Number of children (mother)
  • Mother received third tier benefits (payments directed to alleviating hardship)

Clearly the calculations will achieve a far higher level of granularity than previously and, most importantly will not be made public – schools will receive their funding as part of the annual process – bulk funding, however unpopular with teachers, would be the ultimate protection of this anonymity.

The biggest challenge will be to the professionalism of all in education to resist attempts to undermine this new approach and to “leak” or to become partners in dirty tricks with the media that might wish to deconstruct the funding package – were this to happen it would simply perpetrate the dubious behaviours of the past. I have faith in the integrity of the our profession which I hope will in turn  have faith in this unique and bold approach to finding a level of social equity between schools.

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You take the high road and I’ll do the other thing.

Stuart Middleton

EdTalkNZ

28 July 2017

When I was leaving Intermediate school, I was headed, along with my twin brother, to Hamilton Technical College to do a course in carpentry. Our two older brothers had both attended that school and our Mother had gone there in the mid-1920s. We knew it was a good school!

But coming out of church one Sunday, the Principal of the intermediate school came across to our parents and said: “I want to see you about your boys!” We feared the worst but could not think why. Mum dutifully went across to the school on the Monday to talk with the Principal.

“Your boys should not be sent to Hamilton Technical College,” the Principal announced.

“Why?” responded a rather surprised mother.

“Because….” he paused a little dramatically, “they are academic!” he said.

Never one to argue with a teacher, Mum continued….“Well where should they go?“ she asked.

“Hamilton Boys High School – they have an academic programme,” he said.

“No,” she responded immediately, “they are too little to go to a boys school.”

Discussing this later that night at home we were all perplexed. What did he mean? What is academic? We had been called many things but never “academic”. It was a very unsettling time and where we once looked forward to going to secondary school with certainty about the future, we were now somewhat apprehensive. In the end, the answer to our dilemma was to go to a new school that had an academic stream. Which we duly did and arrived at the start of the year not really knowing or understanding what we faced.

It turned out to both bad and good advice that the Principal had given. Flawed rather than bad – we were simply unprepared for the demands of academic schooling and while our successes were good enough – we certainly explored the elegance of a low “C” and a high “D” – they were not robust in an academic sense.

Good in the sense that we were on a pathway that took us to university (first-in-family at the new Waikato University which had conveniently opened just when we needed it), on into teaching and rewarding lives in that field.

The Principal had however fallen into the trap of thinking that “academic” and “technical/vocational” were binary in terms of choice. As was common in those days, being a plumber was for one group while being a doctor was for another. These views guided a lot of decision making ib schooling such as designing tracks through school which really did commit young people to certain but not always necessarily secure futures. The academic / vocational choice was applied with a rigidity that was not helpful. And that is where the difference lies between then and now. In the more modern setting, learning and career progression require skills that are both academic and vocational.

Young people going into courses which are thought of as vocational or technical are often held back somewhat by their lack of academic preparation often described in New Zealand as having been “not very good at school”

Meanwhile the universities, which love to dine out on the fact that they are not vocational only open the doors to those who are generally academically ready to tackle their qualifications which are well and truly vocational – doctors, lawyers, economists, ophthalmologists, audiologists, and more are simply trades-in-white-coats. (Come to think of it, when I take my car in for servicing some of them are wearing white coats!)

There has been a convergence between academic and vocational education but this is not being sufficiently recognised in the way we go about organising education. We brand education activity as academic or vocation by institution type, by qualification structures, by levels of esteem, and by the way we carve up of the government education pie.

The result is not excellence but rigidity. We cannot seem to replicate in our education system, the flexibilities of Germany, the Netherlands and most of Scandinavia where pathways through education and training are flexible, where students can reflect their maturing aspirations by matching them to courses rather than being locked in inevitable outcomes. It is a much more sensible use of a country’s most valuable natural resource i.e. young people.

The new world is one which is characterised by multiple pathways, managed transitions, line of sight to careers, flexibility, seamlessness and high levels of engagement all. It is a very simple world to live in if we think that it is just matter of a choice between “academic” or “vocational / technical.” It might also be a world that has never existed.

The Dash for Cash Continues: The Election Year Money Scramble

Stuart Middleton

EdTalkNZ

25 July 2017

 

As money continues to be tossed around, the latest fist-full seems almost to have been targeted.

The suggestion that schools would get a cash payment if they opted not to ask parents for funds on the face of it, an intriguing and innovative idea aimed at trying to equalise the current iniquitous situation that results from demanding payments from parents.

Of course, I exaggerate. They do not demand money. Instead we have the wonderfully beatific sight of school communities rising as one in a sense of duty to make an exorbitant and, of course unsolicited, donation to the school.  Driven by that unifying inner urge that drives lemmings to the cliff’s edge, bargain hunters to Smith and Caughey’s Sale, and crowds to rugby matches, they are united in a common cause. And the schools smile as they count the cash.

Well, only some schools. Those who are already able to ask and ask and ask parents to pay for this and that and the other thing, all in the knowledge that if things get tough the Old Boys and Girls will rally round. But there are a lot of schools who serve communities that cannot contribute cash.

But wait! If the going rate for not paying school fees if to be a threshold of $120k then obviously schools that collect less will opt into the scheme and those who collect more will simple carry on.

Now, I must say that the schools that collect less will be very happy and so they should be. It a few years since I was in a school but we had to work hard to get a fraction of this and to get more would have been glorious – what might seem like a little when compared to the winnings of the rich state schools would have been riches indeed. So at least some punters will be happy. And it almost seems as if it was addressing equity.  But is it really.

The schools that have little difficulty in collecting cash will exceed $120k by far. It won’t matter to them that some other schools are now ahead of where they once were – they stay right out in front.

Now what might be fairer would be for a government to increase school funding on some fair and equitable basis, probably roll-related (which also favours the rich schools but it does have an equitable look to it) and to apply the formula across all schools.  Then they should deduct from that total funding to a school the amount that that school community has contributed. It was always a basic tenet of the welfare state that those who could pay, should pay.

This is a somewhat frivolous suggestion because some things never change and one of those things is that there will be rich schools and schools that will have to be careful within tight and small  budgets. It all contributes to the social inequities of New Zealand schools but who would want to have the success of the Scandinavian schools which manage social equity between school if it has to come at the cost of privilege?

Please Sir, I want some more!

Stuart Middleton

EdTalkNZ

24 July 2017

When little Oliver went to Mr Bumble with his soup bowl held out to say “Please sir, I want some more!” he went because the other boys, scoundrels all of them, forced him to. And was Mr Bumble right to react in the way he did? “Whaaat?”

I feel that we are in a situation somewhat akin to this with offers to spend an additional $4 Billion on education. More money for education sounds good but what does the “more” mean? Is more of the same in terms of what we are doing?

  • More NEETs arriving at the end of their educational journey to a place of little hope?
  • More of the severe skill shortages that hold us back?
  • More rigid adherence to the lock-step approach to navigating through the years and over the sectors?
  • More students dropping out of school?
  • More increases in truancy.
  • More children going to school to be fed?
  • More difficult children testing the system?
  • More disgraceful fights and goings-on between school students on social media?

If it is any of these outcomes and a whole lot more are not addressed and the money used to carry on the same ways then it will be money squandered. The key issues in education are really about the way current money is distributed and spent rather than the quantity. Without the detail, around both the spending of new money and the better use of existing money, we are simply ensuring that we will do the same and get the same – and that should not be acceptable.

One measure of the spending in the public sector is the % of government spending that goes into the different sectors. A comparison between the education spend in four countries is interesting: New Zealand, Australia (they are so like us), Germany (we would like their outcomes) and Sweden (we seem to envy much that they do).

Expenditure on Education as a % of Government Expenditure

  New Zealand Australia Germany Sweden
1985 9.1 % 10.0 % 9.0% 10.1%
 
2015 18.0 % 13.9 % 13.9% 15.1 %

Those raw figures might suggest that money is not the issue. We seem to all start from a similar base and New Zealand has moved well ahead. And yes, there is more complexity in such comparisons than I have suggested here. But…..

I am not arguing that we should spend less on education, rather I am asking whether we can point to gains and advantages over those three other countries that are commensurate with the spend, especially when in NZ so many little Olivers still have no soup in their bowl and many big Olivers are stuck in the rut of idleness?

I also wonder whether a better spend of extra funding should be tackling child poverty in ways that see all young people arriving at school ready to go, ready to learn and ready to succeed. There are critical features of children poverty that education cannot address despite the habitual promise of education “that if we are given the tools we’ll do the job.” The job that education can do is critical in seeing that expenditure in children’s health has been invested wisely, that reducing child poverty brings real benefits to the economy and the nation and that supporting families the critical contribution to creating the capability of people to earn a family sustaining wage, to support children that they have and to live a healthy life in which they contribute to their community.

If only Mr Bumble had seen the wisdom of giving little Oliver another bowl of soup!

Give me a SCHOOL! Give me a COOL! Give me a COL!

We live in interesting times. Take a SCHOOL, remove the s..h and you have a COOL. Take a COOL, remove the O and you have a Col.

The recent introduction into our schooling system of both COOLs and COLs is an interesting development. The first is about a different educational entity in the system which will challenge the conventional school while the second is about relationships between schools that will lead to greater effectiveness achieved through grouping schools in a region or, in some areas, through bringing together a faith-based group or a group of high decile schools which is also a faith-based group in a kind of way.

These developments point to two things – that the Government wishes to loosen the grip conventional schools have on schooling by creating COOLs – schools of choice for students who wish to pursue their schooling in ways that allow them to use their time differently. They can access school learning on-line at times that suit them rather than those of the regimented school bell system in the School Office. This will suit those whose talents are such that they wish to pursue a future in music, sports, and other areas of endeavour which are best pursued in daylight.

If you look at developments since 2009 there is a theme that emerges and that is a realization that the one-way approach that New Zealand had fallen into over the previous thirty years was being challenged. Staying in a conventional comprehensive high school for five years was not the best choice for all and it was becoming clearer that it had contributed to significant disengagement and static achievement outcomes.

Soon after the MIT Tertiary High School broke the mould and achieved the necessary changes to the Education Act, trades academies came along. Again, that theme – students got the message that some of your time in school could with profit be used elsewhere. Later, Youth Guarantee places in ITPs were offered and challenged the monopoly that the school system had in the area of free education. It had long been wrong that students could stay in school and pass or fail without question but a student who wished to leave school at the legal school leaving age had to start paying for that education. NZ was the only country in the OECD that had this quirky anomaly.

Around this time, a book was published in Canada called “The Comprehensive School is Dead!”. This was a slightly optimistic assertion but the prevailing wind was suggesting that an education system characterized by choice, flexibility and multiple pathways was more like to be a system that would meet their needs of a wider group of students. It has taken a long time to get out of the comprehensive rut but pleasing signs are developing that working differently produces different results. You don’t have to be Einstein to know this a – although it was Einstein who warned us – if we do the same we will get the same.

It will be interesting to see what develops but the COLs are seemingly well under way and, despite the rhetoric of the past 40 years which saw schools compete with each other one way or another, it is encouraging that schools are discovering that there are some clear advantages in cooperating.

Collaboration is tastier of course when sweetened with a little dash of cash! But more importantly it is encouraging relationships across the Berlin Walls that are called sectors (and both in Berlin, during the cold war, and in Education). There are two COLs that I am aware of that include primary, secondary, and tertiary providers.

I am told that approximately 17,200 secondary school students are doing some and, in at least one institution, all of their secondary schooling in a place other than a school. It is a little early to be welcoming the dawning of a new era but we should recognize that the signs are positive.

An Invitation to a Conference

You are invited to attend New Zealand’s leading Conference on Pathways and Transitions in New Zealand – Te Ara Whakamana : the 8th International Symposium on this important area in New Zealand education – offering options for students, leading students on to positive pathways to great futures.

For more information follow these links:

Homepage: https://akoaotearoa.ac.nz/tearawhakamana2017

Programme: https://akoaotearoa.ac.nz/sites/default/files/taw-programme-2017.pdf

Registration: https://shop.akoaotearoa.ac.nz/TAW17
Te Ara Whakamana 2017 MIT Manukau Campus Manukau Central
4 – 5 September 2017
Manukau Institute of Technology      Ako Aotearoa       Industry Training Fed.

 

Suffer the little children to come unto school

Stuart Middleton

EdTalkNZ

21 June 2017

 

The latest Education Review (Vol. 8, Issue 3, 2017) has a most interesting article from Dr John Boereboom addressing the issue raised in the recent Education Update Amendment Bill: What is the Best Age for Starting School?

The move towards cohort entry (that is when groups of around 5 year olds will all arrive at school on the same day rather than the current practice of starting on or close to their fifth birthday) must surely be questionable.

Boereboom notes that the policy will in all likelihood be popular and adopted by many primary schools. The perceived benefits to schools, the simplification of the enrolment process, the increased ease of planning programmes is put forward and I think he is right.  But…. Here we go again on change that is premised not on what is best for the student but what is best for grown-ups running the school.

The evidence for starting school early is fairly neutral but there is a bias in towardsthe negative side. So in reality there is no compelling reason for current practice to change.

It simply must be easier to introduce one child at a time into a group where a level of comfort with this strange place called a school has developed and where, in the best new entrant classrooms, there is a developed sense of “welcome into the whanau”, where buddy systems are possible and comfort can be offered to the new arrival appropriately by the more experienced class member. And what an opportunity for learning and development is in these experiences.

It must also be easier for a school to support the parent through that little wrench that we all feel when we leave our little ones on the other side of the school gate for the first time. It seems to signal the start of a process from which parents over time become increasingly estranged from the process of schooling. The group-shared anxieties of the change to cohort new-entrant enrolment are on both sides. Remember that when the flock is drafted both the ewes and the lambs are distressed.

But there might be an even more compelling reason to retain current practice. When a four-year-old talks excitedly about turning five, a key topic is about “going to school”. “And what will you do there?” Grandparent asks to which the little new student responds along the lines of “I am going to learn to read and write.” And we return the enthusiasm with a promise that of you come to school regularly, are a good little person and try your best, that is exactly what will happen. Of course, we find that quite a hard task but we give it a go. And admit it, you all have photos of your first day at school, and of your children’s first day at school, and your grandchildren’s first day at school – although this is probably taken in your lounge as the fashion parading of the new uniform is undertaken!

For one day, the day they turn five, a little person is the centre of attention and there is a clear focus on going to school that is probably not equalled in importance until that little person has become a big person and sets off to Graduation Day (18-20 years later) or Going-to- First Job-Day soon after that.

If we remove these rites-of-passage we take away experiences from children and adults that are of great importance.

There is a built-in contradiction in the discussion. As Dr Booreboom tell us: “Clearly the decision as to when to start school is unique.” There is nothing unique about turning up and rolling into school in a “mewling mob of frightened lambs.”

Young students can only succeed as individuals.

 

Finishing the sentence: “Why does it take so …..?

There are only two kinds of institution in which time served is of critical importance – one is an educational institution and in the other you get time off for good behaviour.

 

So, what is going on with the practice that defines “learning” in terms of the time that has been spent? It’s everywhere it seems. With NCEA you do Level 2 only after you have done 10 years in school, a degree can be described as a three-year degree or a four-year degree. Tertiary gets itself into the arguments about what is direct or face-to-face teaching and what is “self-directed learning”. It is not an exaggeration to suggest that education is controlled by time served.

 

NZQA used to have a little booklet called Learning and Assessment and it said that “Framework assessment is about standards of performance achieved, not how learning occurred.” It even went on to say that “there is no requirement for prior course attendance, work experience or time served.” Wait a minute! Does this mean that students could get a qualification if they passed the assessment before even attending the course? It does but then the booklet says it gets called “Recognition of Prior Learning’!

 

If it is good enough to recognise prior learning on occasion, why is it not good enough to recognise it as an ongoing feature of assessment generally? For instance, one way would be to allow multi-level assessments in schools – one programme could lead to awards being made at different levels as a result of multi-level assessments being used. Perhaps students could nominate the level at which they wished to be assessed. Or there could be a flexibility in assessment.

 

Let’s use the example of the Drivers Licence Test – a good example of standards-based learning. You know in advance what you need to know. You can practice as much as you like. You can sit the assessment when ready. You pass or fail on the basis of an assessor’s judgment. Except for the actual driving of the car of course. But the rode code knowledge could be assessed on line.

 

Just as the knowledge and therefore competence of Justices of the Peace is now measured in order give them the “Accreditted” tag in New Zealand. Actually the JP test is even more daring as the accreditation test can be taken any time, you need to reach a certain score of correct answers, if you do not you fail but have the right to come back straight away and have a further go at the questions you failed. In short, the question asked in most secondary and tertiary institutions – How much time have you spent on this? – is never asked.

 

Think how different education could be if freed from the artificial constraints of time. A colleague used to frequently say that “God created time so that everything didn’t happen at once!” And, perhaps, to allow education to run according to the clock.

 

 

 

Beating the clock!

Stuart Middleton

EdTalkNZ

12 June 2017

 

There are only two kinds of institution in which time served is of critical importance – one is an educational institution and in the other you get time off for good behaviour.

 

So, what is going on with the practice that defines “learning” in terms of the time that has been spent? It’s everywhere it seems. With NCEA you do Level 2 only after you have done 10 years in school, a degree can be described as a three-year degree or a four-year degree. Tertiary gets itself into the arguments about what is direct or face-to-face teaching and what is “self-directed learning”. It is not an exaggeration to suggest that education is controlled by time served.

 

NZQA used to have a little booklet called Learning and Assessment and it said that “Framework assessment is about standards of performance achieved, not how learning occurred.” It even went on to say that “there is no requirement for prior course attendance, work experience or time served.” Wait a minute! Does this mean that students could get a qualification if they passed the assessment before even attending the course? It does but then the booklet says it gets called “Recognition of Prior Learning’!

 

If it is good enough to recognise prior learning on occasion, why is it not good enough to recognise it as an ongoing feature of assessment generally? For instance, one way would be to allow multi-level assessments in schools – one programme could lead to awards being made at different levels as a result of multi-level assessments being used. Perhaps students could nominate the level at which they wished to be assessed. Or there could be a flexibility in assessment.

 

Let’s use the example of the Drivers Licence Test – a good example of standards-based learning. You know in advance what you need to know. You can practice as much as you like. You can sit the assessment when ready. You pass or fail on the basis of an assessor’s judgment. Except for the actual driving of the car of course. But the rode code knowledge could be assessed on line.

 

Just as the knowledge and therefore competence of Justices of the Peace is now measured in order give them the “Accreditted” tag in New Zealand. Actually the JP test is even more daring as the accreditation test can be taken any time, you need to reach a certain score of correct answers, if you do not you fail but have the right to come back straight away and have a further go at the questions you failed. In short, the question asked in most secondary and tertiary institutions – How much time have you spent on this? – is never asked.

 

Think how different education could be if freed from the artificial constraints of time. A colleague used to frequently say that “God created time so that everything didn’t happen at once!” And, perhaps, to allow education to run according to the clock.

Chipping your way into a house

An interesting article in the NZ Herald this morning – yet another piece about how hard it is to get your first house. But this was one story with a difference.

A young man in his twenties had not only bought his first house but also had another rental property. Not bad you might think – rich parents obviously!

But no, his story was simpler.

He decided early on that he wanted to be a builder so he enrolled in a programme which led to an apprenticeship and he was on his way. He attributes the fact that he could “earn while he learned” as something of a key to his entry into the property market. He is modest in not claiming to have also been diligent about saving!

The other string to his success bow perhaps reflects the skills he was developing. When he found he needed more money he  be rejected by those who”got a second job.” This will no doubt be rejected by those that this is simply not possible. But it seems that it was because he had marketable skills.

He noted that others were off travelling or still working into and through university while he was making his way in the world.

It was something of a testimony to the value of technical skills and training that leads more quickly into work and therefore into an income. Often the anecdotes are about how those with higher education qualifications earn more than those with what are thought to be “lower qualifications”. But stories such as this one show that  this is not always the best way.

“Earn while you learn” – it seems something of a glib slogan but when it can be done and when it is done the results can be good for everyone. Of course, a set of personal qualities that allow for some energetic commitment to hard work is also quite helpful.

It made for a different story and a different take on the difficulties of getting into the property market. Get skills then take them into the market.