A Small Country Outstrips the Big Countries

Stuart Middleton


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.

Bringing About Change: Sector Reform

Stuart Middleton


8 November 2017

I have just realised that BIM does not stand for “BLOG for the INCOMING MINISTER” but I could not resist the temptation to make one further suggestion.

It seems to me that Associate Ministers of Education should not simply be assigned to responsibilities that are in the nature of keeping the education kitchen tidy and education lawns mown. They present an opportunity to tackle reform and change where it is needed. And one of those areas might be Sector Reform.

Sectors exist simply because education systems have expanded from the traditional first provision at elementary and, interestingly, university levels, to grow down into early childhood provision and up through secondary schooling into a post-secondary environment that includes an array of institution-types making distinctive contributions to academic, technical and vocational education. Like Topsy it grew and is now topsy-turvey!

The education sectors are it seems so distinctive that they require different qualifications to work in, different pay scales for those workers, different organisations to represent them, different trade unions to fight for them and usually, different Ministers or Associate Ministers to look after them.

The sectors do not reflect how students grow and develop. The one thing you can be certain of is that the difference between early childhood and primary is a birthday, the difference between primary and Intermediate and secondary and tertiary is a Christmas Holiday and…so on.

The worst part is that once territory is won, it defended and the education system in New Zealand does just this with vigour to the detriment of professionalism and ultimately the students.

I suggest that Associate Ministers might be deployed to achieve change in areas such Sector Reform. One Assoc Min. could have responsibility for Years 0 to 10. – an Associate Minister with responsibility for Core Education. This would be the education and training that the state accepts as its clear responsibility to meet the goal of providing all students with the skills, knowledge, dispositions and aspirations to enable them to start along the pathways that will take them to employment, to family sustaining incomes, to a life that contributes to communities and to the quality of interactions between citizens required in a civilised society.

But above all there would be an assurance that all students were still in the education system and prepared academically to undertake education and training in the year Years 11-21 by which time they should have completed a post-secondary qualification, be ready for employment or further study and have the maturity and understandings required to contribute to the community and the nation. It is this second set of goals that the Associate Minister for Further Education could be responsible.

A set of principles and challenges would be given to the Associate Ministers to achieve change in the education system which would lead to a system based on multiple pathways, which seeks to manage each transition now required of a student as they progress seamlessly through the education system and, from the students’ perspective, is seamless.

Assigning Associate Ministers responsibilities in this way could lead to a qualitative lift in education generally and take it one step forward to being a student-centred, unified education system served by a highly respected and professional teaching force at all levels.

Or, will we just accept current levels at which students drop out of the education system, the extent of failure at all levels of the education system and the worries about equitable access to early childhood education? Are we happy to continue an education that has drifted over time to meet the needs of those working in it rather than the students who come into it? We could with change sort out all these issues but never with the current fragmented, system, comfortable in its silos, defending turf, out of which students simply disappear to face lives of lesser quality.

If we are tackle the root causes of child poverty, domestic violence, skill shortages, growing prison populations and so on we need some new approaches to mending the pathways.

Review of NCEA

Stuart Middleton


31 October 2017

I met a young fellow the other day, he’d drifted out of school last year, realised that he was going nowhere, so he had finally taken himself to the Tertiary High School (THS) at Manukau Institute of Technology. He has this year completed Level 1 NCEA and Level 2 NCEA achieved two certificates and was planning next year to get started on his career pathway and would also complete Level 3 in case he needed it later.

Such stories are relatively common, a speedy transition from failure to success because this is a different programme that takes students unlikely to succeed in a school setting, brings them in to MIT where they get basic skills into place and complete NCEA while simultaneously experiencing applied and technical disciplines before determining which pathway they will head down. The results speak for themselves – extraordinary high NCEA results and employment ready technical qualifications and, for some, a pathway into a degree programme.

None of this would be possible were it not for NCEA.

NCEA has been a liberating and powerful mechanism that has allowed different pathways to emerge. It has also.allowed a common currency of credit to develop making possible secondary / tertiary links that are probably at this moment reaching in excess of 17,000 students throughout New Zealand. Take Trades Academies as an example – MIT has 400+ students from secondary schools coming in for a “trades academy programme”, earning NCEA credits which they carry back to school to put with the credits gained in the rest of the programme.


NCEA has not flourished as it should have in many schools for a set of simple reasons.

Schools persist in equating Level 1 with Year 11, Year 2 with Year 12 and Level 3 with Year 13 for no apparent reason other than this is what they have always done (i.e. Yr11 School C, Year 12 6th Form Cert. and Year 13 Bursary / Schol). The THS at MIT has shown comprehensively that multi-level assessment and award of credits at different levels within a school year is possible, that NCEA is not a time bound qualification but an assessment regime that is flexible.

Vocational Pathways was launched in a slightly raw state – a bit longer in the oven would have helped. Vocational Pathways should be an organising principle for course development and design in the senior secondary school rather than the “academic pokie machines” that they sometimes appear to have become. Schools programmes are completed and the lever pulled down. Ka-ching, Ka-ching  Ka-ching , the barrels tumble then stop, three pineapples appear – wow, primary industries, fancy that! Vocational Pathways should be guiding the development of pathways in schools that link to postsecondary pathways and not just something to pop on the CV.

I was pleased to see that there is wider recognition that Unit Standards and Achievement Standards are NOT the curriculum. The standards can be used to assess a variety of different curriculum contents, organised in a variety of ways across a range of curriculum disciplines and at a number of different levels. The Record of Learning is there for a reason.

The announced Review of NCEA is welcomed provided that its goals and the way it works do not lead to capture by those still harking back to the “good old days” and who reject the powerful opportunities for change that NCEA offers. And dare we hope that review can be brave enough to deal with the promise made when the qualifications were reviewed in the 1990s? “Time served would be dead” we were told. But time served has never looked more secure. Calendar year blocks of education and training punctuated by Christmas Holidays might well be challenged in a review. After all there are only two institutions where time served is critical and in one you get time off for good behaviour!

The NCEA Review must position the secondary system and to some extent the tertiary system to be ready for NZQA when they reach their goal of assessment “anywhere, for anyone, on line and on time.” There is a train a’comin” down the track!

NCEA and the NZQA developments might eventually coalesce to be the only paradigm shift that we are likely to experience in education in our lifetime.


Fast Free-for-All in Tertiary

Stuart Middleton


24 October 2017

Hey wait! Quick isn’t good. Right is good. Is it right to rush headlong into a free-fees tertiary regime? It seems OK to abolish National Standards without knowing what is to be put in its place so perhaps it is OK to abandon fees without knowing how it is to be done and who should get most benefit!

But ideology is a funny thing which has a logic all of its own. Back in the 1980s the ideology of an unfettered free market drove a wide range of political Principles such as freedom, equity and open access all critical to a high performing education system were less important than other considerations.

A set of briefing papers to the incoming Minister of Education in 1987 was prepared by the New Zealand Treasury and published with a touch of grandeur. This was an early and key outline of the view that post-compulsory education was a private gain and not a public good. The government’s contribution was to provide allowances and a loans scheme which gave students the cash to purchase education and training from the Government.

Now the political whim is to reverse that situation and over a period of seven years, students in post-compulsory education and training will be free of fees again. But to achieve equity in education it is often critical that different groups of different people are treated differently. This free-fees development has all the look of a policy that will not be targeted well if at all. Rather than simply say that the fees must go eventually, there is here an opportunity to fine tune provision in ways that respond to a range of issues and allow the post-secondary education and training sector to make marked improvements to levels of equity and access and to its contribution to communities and the national good.

Clearly the staggered approach which sees a start of 1-year-fees-free, then to 2-years-fees-free and, finally, to three-years-fees-free, is governed by fiscal considerations – there isn’t the money to achieve it in one go. But perhaps that is because of the assumption that everyone undertaking post-secondary education and training should have access to a fees-free pathway. As this policy is further developed prior to implementation, it could become a more sophisticated, nuanced and targeted policy than was the simple rhetoric of the simple election campaign announcement.

As part of that development I would like to first see evidence that there is a body of people who are qualified to enter tertiary education and training but are unable to do so because of financial hardship. I would also like to see an analysis of the ways in which provision can be directed towards skills shortages and the needs of business industry and commerce.

I would suggest that getting more people qualified to enter tertiary education and training in general is a higher priority than immediately rewarding all those who are already qualified to start next year. Attending to the stockpile of talent that sits at great cost to us all, untapped and wasting away, is a higher priority that firing money that those who have over the past 20 years shown that they can get to tertiary and indeed do so in spite of the debt incurred.

This will require a willingness to address in a serious and meaningful way the issue of the NEETs pile of people which is, often at no fault of the individual, such a dead weight on productivity, social costs, poverty levels and the well-being of families.

I would suggest that targeting fees-free initiatives towards Maori and Pasifika students continues to be a higher imperative and will continue to be while participation rates are inequitable and parity of outcomes not yet achieved.

Targeting a fees-free initiative towards First-in-Family Students entering post-secondary education and training would have a major impact on families – the evidence is clear, the first-in-family member who completes postsecondary education and training qualification influences and transforms the family as other family members follow in those family-first footsteps.


Currently there is a range of initiatives in place for fees-free postsecondary education. There are learnings in this for further developments and it would be a lost opportunity if they went unheeded. Targeting areas of skill shortages both by skill areas and by qualification levels would be a sound response to the current needs of business, industry and commerce and might focus on the serious skill issues for entry level and middle level workers.

A significant number of people probably cannot afford to contemplate post-secondary education and training simply because their schooling has left them ill-equipped and to pass through the gate to tertiary and probably resource poor in facing the requisite commitments implied. Creating a fees-free pathway specifically for such people, many of whom are headed towards joining the NEETs, must be a top priority.  The removal of the either/or relationship between training and benefits would be a good start.

So, the point of this is that there might be a set of principles that will produce a greatly more targeted policy in this area than the simple roll-it-out-as-we find-the-cash approach proposed. Policies that are not well-targeted might be thought to achieve change but they seldom produce impact.

Along the way much more could be achieved. Simply transplanting free-fees intro the current postsecondary education and training sector will be great for some but overall, a disappointment once again, for many. And a lost opportunity.


Standards and years and progress

Stuart Middleton


24 October 2017

It is one thing to see merit in scrapping National Standards in primary schools but quite another to know what to put in its place.

The first cohort of students to proceed through primary education under the National Standards regime of reporting progress which was introduced in 2010, will be about to move on to secondary school. This pudding is about to be eaten and that will be the proof of whether or not they have had an impact on student performance.

National standards were introduced for a set of very reasonable expectations which were:

  • that teachers were able to assess the progress being made by their students in key areas such as reading, writing and mathematics;
  • that these would effectively communicate the level of progress being made to parents and caregivers;
  • that the levels of progress would be calibrated so as to ensure that students were ready for secondary school when they moved on.

The evidence of the past few years shows that Maori students have stay around the 68% level in the areas reported on, while Pasifika, Asian and European/Pakeha have all dropped back. Numbers of students reaching ‘at’ or ‘above’ the standards have been flat for the past five years. As these were the 2011-2016 results, teachers should by then have become proficient in applying the standards.

More worrying perhaps is that student achievement in primary schools seemingly get worse rather than better from Year 1 to Year 8.

So there could be an argument around whether or not a standards approach will raise achievement but there can be no argument that parents and caregivers deserve to have clear and accurate information about progress and whether students are being prepared for secondary school – a key role for any primary education system.

As the call to abandon National Standards has been consistent from their inception, it is strange that no-one, not teachers, not academics, and not even journalists, have been able to suggest a replacement for them. Is it simply beyond education systems to account for the impact of teaching and learning to be reported to the community one way or another. Can not a simple statement be made about the progress made and whether the student is “on track” or not.

Ironically, in the old days your progression was measured in “standards” which referred to the level of class you were in and taking the school report home also carried in it the confirmation that Mary would be going up into the next standard the following year – a statement greatly valued. “Standards” have been replaced by “Years” and your education is an automatic elevation through the standards.

Elections and Education – What a Polly Scramble!

Stuart Middleton


20 October 2017

So now we know! The die is cast! The road less-travelled has been chosen. Our fates are cast to the wind. Or to put it another way, the Government has been declared. Education wasn’t a central star in the drama of the election campaign but plenty of ideas were dressed up as policy. Now there will be a scramble to give effect to some of it. It will be a little like a lolly scramble when energetic adult hurl lollies over the heads of children. The result can often be tears (“I didn’t get any!”) or complaints (“They pushed me and I fell over!” and even shrieks about fairness (“I only got two and he got fistfuls!”)

The next year will be something of a “Polly Scramble” as the three parties that will make us the next government scramble to get some meaning to wrap around their slim descriptions of policy intention let alone to bring it into fruition.

The thirty or so policies that I spotted are like a bag of all-sorts. Some are big, others are small but unlike lollies, some cost a huge amount while other have little cost beyond simply asking us to behave differently. And that is the challenge.

The road to hell is paved with good intentions and education policies that have failed or perhaps not even been implemented or, and this is quite common, been socialised into the education system so that we can continue to act in the old way while seeming to adopt the new.

So, I offer the list below as an aide memoire when you are asked about the progress being made by the new government in Education. Or perhaps even when you are asked what it is that you need.

Education System             

  • Spend $6b over 4 years to include $1.8b for more teachers, PD, resources (Labour) nationwide PD for teachers to ensure meet student needs equitably (NZ First).
  • Increased PD and training for Trustees.
  • Increase spending by $315m to build a more inclusive education system (Greens).


  • Bring back more funding for ECE Centres employing 100% qualified and registered teachers (Labour).
  • Fund primary classes of 26 students and secondary classes to a maximum of 23 students
  • All ECE Centre employ at least 80% qualified staff within three years (Labour).
  • Extend 20 hours free ECE to 2-year- olds (Greens)
  • Actively support more public centre in areas of low provision (Labour).
  • $150 per student for school not charging fees or compulsory donations (Labour).
  • Re-establish curriculum and school support advisors (NZ First).
  • All students to have access to mobile digital devices (Labour).
  • Low decile schools to get free after-school care, free holiday programmes, free lunches and the all the schools get school nurses (Greens).
  • All schools to have modern classrooms within 12 years (Labour).
  • $2,000 PM Awards for Vocational Excellence selected by the school (Labour).
  • Review truancy contracts, their centralisation and the extent to which they meet local needs (NZ First).
  • Double the funding for the Ongoing Resourcing Scheme (ORS) and the Early Intervention Service (EIS) (Greens).
  • Scrapping Public Private Partnership for providing school(Labour).
  • Doing away with Charter Schools(Labour).
    • Strengthening child rights in the Education Act to ensure every child can be included in their local school (Greens).

Tertiary Education           

  • Increase living costs to $50 allowance and a $50 increase in the amount that can be borrowed (Labour).
  • Postgraduates to get student allowances (Labour).
  • Tertiary students to get free off-peak travel on public transport (Greens)
  • Long course allowances and loans extended beyond seven years (Labour).
  • Free tertiary education (1 year free for a 2018 start and 3 years free by 2024) (Labour).
  • Wage subsidy equal to the unemployment benefit for employers taking on apprentices (Labour).
  • Bring back ACE funding for night classes for adult learners (Labour).
    • The School Leavers Toolkit school leavers will be getting a driving licence, possess workplace competencies, be financially literate, have budgeting skills and know their democratic rights and responsibilities (Labour).


  • Fund properly Children’s Champions on the ratio Champs to kids of 1 : 400 (Greens).
  • Students with additional learning needs will have the opportunity to experience school camps and activities just like every other student (Greens).

I suggest you print this off, add any other policies that you come across and tick the ones that are implemented. Or when changes are suggested and/or made, see if you can spot them in this list.

Tertiary Education Free-for-all!

Stuart Middleton

30 August 2017

WOW! Free first year for tertiary education scaling up to three free years. This is a significant policy! If Labour succeeds in becoming the Government this should make a huge change.

But wait! Do we really know the extent of the problem that financial hardship which it is claimed stops people from going to tertiary? How many young people are qualified to go to tertiary but are unable to get there simply because of financial issues? Most of the students interviewed by the media who attest to financial hardship seem to be uniformly pakeha and, let’s not forget this, they are already at university. Addressing financial hardship for them is not about access it is about improved living condition and experiences. In terms of parity of outcomes and equity of access – is financial hardship a fact or an untested assumption?

In am aware of studies which suggest that in the southern region of Auckland by and large, those who are qualified to go to university, do get there. Many institutions have programmes for financial aid, for scholarships and so on. Youth Guarantee places in tertiary treat the right to a free education up to the age of 19 years more fairly than used to be the case.

But I would expect that if the financial issues of going to tertiary were examined with a little more granularity it would show that those not qualified to go to university include the greatest number of students who face financial hurdles is accessing tertiary educationof different kinds.

The media seems unable to reflect the fact that “tertiary”, as the word is used in New Zealand, covers a range of post-secondary opportunities and experiences not just going to university. The range of these distinctive tertiary pathways includes Wānanga, Institutes of Technology and Polytechnics, and Private Training Organisations. And tertiary could also be taken to include in different ways, the ITO’s who do engage in training in a different ways. And there might be a case to argue for those undertaking apprenticeships and other forms of in-work, post-secondary training to get some benefit from the no fees model?

But the real cost related to the post-secondary environment is not the cost to the students who successfully enter a tertiary institution but the cost to those young New Zealanders who leave school inadequately prepared for the next step. They still continue to give up before the finishing post and many students stumble across the line then fall. Failing is failing at whatever level and however it is funded. The cost of failure to a student is not the cost of the fee but a huge, damaging, and enduring cost to their lives and their families.

Secondary schools have responded well to the NCEA Level 2 Targets and to the opportunities gathered under the Youth Guarantee policy in Secondary / Tertiary Programmes (such as Trades Academies, Dual Pathways and ventures like the MIT Tertiary High School). Indeed, some schools have noted the mutual benefit to both sides of the provider relationship of such programmes.

If failure remains an issue in schooling then It seems odd to me that there is a fervent desire among the policy developers who propose no tertiary fees but with the same enthusiasm propose to remove national standards. An education system that is performing well has to do so at every level. Early Childhood Education, Primary schooling, secondary schooling and tertiary education all face challenges of student failure and disengagement and all have a responsibility to see that they did what was required of them to prepare students for life. Secondary and tertiary operate in an environment that has increasing accountability measures. So too should primary schooling.

Equity of access in education is not the ability to get through the gates of the academy, rather it is the quality of life and the opportunities that result from an excellent education. On this measure, we have some way to go!

Flexing Learning Environments in a Rigid System

Stuart Middleton


10 August 2017

There has been chatter in the media about “Modern Learning Environments” (a.k.a. Flexible Learning Environments in MOE-speak) and even a Principal wondering whether what was being provided under this guise was suiting all children. Of course, this was countered by an enthusiast who had a catalogue of the key words –collaboration for innovation, teamwork, challenge, projects, and so on while making the link that such environments in the early years prepared students for the world of employment. All good!

But I do wonder whether the thinking recognises sufficiently that education is an inside-out process rather than outside in. A good teacher provides materials, opportunities, support, guidance and the tools for students to work with the material they have and, when the judgment of the teacher is sound in the provision of all this the student increases their knowledge, skills, interest and development by building on what they already have and we describe this as progress, growth and, in the end, learning.

New Zealand’s great teacher, Sylvia Ashton Warner, described the process as “taking the native imagery of the child and using it for working material.” Vygotsky wrote about “the zone of proximal development” where learning took place at the edge of what the learner already knew.

So, does the environment matter? Yes, it does. Some environments might actually impede learning and I note quite a large emphasis placed in the discussions of the modern/flexible learning environment on creature comforts – warmth, space, light, friendly acoustics, soft furnishings, lively colour schemes, these all add to the schoolroom being a place that is welcoming and nice to be in.

But it is not in itself, sufficient. To invite students into a setting that has the colours, activity, noise and stimulation of a theme park will not on its own achieve good educational outcomes. All these discussions end up back at a fundamental truth – teachers make great classrooms, not architects, interior decorators and elegant technological gadgets (now known as “devices”).

I have seen brilliant teaching under a tree in the outskirts of a village in the Solomon Islands. It was a young teacher. I sked here where the village school was and she replied that this was it. Under a tree, minimal tools, an easel with a small blackboard, students at multiple levels. I would guess that this was not the only school like this. And in developing countries I have seen facilities more reflective of the 19th rather than the 21st Century. But where the teachers were excellent, the students made great progress. To deny that teaching and learning cannot take place without a modern learning environment is to deny most of the world an education.

So, the truth is in the middle. It is great to have excellent facilities, no doubt about it. But it is better to see that every child is working with excellent teachers in ways that reflect their needs in terms of progressing their skills, knowledge and development. This requires teachers prepared to change and to work in new and different ways if the old and one-for-all approach has failed.

Students failing in school is still the biggest challenge and failure in one environment looks much the same as failure in another.



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

Stuart Middleton


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.



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

Stuart Middleton


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.