Not quite Seventy-Six Trombones nor an audience with the Queen

It is a little recalled fact that the first Royal visitor to New Zealand was the Duke of Edinburgh. Not the recently deceased Duke Prince Phillip but Prince Alfred, son of Queen Victoria, who happened to be the Captain of a British vessel, the HMS Galatea, that called in to Wellington.

The death of Prince Phillip recalls the extent to which we baby boomers lived in the shadow of World War II and in the sunshine of the Royal Family which, in the fifties and sixties, New Zealand basked in.

The first visit of Queen Elizabeth II and her Consort Prince occurred in the summer of 1953/1954. Each school child in New Zealand was given a splendid concertina brochure that opened to show on one side a a procession of royal horses and soldiers, sketches of important sights of London. While on the other side the text focused on the coronation which had occurred some months previously. The headings made clear what this was about – The Queen, Our Royal Family, The Queen is Crowned.

But in the rather simple life that was led back then, the gifting highlight just had to be the medal we each received. It was the size of a real medal, was the weight of a real medal, it had a purple ribbon and a ribbon bar – we knew it was dinkum.

In Hamilton (1954 remember) the royal entourage hung about for several days and my brother and I were dragged about by Mum to catch fleeting glimpses of the Queen as she was driven past in large shiny cars, walking away through entrances – “Yes, that was the Queen under the hat with the blue feather!” All in all, a a set of recollections of those Royal Hats, the blurred windows of large shiny cars and, of course, those two gloved and waving hands. Our mother accompanied all this with her mantra: “This is History”.

Things were managed much better in 1963 when once again the Queen and Consort were in New Zealand. It was summertime, stinking hot, but that didn’t stop all the students from schools in Hamilton being transported to Seddon Park (now known as a venue for cricket), arranged in rows, primary in the front, secondary capped and uniformed, all in preparation for  the Queen and Consort to be driven on the back of a Land Rover, up and down, up and down the rows so that the children both primary and secondary could become a little more acquainted with our beloved monarch.

I recall that it was a really hot Hamilton afternoon. I recall too that the royal entourage was delayed, probably inspecting yet another dairy factory. My brother and I were in the Fairfield College Brass Band which had the privilege of playing for the assembled guests and our honoured visitors (both futile expectations as turned out). But with no shelter, sitting up alter for the imminent arrival which when at last the Guests arrived and the Brass Band had struck up (not quite Horse Guards Parade) the event proceeded with squealing, shouted messages from the delighted children. It was over seemingly to us at the time, largely before it had started. But there was a sequel that delighted us.

Several days later a Letter to the Editor of the Waikato Times appeared detailing the excellent contribution to the Seddon Park Royal Event by the Fairfield College Brass Band under difficult circumstances – great heat, competing with the noise from an audience of youngsters that had gone to Seddon Park to see the Queen not to listen to a Brass Band. Sitting out in the noon-day sun, the delay and so on. It was a great thing for this citizen to have done, the school was chuffed when it was read out at a subsequent assembly and the members of the band subsequently blew a little harder at the tribute from this anonymous citizen.

But this raises the question for me.  What knowledge and how much attention will be paid in the history of New Zealand to be rolled out in school and the Monarch which, as our Governor General has recently pointed out, is the Treaty Partner with Māori albeit a function that is the responsibility of the NZ Government or, as it is usually put, the Crown?

Oh, and the letter to the Times? Some years later I found out that the anonymous letter (as was the order of the day back then), was written by our Mum!

Nulla mensa sine impensa

Imagine my surprise while idly soaking up a rather interesting programme on television about the English monarchy when I learned that King Charles II’s motto was Dum Spiro Spero – While I breathe, I hope.  Shakespeare is said to have written the very same motto on his first published manuscripts.

It has been the motto of Fairfield College, Hamilton, since its founding in the late fifties. Not that it served an obvious purpose, for it was seldom used but it was always featured on the rather pleasant Crest that accompanied it. Nowadays the Fairfield’s crest has three mottos, to use the technical term, reflecting its multicultural commitment.

Now when my brother and I were at Fairfield College, the notion that we would have hope if we had breath seemed quite reasonable and on a bad day quite reassuring. But it was not that we did not have experience with mottos, no, not at all, for we had been to primary school and to intermediate school.

We had breezed our way through primary school not really engaging with the motto of Frankton Primary School, “To thine own self be true.” This was largely because the notion that we would tell lies to ourselves took some understanding and, anyway, it was never actually mentioned. However, some years later, good old Polonius popped up in Shakespeare’s Hamlet when giving advice to his son Laertes to suggest that it was a good thing to do.

But the ability to grapple with a good motto came along when we attended Maeroa Intermediate School in Hamilton, a new school opened in 1956, which was determined to take part in the habit of reflecting the well proven habits of motto-making and our origins of such clarion call to be virtuous.

Each day we would cycle to school wearing caps that bore the crest and the motto – “I shall not cease from mental fight.” This is as you Dear Reader, will know that this a line from William Blake’s rousing song, Jerusalem.  This relatively modern school explains that we have a proud tradition built up over the past fifty-six years and our motto, ‘I will not cease from mental fight’ represents our belief in developing students who will be life-long learners.”  This is one explanation, but William Blake might not have had the weapons and tools of modern education in mind – a device, sports, teachers working hard and students engaged. No, he had different ideas of how it would be done: the bow of burning gold, the arrows of desire, the sword that is wide awake in his hand and above all, The Chariot of Fire! But be at rest, the crests on our caps showed each of these critical elements, the tools required to affect a better, more pleasant world replacing the dark satanic mills, a green and pleasant world, something like Jerusalem and England would be green and pleasant again.

No wonder we sang our little heads off with gusto when we sang Jerusalem at the last assembly each year. At last, a motto with gravitas.

Vocational Education is no joke!

The first of April each year is a time that is most characterised as the pulling-the-leg time, of large-scale and small-scale deception and tricks and the fabrication of ideas and possibilities that might just be true, then again, on second thoughts it might just be a leg pull.

Last year, on 1 April a significant development in the New Zealand vocational and technical education sector that was too wide-sweeping to be a joke took place – all 16 Institutes of Technology and Polytechnics formed an alliance to operate under a common brand and for all intents and purposes become instantiations of a mega-polytechnic.

There would be no pulling rabbits out of hats although it is rumoured that there Easter Eggs and Hot Cross Buns in some quarters. There also was the careful tip-toeing around certain words – a*********** and m*****. There was to be no repeat of the frenzy that was triggered in Australia as new universities were created through, shall we say “getting together”? And technical colleges grew in stature under the TAFE banner. A famous description was spawned as a warning about what might happen. To cut a long story short, a commentator in describing the determination to avoid actual m***** told of the story going around “in uppity circles Institution A was spoken as if it were a certain ‘Biblical Character’ for accepting the local college. As we know from Revelations (17:3), that person sat upon a scarlet beast having seven heads and ten horns – not a bad description of the academic structure in many a combined institution.”

 So Pukenga, who we know to be a “skilful, versatile intellectual, skilled” body by dint of its name (which reflects those characteristics) has provided the steady-as-it-goes to reach its first birthday calmly. One cannot help but think that the increases in enrolments was a helpful gift born out of the misery of a pandemic. But calmness is only a state that you reach but not one that you cannot sustains forever.

Change must come. First, key unified and strategic actions must be around provision and increased positive outcomes for priority groups, Maori, Pasifika, Migrants, those who are still being left behind. Secondly there is also an opportunity to increase the involvement of Pukenga institutions in Secondary / Tertiary programmes – networks are in place at a national scale, the success and progression levels of school students to polytechnics from these programmes cannot be ignored.

But thirdly and most of all, Pukenga must persuade the institutions as to the need for recognisable and nation-wide marketing, the nation-wide availability of the key programmes that mark out the polytechnic territory and above all, one system for enrolment that is smooth quick and easy.

Finally I look forward to cracking open a Pukenga Easter egg next year, 2022 and see a VET system that is characterised by managed pathways to employment that are seamlessness in their programme delivery and students zipping over the transitions that remain potholes in the road to success.

Changing the Kingdom: Where there is a will and a way

It was a hot sultry day in February 2014 when I and my colleague met with a group of school leaders in the beautiful Kingdom of Tonga. Brought together by Rev. Feleti Atiola, Leader of the Wesleyan Church School System, they had asked us to meet to discuss what could be done from a curriculum perspective to increase the successful outcomes of many of their students, the ones that the Rev. Feleti called “those who had been left behind”.

Disengagement was the issue with many alienated from the curriculum offer to them. What could be done?

Winding the film back to 2013: the NZ Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade (MFAT) was keen to offer support to NZ agencies that would cooperate with them to offer appropriate support with aid programmes in Pacific countries. MIT was keen as MIT already a presence of a general nature in the South Pacific countries and this seemed to be an opportunity for the progress MIT had made with secondary/tertiary programmes. Was there a role for such a programme in the Pacific?

The short answer was a resounding interest from the Education leaders in Tonga. We had previously conducted seminars about that success in MIT and there seemed to an appetite to explore a development of some sort. The MFAT Partner Project was an opportunity to bid for resources to engage our Pacific colleagues in a secondary/tertiary style programme.

The issues were that too many students were not completing their schooling (early school leavers), many were not proceeding to any training after their schooling but instead were headed towards a NEETs-style of inactivity and perhaps a little mischief,

The bones of a proposal were put to the group. We would assist them to introduce a new programme based around the trades, offering to students the opportunity in Year 12 and 13 to undertake a practical subject or two that had application to the setting in Tonga.

The goal would be that the students would then:  

               emerge as prospective students for the Tonga Institute of Science and Technology (TIST), an             excellent trade training institution in Tonga but one that lacked the pathways from schools;

               return to school re-engaged and ready to complete their secondary schooling – this is aby-   product of secondary/tertiary programmes;

               return to or stay at their village but has skills that would be useful – or skills that would be             very useful in helping those in such communities that look after building and so on.

MFAT accepted the proposal and funded a substantial project for three years. The programme started with curriculum trial MIT put forward in 2014 and in successive years increasing numbers of students opted for the Trades programmes. A Level 2 certificate was developed and placed on the Tonga Qualifications Framework – the Certificate in Technical and Vocational Skills. This is the equivalent of the NZ Level 2 qualifications.

Of course, there were numerous questions to be asked and solutions to be found. Schools equipped themselves in the trades using ingenuity, cleaning up former workshops for their new use and so on. Local communities came forward, tools were sourced from many directions with MIT also contributing. Organisation such as ex-Student Associations, community service groups, and churches were keen to support the programmes.

Now some other pointers to success:

The enrolment at TIST has more than doubled their previous rolls and the tertiary provider has started to establish programmes in some of the schools.

The engagement of students in these school CITVS programmes has grown exponentially.

From the initial enrolment in 2014 of 3 schools and 45 students the Certificate programme has grown, in 2021, to 17 secondary schools on four islands[1] supported by all school-types[2] involving 895 students.  Overall, 3,720 unique students have undertaken the programme and up to and including 2020 1,356 students formally and proudly graduated with the Certificate.

In 2017 MIT maintained the programme while a new 4- year proposal was developed in collaboration with MFAT. The involvement of MFAT is scheduled to finish at the end of 2021.

What learnings can we take out of this project?

That the best projects (and this is one of them) are collaborative and based on need as identified by those who will have to deliver them and buy those who will benefit from them.

That quick hit and run projects are pointless – activity matured over time is activity that is lasting.

The competence of those delivering a project cannot be left to chance – MIT has provided professional development to those who are at the front line.

When distance is involved between the Project Team (Auckland) and the site of delivery (Tonga) you need the very best on-site management. MIT has been blessed by having a top Pacific Trades Training expert who has worked tirelessly over 8 years.

Various overseas aid specialists describe the project as being exceptional in its conception and execution.

Each year there is a graduation for the 303+ (approximately) students graduating. The largest pavilion is bedecked with tapa and vegetation and huge crowds support those graduating. The crowds stop the traffic. The radio station broadcasts the event, television is there to capture to capture it all in a repeated evening screening (and at other odd times over the next week or so. – it is a huge national event.

Each time we return we have a strong feeling of malo au’pito

[1] Tongatapu, ‘Eua, Vava’u, Ha’apai

[2] In the Tongan education system there are seven types of secondary school generally

based around religious groups and the Government. The key groups are: Wesleyan, Catholic, LDS, FCT, Anglican, Seventh Day Adventist, and the Government.

Blind Alleys or Fruitful Pathways

I am greatly perplexed whenever I note that students at the MIT Tertiary High School can work flexibly though the NCEA requirements while seemingly schools mostly work to a choreographed set of lockstep moves. This sees Years being equated with Levels and Credits equated with the right to progress up those years.

The great promise in the early days of NZQA was that a standards-based system would ensure that “time served would be dead.” Well, it is not, and most students are required to take three years to complete in a relatively strict sequence the requirements of the NCEA award requirements imposed not by the nature of the award but the reluctance that is inherent in the school system to abandon the notion of groups moving through in sequence, a feature inherited from the previous discredited examination system. In a standards-based setting the accumulation of credits by a student should be an indication that a pathway is being shaped. If this is not the case, then there is a degree of help in the system.

Vocational Pathways are excellent in theory but perhaps have not perform to the extent they promised in practice. A superficial glance at the suggests that they are not often enough used in planning programmes thus leaving to chance the likelihood of a student finishing up with a robust set of credits that has integrity. In others, he or she will have a set of credits acceptable to the trade and significantly meeting the needs of the first year of employment.

Vocational Pathways have had a fair go and I fear that my belief that Vocational Pathways should ve been put into the oven again – the concept and its implementation was undercooked.

The figures speak for themselves: Pakeha – 21%, Maori – 15%, Pasifika – 15%, Asian – 16%. This was an overall 19% of the students eligible to be awarded a Vocational Pathway.

Take that small percentage of students and allocate the awards that were made: Creative Industries – 39% (down from 62% the year before!), Service Industries – 41%, Manufacturing and Technology– 10.1%, Construction and Infrastructure – 7.7%, Primary Industries – 6.4%, and Social and Community Services – 4.4%. The last four of these results are woeful considering the needs of the country.

I have long thought that the key issue was that the Vocational Pathways were being used in an a posteriori manner rather than being used in a powerful a priori manner essentially as a pathway planning tool. It matters what credits students attempt if they aspire to careers and they ought to be at that stage of their lives. It is as if Vocational Pathways have become a sort of pokie machine, pull the level at the end of the year, watch the tumblers and, Gee Whizz, three pineapples and an award for Primary Industries. We could be doing better at seeing that student’s do not make choices that are based either on random or chance. The most important transition in the education system deserves more and closer attention.

It’s tough for everyone being in school

Fifteen years ago Education Counts published a comprehensive study[i] of student retention (and therefore also of disengagement) very much focussed on the views of Principals and including students and what is described as “a series of in-depth interviews with principals, teachers, guidance counsellors, key personnel in the education sectors, early, and the parents/caregivers of early school leavers.”  There is therefore likely that the picture presented is quite accurate in terms of 2006.

One thing that stood out 15 years ago includes the following. “Most students who are at risk of leaving school before the age of 16 are identifiable.” Three quarters of principals believed this and the rather larger number of principals (91%) believed that there are warning signs from which they can spot the likely disengagers. They can also list the warning signs – disengagement, low achievement, dysfunctional family, lack of family support, lack of social skills, disengaged attitudes, disruptive, lack of family support, and negative out-of-school behaviours.

All these signs are signs of disengagement. And the question which is begged is this. If the situation is clear to those managing the school system and that is what it seems back then, why has the school system not been able or supported to meet the challenge that all this raises?

Perhaps the answer is that the situation has got a lot better, or the issues have largely gone away, or schools are doing their best, or all of these and more. The latest report (1918)[ii] on “staying at school” might provide the answer. The average daily attendance now stands at 88.6%. Absences when categorised as either justified or unjustified show sickness as being the bulk of the justified absences but half of the unjustified absences either truancies or an unknown puzzle. Students who can claim regular attendance (i.e. fewer than 5 days absence) are at 58% and at this rather stringent measure, the report tells us that “around 40% of all students did not attend 90% or more of their available class time.”

The closing sentence is not encouraging for prospects of improvement with the news that “regular attendance has declined across all demographics…… the largest declines have been seen across levels 1-8 and among priority learners.”

One must conclude that disengagement is rife in New Zealand schools and has been for some time. That this continues is New Zealand’s little secret. You only have to look at the continued growth of NEETs in New Zealand, or the daily rate of truants or the collapse of the New Zealand Youth Labour Market to believe that a lot of young ones are forsaking the opportunity to learn and progress to a productive future on the strength of that learning.

I believe that this continues because we have a misconception as to the nature of disengagement, seeing it as an event rather than a process.  And we accept the one-bang notion of the dropout.

I believe that disengagement is a complex and painful process endured by students over time which can be categorised as being of three kinds. There is Physical Disengagement – the final decision to leave from the school – a culmination of that suffering even though the school is often surprised. The second is Virtual Disengagement – students are obliging, pleasant to teach, quite like school, but the process of learning is not occurring and the student faces failure and poor outcomes as a result. These are the students who are left behind. Finally, Unintended Disengagementoccurs when a student might have studied honestly and has achieved somewhat pleasing results but when wishing to progress finds that the bundle of achievements lacks substance and integrity. Consequently, the student faces a blind alley rather than a pathway. Each of these states is obvious when a close analysis takes place of the steps that the student takes and opportunities to provide interventions which could have been developed to counter each of them.

The rather alarming fact that the largest declines of students occur in the primary school. It seems inevitable that students arriving at secondary school are a rather skewed group.

Is it no wonder that the largest group of school leavers are those who are completely disengaging from further education and training they are heading to the couch they might simply be finishing off a slide downwards that started in an earlier life in education. Is this the time for a wake-up call?

[i] Ministry of Education (2006) “Staying at school consultation report,” Education Counts, Wellington.

[ii] Ministry of Education (2018) “Staying at school report”. Education Counts, Wellington

It all adds up!

A parent made an interesting comment to me recently concerning the availability of information for parents about progress with basic core subjects suggesting that its is a little patchy.

He suggested that as parents they were getting a lot of information about Language, Literacy and Social Skills but they faced a troubling dearth of information about Maths. It seemed to them that Maths was as least as important as those other subjects but the relative silence about Maths simply continues.

Some years ago, when changes occurred to the way Maths was taught, there may have been some willingness to sheet the blame (but no justification) that parents took the blame for this as a pedagogy new to them had replaced, it seemed, the ways of former days. But that is wearing thin after so many years of the current Maths pedagogy – indeed many millennial parents had been taught New Maths in much the same way as their little ones. Perhaps the once held view that because of the changes made to the curriculum parents were in a disadvantaged position to provide support for homework and had seemingly resulted in little homework in Maths coming home with the lunch box – but this did not seem to be the case with Language and Literacy which came home in abundance.

As the focus of experts swings towards addressing the issues of this important core subject and of arresting the decline in standards of Maths achievement in international comparisons there could be some answers in the ways in which primary students engage with Maths and the levels of excitement (or otherwise) of their early learning. I hear too often the complaint for students such as “I am not very good at Maths, I don’t like it!” And just as often I have been told by parents: “I was never any good at Maths!” as if the parents should be handing down being adept at Maths in the package of Maths with the inheritance of good looks and boistrous energy.

So clearly there is some work for The Experts Group to get on with.

I offer the following guidance for the experts:

  • Develop ways of engaging parents and caregivers in their roles in giving Maths a life-out-of-school.
  • Address the preparedness of teachers in pre-service to teach Maths and supplement this with regular nourishment in their own engagement as professional Maths teachers.
  • Give Mathematics a new image which sees it as a central life skill rather then for those who are “bright” and have a carefully considered modulation to approaches into the teaching of Maths for different careers.
  • To achieve the above, engage with top leaders in business and industry and commerce to develop an understanding of what Maths skills are required by which careers and when.
  • Create an enthusiasm for Maths that takes it out of the protected species spot that it currently inhabits.

This last suggestion could be the most important one. There is clear evidence that when the penny drops about the importance for learning Maths to one’s future, engagement and learning are triggered. For the second and last time I note that students have no appetite for learning Mathematics for no obvious reason. This should not be seen as a criticism of the high-level academic curriculum nor the disciplines of Maths which are theoretical, for all of which there is a time and place.

Sporting Opportunities emerge out of disruption.

Covid-19 has been a disruptive, nasty business which has impacted across the community and hit sport particularly.

From the All Blacks down to school sport we have seen disruption, uncertainty and a rather blind pathway taken by administrators to restore regular sport. This has too much had the look of “same old, same old” with bizarre sums of money coming into the picture to be used to shore up sports activities which do not in all seriousness +look like a new and refreshed plan.

One specific area which I have not understood for a few years has been the unwillingness to consider the development of sports programmes emulating the College Sport programme of the USA. This programme across many sports has major impact on the community and is a serious pathway for the development of young sportspersons.

New Zealand could consider a Kiwi College Sports Programme which would pathway from the high school sports activities through to a college programme in the universities and the major ITPs (Institutes of Technology and Polytechnics) in New Zealand. Initially there would be about ten or twelve licences issued across three conferences for a “season” that that was appropriately fitted in to the sporting years.

The advantages of such a proposal (which of course would challenge the old brigade of administrators) are obvious.

The suite of sports in such a programme could be the major sports – Rugby, League, Netball, Football, and Weightlifting for example – with growth of other sports being possible.

There would be equitable focus on both men’s and women’s sports (as in the US).

The key aims are development of high-level skills that would enhance the entry into the professional sports that follow would be a high priority and would gain from having an intake of people with just such a set rather than simply displaying some flair that blossoms in school sport but is not capable of sustaining a professional career.

The programmes would have a educational programme alongside – as happens in the US despite the tar that is brushed across the US College Sports programme which see only Sporting Jocks paid sums of money the bolster the reputation of institutions. This is not the case and the sports activities go alongside the academic requirements which must be sustained to remain in that programme.

Inevitably not all aspiring sports people make the grade and delaying the focus on sport until maturity increases would avoid the habit of discarding this group, characterised by shattered dreams and no future path to follow – a situation not unheard of in New Zealand secondary schools. In sport as in most activity, working to “get back to normal” after post-Covid does not mean returning to the same, opportunities follow from disruption must emerge.

Looking Back to the Future: Coping with an epidemic

It was 5.30 am when the taxi arrived to collect me for a trip to Auckland Domestic for the first flight to Wellington for a meeting. This particular driver lives close by to me so he is pleased to have this early morning fare.

“And where are we going to this morning?” he asks.

“Wellington,” I reply and in answer to what takes me there I inform him that I am headed to a meeting of the Board of Te Aho o te Kura Pounamu. 

“That’s the NZ Correspondence School,” I explain thinking that I am being helpful. And with that a conversation lasting the length of the distance to the airport is kicked off.

“Back in 1947 I was a pupil of the Correspondence School,” he tells me.

“Where did you live?” I asked helpfully suggesting some options including a lighthouse, sheep station and a couple of other remote locations that typically were the staple diet of the Correspondence School.

“No, none of those. I lived at home in Auckland and at the time every school child in New Zealand was enrolled with the Correspondence School. It was the time of the poliomyelitis epidemic at its height in 1947 – 1948. Our school finished early for the year in 1947 and was closed along with all the primary schools at the beginning of 1948 to be opened when the Government felt it was safe.”

Poliomyelitis was also known as “infantile paralysis” as it predominantly struck the younger members of the community. The closing of the primary schools meant that only primary students had to work differently. The closures did not affect the older students (secondary) or adults.

At this point the cab driver became quite animated.

“Our mother was supposed to supervise us and I guess she did a good job. We were not always willing students because we were aware of what could happen when our teachers received those green canvas envelopes to mark our work. But mother was astute in managing her class of the three of us! Our envelopes were delivered to our house by our teacher, I think she did this for all our class – I was in Standard 5.”

I asked about the teachers and how they coped.

“That was the thing that we thought was amusing,” came back the retort. “All the teachers had to go to their school each day and sit at their desk during school hours, marking the work that had been handed in – and there were reports that Department of Education officials were occasionally assigned to make visits to see that this was being enforced.”

In time schools were opened when vaccines were available and finally the Sabin Oral vaccines made universally available and this kick polio to touch thank goodness.

Some interesting parallels between 1947 and 2020 emerge. Seventy-three years between the Polio epidemic and the Covit pandemic would see procedures that bore similarities the one to the other. Materials were distributed – green canvas envelopes on the one hand and multicoloured material from the cloud on the others. Teachers played a central role at all levels with students at different levels.

For both the 1947 Polio and the 2020 Covit epidemics the New Zealand Correspondence School (renamed Te Aho o te Kura Pounamu by 2020) was able to meet the curriculum needs of the school system. In the case of 1947 the Correspondence School was able to increase the range of materials and with it a strenuous programme of 40 radio classes each week. In 2020 Te Aho o te Kura Pounamu was equipped to support the Ministry of Education with the provision of programmes of learning for all levels of the school system.

(Stuart Middleton is a member of the Board of Te Aho o te Kura Pounamu.)

Curriculum – it ought to be simpler!

The curriculum is starting to carry the load of responsibility for the sliding performance of New Zealand’s school students. Language and Literacy, Mathematics and Numeracy, Reading (presented as if it were a separate and disconnected subject) have each taken hits recently.

Calmness is called for. New Zealand has always had a bipolar system of education with a proportion of learners up at the top of the international comparisons – students who could compete with the Scandinavian and Singapore and Shanghai students. But there was also the group that just did not respond to schooling as successfully. There were many and varied reasons for this but essentially they were the ones left behind. There are still top students able to compete and still struggling students who can not.

 It seems to me that what has happened is the comparative sizes of each of these groups. And the coming out in the open of what exactly is happening. I spent quite a lot of time and energy in drawing attention to what the real situation was during the 1990’s and the next couple of decades but New Zealand sailed along preferring to ignore the warning signs until perhaps 15 – 20 years ago when those disengaging from schooling education were starting to increase in numbers and could no longer be conveniently ignored. We picked up from overseas the term NEETs but without understanding the dynamics of it. We have continued to ignore the fact that 20% of students had left school before the legal age of 16 years had come around.  The community could seemingly ignore the statistics related to daily absenteeism, youth unemployment, and scholastic performance.

And when the discussion of all this reached open air the responses has generally been a touch of tinkering rather than a deep calm and informed response.

The recent educations reviews and the recent concern over the curriculum areas that have had a downward trajectory for some time shows an education system that is resistance to advice and seems not to value the involvement of the wide community who are the stakeholders and who simply require the system to be performing, simply that.

Take the concerns over a n area of the curriculum. Shall we call if Subject Q. The same old scenario develops. We have a problem with the teaching and learning of Subject Q in schools. How is this to be fixed? Immediately the education community looks inwardly and seeks solutions from those within it who have had responsibility for Subject Q. We do not see value in consulting the stakeholders that have a burning interest in in. They will in time be presented with the homegrown solution.

This could be any curriculum area – surely a better process would be to ask questions “Who has greatest need of a community of highly performing Subject Quians? How much of Subject Q are required by people at what level, and in other academic areas such as the sciences, the arts. Where is the line to be drawn for the level of competence a community sound in Subject Q ought to have.

So the search for improvement in the teaching of mathematics (or any subject for that matter) should start not with the mathematicians but with the wider communities of the professions – the engineers, the medical experts, the architects, the educational curriculum experts in all areas, and so on.

This would enable a sensible scale of importance to be placed on how much, what and at what level elements of the subject mathematics do students need to have? This brings us to the real issue. Maths is like other school subjects currently – students keep on studying a subject until the fall by the wayside because they generally do not know why they are learning it. They need to have purpose in their work and certainly by Year 10 and 11 the vocational pathways that might interest them should be opening. When students have purpose in their learning and a line of sight to a future learning occurs.