Who are the fruit cakes in all this?

If fruit cake caused serious mental health issues in in young people and especially boys there would be a call to have it banned.

If skateboarding were to cause mental health issues to adolescent boys and some girls, it surely would be side-lined by authorities.

If travel on an international flight was to cause a set of boys, about 10% of adolescent boys and fewer girls then there would be calls to recommend that flying was a serious health issue.

Why then do seemingly intelligent and reasonable adults wish to rush to cause levels of harm to a percentage of adolescent boys and girls by voting to make cannabis legal. Scientists are agreeing that should an adolescent be exposed to cannabis before the age of 15 they risk having a serious psychotic episode around the age of 18 years – well, 10% of those who indulge in smoking dope will.

That might seem a smallish risk but the tough side of these findings is that it cannot be predicted who among those who partake will fall victim to serious psychosis until they are melting down, irrational and about to cause pain and hardship not only to themselves but also to their families.

Believe the science on this. The highly respected Dunedin longitudinal research on development has seen this exact phenomenon in their youthful subjects. And it is not just New Zealand: “Cannabis is strongly associated with psychotic symptoms and psychotic disorders such as schizophrenia” concludes a major researcher in Ireland (NZ Herald, 3 August 2020). Furthermore, early heavy use dulls the brain with irreversible brain damage. So go ahead and vote for the legalisation of cannabis but do so in the knowledge that if sourcing it and using it becomes a habit for young people, they will enter into a game of cannabis Russian Roulette and 10% will lose with disastrous results for themselves and their families.

O wad some Power the giftie gie us…..

Baby Boomers(1946 to 1964); Generation Jones (1955 to 1965); Generation X (1965 to 1980); Xennials (1977 to 1983); Millennials (1981 to 1996); Generation Z (1997 and after); Generation Alpha (2010 and after).

We know all these various appellations used to describe successive generations from time to time. As a generalisation they work but of course they do not reflect the scale of difference within each generation.

I must declare at once that I am classed as a “Baby Boomer”. We grew up under the shadow of World War II. The six years of the war were still forefront in my parents’ minds and the stories were abundant. Quite regularly when looking through photo albums and asking where were the relatives we had never met, the answer was often “the didn’t come back from in the war.” There was no rushing to the western front to see them – just a telegram delivered by the local postman.

The mood of the Baby Boomers over the years has been one of sorrow for the deceased tempered with thankfulness for being alive. And younger generations might not even know that bacon, butter, sugar, meat, and petrol were rationed from the end of the war up to 1954. There were no mad panics about buying toilet paper nor storming of the grocery shop as happened recently in New Zealand. You had your coupon book and that was what you could have.

It is the pattern of human behaviour in an epidemic that contrasts so dramatically with the patterns of behaviour in a conflagration that astound me. Are Baby Boomers fundamentally wired in a different way to Millennials? They must be otherwise how can the contrast in reaction and behaviour of the two groups be so different. And just what are those differences?

The demands of those who wish to avoid quarantine, the strident demands from non-essential retail shops, the exuberant lining up for salary and expense top-ups for Decile 10 schools, the events in Victoria, Australia – all paint a picture of a generation or two that have a highly elevated sense of entitlement.

Contrast, on the one hand, the treatment handed out to farmers throughout New Zealand over the years in times of drought and floods and cyclones and stock disease outbreaks. There seemed to be a view in governments (on both sides) that those events were normal risks of doing business that you had to simply manage. On the other hand, the treatment of coffee shops, bars and pretty well all business seemed to be uncritically in favour of instant recompense for risk.

The point of raising these concerns is to ask how much the education system has contributed to the traits of the community. Education earned some praise for getting materials and devices out to students, developing TV initiative which was novel and, in the tertiary sector, development of a huge online capability was impressive. But I note that students at the universities in Auckland and Wellington are complaining about the in-line tuition. Once again entitlement trumps gratitude. They claim they are being shortchanged, that they want face-to-face tuition. I only hope that these cries are coming only from a small minority who capture the attention of a rapacious media thirsty for doom and despair. Their complaints don’t wash when they immediately flee into Facebook for their social life.

It is at this point that the argument fails – generalisations based on the all-too-easy names for generations inadequately characterise groups born in various decades. It is more the truth there are only good people and some others.

Don’t trust illusions

The arbitrary assigning of specific ethnicities to a couple of politicians recently has reminded us that some care is needed, training required and probably a bit a pause for thinking about it all. The perpetrators, both excellent people forced into quick thinking on the fly, made assumptions first about their own knowledge and secondly were caught into a no-win situation getting into a discussion about diversity.

Early in my time as a secondary school principal I learnt a little about my own knowledge. Having arriving at a school directly from teaching (in a teachers college) courses about Multicultural Education, Sylvia Ashton-Warner and suchlike I thought I knew quite bit about cultural difference etc. But this turned out to be to an embarrassing trap.

One day a distraught Pasifika mother arrived at the school upset about examination fees. I was out and about the school just then and was summoned to the office. Yes, she was greatly irritated and with justification. There was a group standing with her in the foyer and I invited them all into my office to talk it through. I knew how to handle the situation, I was experienced with Pasifika situations, I knew that the basic tenant was to first seek to understand and then be understood. And over perhaps 20 minutes we had sorted it all out.

I then thanked the group that was with the Mum, assured them that I valued the support they had given and invited them to speak. I sat back with some satisfaction that I had done well. But I was not prepared for the response. In a gentle voice one of the group said “We do not know her, we were standing by the office and you made us all come into your office!” I later was told, which rubbed a little into my wounds, that the group did not share the same ethnicity as the troubled Mum

A little learning is indeed a dangerous thing.

I have a feeling that “diversity” is not quite as helpful as a concept as perhaps “cultural inclusion” might be. Targeted cultural inclusion programmes that first address issues of personal knowledge and skills in a diverse setting are then able to move to issues of implementation, and strategy, and performance and outcomes based on the specific needs of whatever the area of desired impact is – the market, a business, a school, a community, a church and so on.

Diversity is not in the eyes of a beholder but exists in the minds and feelings of real and different people who will not be undifferentiated in their views and needs and who will require different things if their growth, wealth and happiness is to be nourished.

So getting back to the politicians, the issue is not a head count because that will not in itself guarantee outcomes. But if the issues, policies and outcomes are built in an equitable and collegial fashion by a group that can bring different perceptions, different aspirations and sound responses that reflect the communities they come from, we can expect their impact to be visible and life enhancing.

But we need to watch our own role and the quality of the knowledge and skills we personally bring to the task.

A little learning is a dangerous thing;
Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring:
There shallow draughts intoxicate the brain,
And drinking largely sobers us again.
Alexander Pope

What’s cooking in the NCEA world?

There is a rumour round the traps that attention might soon fall again on NCEA – some people just can’t leave it alone. Over the years, attention has fallen on perceived issues related to the number of credits, the so-called slip/sliding of standards, the relationship between NCEA and other qualifications including foreign examinations and so on. It has even had the formation of a Review Group that drew up some tired possibilities for beating it up. Meanwhile it has gone on offering opportunities for success to many students. It has survived its difficult birth and teenage years to become a rather sturdy twenty-odd-year something.

There are good reasons for this – it has played a central and useful part in an education system that was largely unable to bring focus into the curriculum and to spread success across the range of students in something like an equitable manner. Other developments such as the introduction of secondary/tertiary programmes, the supplementing of the secondary school offerings through the trades academies and the availability of Youth Guarantee (YG) places in tertiary institutions have been useful allies of NCEA.

The YG places have come in for some criticism but this is harsh – the criticism that they were not all that successful in moving students through Level 3 programmes is an elegant misunderstanding of the way in which student pathways develop. One of the promises of Vocational Pathways was that students would have studied a set of subjects and developed a set of skills which had integrity and cohesion prior to reaching Level 3.

Vocational Pathways were introduced in a not fully formed state and with minimal discussion of their role in the secondary school and place in the student pathway. Consequently, they became more useful in as a a posteriori summation of what a student had done (and often the result surprised the student) rather than be a powerful means of an a priori planning tool which would help students shape a pathway that went towards potential careers thus giving a student direction and purpose in their work.

The random completion of NCEA credits combined with the light impact of Vocational Pathways left students still perplexed about their futures until they were at about the end of Level 2 and starting Level 3. At the gateway to tertiary study they realised that they were on a path that had less attraction than a different pathway when it came to working through the more focussed tertiary programmes. Suddenly they needed to make a horizontal correction in their direction and enrol in a appropriate Level 2 programme instead of the Level 3 the YG placement was contingent of their continuing to Level 3 even though they felt ill-prepared and in doing so some did not succeed.

The rumour is that a group is going to undertake a TROQ-Junior exercise because their considered opinion is that there are too many NCEA courses in similar vocational areas. The catalyst for this appears to be a sudden awareness that there are 23 cooking courses – surely one would do?

Well if any of this is correct, let’s hope that those engaged in an exercise that will be difficult, first understand why this has happened – if it has! And if it has, is it such a bad thing?

Education, Planting Seeds and Facing the Forces

It was a stormy kind of day as I drove to a colleague’s funeral out South. My habitual rat run to the Manukau cemetery took me through Papatoetoe and especially along a typical and modest suburban street called Birdswood Ave.

I got into this habit because in 1970 a class of girls and boys, my form class at papatoetoe high School, had been invited by the Mayor of Papatoetoe to plant kowhai trees along both sides of the street as a public service marking another Arbour Day. They were excited to about the same extent as I was apprehensive – this class was a group of students who had sets of experiences in school that were less than encouraging. As happens in schools this class had collected around them all of the descriptions of students with issues – some accurate , some pretty offensive, some downright ignorant and all mostly derogatory and negative.

But scratch the surface and they were suburban kids growing up with uncertainties, with suspicions and still to settle into school – they were in the Fourth Form after all!

Arbour Day went well, surprising some of the staff, pleasing both the the Mayor and me the students left the scene of their civic contribution as a street that would be enhanced by two rows of Kowhai Trees.

Each time I drove along that street those trees which over fifty years had generally grown to significant size with the best of them reaching the powerlines and of substantial girth, gave me great pleasure. They reminded me of the different students and the differences they each brought to school even though they were, like those trees, sharing a genus. Just as the trees had grown into different shapes in their idiosyncratic way, so too would those students have turned out differently and, like the trees, mostly well-formed and successful in ways that brought pleasure to people.

But entering the street last Saturday I saw ahead of me signs of disturbance – fire engines, some police cars and people milling around. A small tornado had ripped of the roofs of about ten houses and damaged quite a number of the largest Kowhai trees in the street. The worst were snapped at the base as if made of balsa and many others stripped of branches and foliage. Quite a scene of some angry forces in the face of which they had no defence. This event went unnoticed by the media who could find better tornadoes in better streets that weekend.

Was this a playing out of the pathetic fallacy? It seemed appropriate that human emotion should be attributed to what had happened as selected trees, each planted by a young person, was damaged to varying extents which ranged from those left mostly unscathed through to complete destruction, snapped in two, ripped out of the ground.

So too would this class, now in their sixties, have grown in different ways, met certain forces and fates. Education is about planting seeds and saplings but some times the results are at the mercy of forces that are beyond the reach of our endeavours.

I shall continue to drive down to the airport and the cemetery along that street. I shall continue to think of that class in 1970, and I shall keep an eye on the next generation of trees as they grow in Birdswood Ave.

What would Peter, Paul and Mary say…?

There is quite properly a strong focus being directed on to the challenges that New Zealand will face as it copes with the growing numbers of new unemployed who have lost their jobs as business shrinks in face of the pandemic. It has happened suddenly and rightly has produced a response from the government through support for businesses. As time goes on the impact of this support in stemming the flow of unemployment will become more explicit.

But we need to recognise that this group, newly unemployed, could mask the continuing issue of those who live in a state of enduring inactivity and unemployment – the NEETs. These citizens of New Zealand are typically a group of 15 to 24-year old students at some point, often around Year 10 at 14 – 15 years old, who disengage from school – the US simply says “drop-out” of school. This group includes a wide cross-section of all ethnicities, from a wide range of backgrounds, who all end up sharing a lifestyle of inactivity. The couch is more attractive than most initiatives that set out to address the issues.

But all is not lost, there is clear evidence that the development of secondary-tertiary programmes is able to create pathways that lead through skill development to a wide range of employment opportunities. These disengaging students respond positive to such programmes

And such programmes are becoming more favoured. They take the form of programmes located outside the conventional secondary school structures and offerings to varying extents. Some totally engage the student in a mix of learning opportunities heavily focussed around vocational and technical activity (such as the MIT Tertiary High School and the Unitec Pathways College) while the growth of trades academies provides for students to learn in a tertiary polytechnic setting for one or two or three days a week with students moving along a seamless pathway with a line of sight to employment.

The differences between school and the secondary-tertiary options are clear. The programmes focus on the things that matter: strong personal skills, a curriculum that is based on real world outcomes such as employment and activities that require students to demonstrate skills.

There are also pedagogical differences:

  • mandated engagement – doing the work is not optional but a clear requirement;
  • attendance is critical;
  • basic skills are taught in an applied manner and setting;
  • students with gaps in their learning have remediation that accelerates their progress rather than putting them into a holding pattern;
  • students work at multiple levels of qualifications and move at a speed through the levels rather than being in a lock-step group doing one level each year – time served is dead in these programmes!

Turning groups of students around through these programmes is the cheap option. Doing nothing is to take the easy and expensive route. Who knows what the real underlying costs of school failure and unemployment are. We do know that issues such as the 6,000+ young benefit-dependent people in South Auckland incur a lifetime cost of $239K per person, the cumulative costs of unemployment in South Auckland ($1.4 billion) and the 50% school leavers who choose not to pursue a formal tertiary qualification constitute a picture of that is simply undesirable and unacceptable. What about the many “South Aucklands” located through New Zealand? And what about school disengagement in the resrt of the community?

Currently there are levels of concern developing over an increase of students not returning to school after lock-downs. This will exacerbate the NEETs issue. Add the Covid-19 impact on employment and the situation looks grim.

It won’t just be the flowers that are gone!

Did the gain come with the pain?

The extent to which the education system responded to the Covid-19 crisis has been remarkable. The response to coming out of the lockdowns has perhaps been a little less praiseworthy in terms of the general community. And its probably too early to gauge the real impact on education going forward

Central to judging that impact on the education system will be the extent to which changes have been made. Or will the footprints of the pandemic have been quietly been wiped out of the system as it returns to the tried and tested “normal” Will what might have been seen as interruptions been sanitised out in returning to “normal”.

It would be a pity if the gains made in online learning, provision of devices (more on this in a minute!), home-based learning  and parental involvement and were to be lost.

Utilising online learning has the potential to alter the nature of the school day, to release teachers and students from the tyranny of the timetable through allowing students to plan and execute their work programme. The much-vaunted model of the teacher as a learning support might then actually increase both the development of students’ responsibility for learning while allowing teachers themselves to introduce variety into the ways they cut and dice the day. The boast of some schools that they are a “Bring your own device school” does not automatically mean that the capability of the device is being maximised to quality learning. Most schools are also “bring your own lunch” but this is no guarantee that the diet is wholesome and balanced.

The targets for the provision of devices and of the essential access to the internet was really a brave and daring gaol that had the power to change the way schools worked and probably put some better levels of equity into the advantages that are denied to many simply through a lack of access. I can’t help but think that the level of logistical sophistication required was simply not there. That was a great pity. It is hoped that the goals set out for the lockdowns are continued and eventually met.

There was a clear spirit among many families that took pleasure in being engaged parents and children doing things together in the process of learning. But not everywhere – the statement that “I worry about my children missing so much learning” was a somewhat sad reflection of a misunderstanding about what learning is and about the complementary roles of the home and the school in the educational process. Learning is not the sole property of schools, nor is the home the single fount of pleasure and freedom of spirit. Loosening the boundaries between formal learning and informal activity in daylight had a lot going for it. And institutionalising “after-school-care” and “holiday programmes” meet the needs of many grown-ups but might miss the mark for students.

We have just lived through a remarkable period, of that there is no doubt. It might not yet be finished. Lessons learnt might come in handy – they often do.

There is a Disease that Lingers

Attention has lately been focussed on the rates of return to school with something of a focus on primary education. But the real issue is still in the secondary and post-secondary levels.

It was reported about a year ago the number of those Not in Education, Employment or Training (NEETs) aged between 15 and 24 had gone past 100,000 in New Zealand. The US continues to break through 15 million in its numbers, Japan is at half a million while the UK approaches a million. It continues to grow.

It is hard to not expect that the events of the pandemic will have driven this statistic to even greater levels. The actual figures are very elusive. A number of NEETs are invisible in the statistics. The manipulation around “seeking employment” rather arbitrarily shifts the border between NEETs and Jobseekers and a lack of definition about disengagement leads to an opaque boundary between being at school and not being there.

Several posts ago I pointed to the long gaps of lockdown in the momentum of learning from a combination of the necessarily quick application of the Level 4 lockdown and the quite reasonable time that it took to get schooling up and going again. These gaps will have persuaded a number of learners at secondary (and possibly also in tertiary) to simply give up, or to feel that they are better to try for a job, or feel that returning is just too hard. This starts the retreat to join the NEETs.

Both disengagement and the process of becoming a NEET are deceptively pernicious and not well understood. There are some simple reasons for persistence of people who are in the NEETs category that disables them from making that progress to a better place.

The first of these, and the most misunderstood, is that the remedy that will enable them to progress to a solution is never located in the very same setting that drove them to being a NEET. It is pointless to try to return them to a school with all the pressures and stresses that have had such an unfortunate result both for them and the school. It is pointless to place them back in a programme that they have abandoned.

NEETs need the energy of a new direction along a new pathway that is directly aimed at a visible target – employment. Career and life readiness are needed – the basic knowledge and skills required for learning both on instructional programmes and employment skills. Career development is also a key element – using that knowledge and skills to make informed choices.

At the heart of the drive to bring purpose to their lives must be a commitment to Pathways that builds purpose and maintains a line-of-site to employment and its demands. This pathway must be seamless, focus on the goal, and teach the relevant skills and knowledge for that goal. Rather than surround NEETs with a well-meaning focus on well-intended educational programmes, it is much better to surround them with people from the world of work who bring an authenticity to purposeful learning.

All this implies a pedagogy that breaks the mould. Early exposure to hands-on applied learning will trigger those parts of the brain that may have been untested and little used. Speed in approaching skills work will bring better results that trying to wrap the learner in a variety of preparatory and remediation strategies – problems for no obvious person – teach the real skills and let them apply them. Well, we all know about the claims for the ability of dysfunctional events to bring about change – let’s hope it works this time.

Hat’s Off to the Minister

Well done, Minister! The simplicity of your concession to NCEA students consisting of a distribution of credits made to compensate them for the difficulties of continuing their studies through the lockdowns, is appropriate and measured.

In this the other hero is NCEA itself. The actions taken make the most of the flexibility of this successful system of assessment and reward; students will still receive a balanced programme and exhibit skill and knowledge at appropriate levels. This is what standards-based assessment is designed to do.

Back in the 1990s I was involved in the development of NCEA and a constant and tense discussion focussed on how the students would receive credit. The Unit Standards were planned to operate simply on an Achieved / Not Achieved basis – if you demonstrate the knowledge and skills required by the standard, the student receives the award of the credits.

But this did not satisfy those (a relatively small group) who believed that there are many kinds of demonstrations and many levels and, this was important, some students would not get credit for being better than others.

NZQA sought to appease that group and thought it had by inventing a system of grades to differentiate performance among the group that had demonstrated the requisite knowledge and skill – it required, the conservative group of schools argued, differentiation of success. So NZQA developed the system assigning Achieved / Merit / Excellence with credit differentials. I was there, in the room, when the official revealed his plan to smiles from one side of the argument and puzzled frowns from the other. The smiling group had got what they wanted, a system of assigning results in a way that seemed to replicate the norm-referenced outcomes of the examination system that the frowning group had sought to replace.

Standards-based assessment does not require differentiation beyond that of Achieved /Not Achieved. Minister Hipkins realised this in his plan to adjust credits and to use them to recognise those who had completed the work and to distribute some in a way that seemed fair.

I have been a Chief Examiner of a few old-style national examinations way back, usually national senior school examinations. Issues sometimes cropped up and situations developed that seemed to be a set-back not of the students’ making such as the teacher who taught the wrong Shakespeare play in an English exam then went to the evening Post to complain, the marker who lost ten scripts (found a year later down behind the backseat of the family car), and the examiner who forgot to insert an instruction  to Write on ONE of the following topics, none of the moderators picked up on this,and well-intentioned students wrote four essays when only one was required. That kind of thing. The emphasis was on what to do then that is fair to the students. Old fashioned common sense prevailed just as it has with the actions of Minister Hipkins. It might not seem to be the solution that wins over those who think they know better, but it is the right decision to those who do.

Looking over the Shoulder for Those Being Left Behind

It isn’t perhaps generally understood that the development in the late-2000s of Secondary Tertiary programmes – the Tertiary High School Model, Trades Academies, Youth Guarantee places and so on – were essentially developed in response to the growth of disengagement in the secondary schools. On the one hand the fall-out / rate was running collectively at about 15% – 20% for a students under the school leaving age of 16-years. The growth of NEETs numbers seemed to be resistant to any intervention and continued to grow inexorably.

I wonder if it is known that there are about 6,000 young benefit-dependent people in South Auckland at a lifetime costs of $239K per person and the cumulative cost of unemployment is $1.4 billion. 50% of Māori and Pasifika school leavers choose not to pursue a formal tertiary qualification.

I spent a lot of time in the USA on a Fulbright award working with a team of scholars on the issue of equity, access and success in further and higher education. I concluded that the issue was shared both between further and higher education (in terms of completion rates) and the secondary schools.

Along the way I started to understand the process of “disengagement”, a more accurate description of a process than the Americans’ use of the inaccurate term “drop-out”. Disengagement was a process over time and not an event in time. In short, it ought to be possible to construct an intervention that provided for those in danger of being left behind to have a pathway to success.

The proposal I placed before the Ministry of Education was for a secondary tertiary high school. It would specially target Year 10 students who were either on the point of or even through the process of disengagement. The principles were clear: students would be not taken out school they would be in school but not at school; the transitions into tertiary, NCEA, and higher TVET qualifications were to be seamless, there would be early exposure to TVET post-secondary qualifications; and a clear focus on employment as an outcome.

The NZ Education Act made significant changes to the law which enabled this to be developed and started in 2010.

Currently there is a timeliness of reminding ourselves and others of the role for secondary programmes in supporting students in danger in disengagement and who find a prolonged absence from school almost impossible to overcome. If the seeds of disengagement were sprouting or even about to prior to Covit, the Covit-19 Lockdowns will in many cases have an unintended consequence of directing onto a pathway that does not include a return to school – disengaging students seldom recover an appetite for conventional secondary schooling – this is in part an explanation of the failure of well-intentioned attempts to re-direct students ssuch as truants, back into the very same education structures and approaches that they have rejected. Pathway that are a U-turn back into school is for a disengaging students no pathway at all.

The secondary-tertiary approaches – tertiary high school, trades academies, Youth Guarantee – are proven successes and offer hope to those being left behind.

These opportunities must be offered to what is a significant group of students to see them safely through this trying time and facing a solid future.