Back to normal is not the goal

A Statement from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation

Patrick Methvin  

“Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew.  This one is no different.  It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next”. — Arundhati Roy
If a pandemic creates a portal, then what exactly does our current environment – a combination of a health crisis, an economic crisis, and reckoning with longstanding racial injustices – create? None of us really know. We can cling to our security blankets of stock market forecasts, political prognostications, and vaccination modelling, but the truth is we don’t really know. Any one of these variables could affect the others in ways we can’t imagine.  

So if we can’t predict the future, what can we do with these portals to the unknown?  We can, as Roy also suggests, “choose to walk through [them], dragging the carcasses of our prejudice and hatred…or we can walk lightly with little luggage, ready to imagine another world.  And ready to fight for it.”   

There are some education “carcasses” that we should leave behind:  Inequitable funding that provides institutions serving predominantly Black, Latino and Indigenous students 20% less resources than others. Arcane credit transfer rules and incentives that result in wasted time and money (for both students and taxpayers).  Students’ pathways (into and through postsecondary) that are unclear, inequitable and do not focus on student success. Climates in our colleges, universities and places of employment that are not equitable and fail to draw out the talent of all of their people.

And what can we fight for in this period of uncertainty?   Systems that count all students and hold us accountable for their equitable social and economic mobility. Policies that reverse discriminatory financing and pathways and, in the process, create stronger and more reliable roads to opportunity for today’s students. Teaching and advising approaches emerging this year from innovative faculty and staff who are marrying the best of technology and human engagement to help their students survive and even thrive. Institutions that boldly pursue transformation to ensure they are engines of equitable social and economic mobility. It should come as no surprise that I don’t have a particularly strong appetite for the phrase, “When we get back to normal….” I don’t want to get back to normal, because “normal” in American higher education is not currently living up to its potential as an engine of equitable social and economic mobility.  

But we are optimistic that this enterprise can live up to its potential, which is why we continue to invest. We don’t have all the answers, but through partnership, we believe we can take dramatic steps toward this vision. My greatest admiration and appreciation goes out to you, our partners and friends, for your resilience and brilliance during this most difficult year. The end of this year will not magically lift present-day uncertainty, but we feel fortunate to have you walking with us through whatever portals present themselves in 2021.

Reason to Celebrate

I have been to two wonderful End-of-Year Prizegiving ceremonies.

The first was at Aorere College where I had been Principal in the 1990s when the school was changing its demographic complexion rather rapidly. Well, that process is complete and those who received awards were Mᾱori, Pasifika reflecting all the South Pacific, Asian, and a range of other ethnicities. It was a parade of success at a school that set the tone and the standards in so many ways. Pakeha were noted for their absence.

Some things I wondered about – the gaining of an excessive number of credits at each level raises questions of the necessity of this. Would students have been better to meet the requirements and move on to the next level? Or was it perhaps an organisational matter where the clarity in course requirements became clearer as the student progressed, or perhaps essential credits appropriate to pathways had become more apparent as the year proceeded was the simple explanation. The practice in the US is to guide the students with academic plans which set out pathways frown on over-crediting – food for thought? Whatever the reasons there was great delight when it was announced that successful student after successful student had received every one of their NCEA credits at “Excellence” level.

This school over the thirty years since I left had virtually doubled its role to 1600 students. Does our system understand that the new high performing schools are emerging from schools such as this one? It is tragic that so many students across South Auckland still daily migrate to a central city school where the evidence that it is in their best interests is flimsy. Perhaps they will gain a few more credits but cultural competence and leadership emerges from the south and this is a desired outcome in the diverse future NZ is rapidly becoming.

Overall it was an exciting afternoon to be followed the next day by more.

The prizegiving at the Manukau Institute of Technology School of Secondary Tertiary Studies (more widely known outside the school as the MIT Tertiary High School) was different, it needed to be if it was to reflect its mission to cater for those who had been left behind by the school system. The school group (1,500 students have been at the MIT THS since its establishment in 2010) is comprised of those who are in danger of disengagement or, in some cases have already multiple reasons seen the relationship between students and school become broken. The group as a whole carry with them a range of pressures, of family setting issues and a host of other potential setbacks. But underneath each of the different personae there beats hearts and greatly hidden talent.

The setting for the event was decorated in a wonderful display of outstanding art, of cultural reminders and this set the tone. In the course of the morning achievement was recognised. Some also received recognition for attendance (100% was the standard) and the message that this was important was part of the mandated engagement drive that characterises the school.

But the real highlight for me was the celebration for a group of five students who had achieved BOTH NCEA Level 1 and NCEA Level 2 in the course of 2020, one year – two levels because they were motivated and able to do this with the encouragement and support of teachers. The students move at their own pace rather than follow the conventional path of 1 year – 1 level. At last the promise emphasised by officials in the late 1980s and early 1990s that in the STANDARDS-BASED NCEA ENVIRONMENT WOULD BE DEAD has had instantiation at the Tertiary High School. Is this the only known case of such an outcome.?

It seems to me that encouraged by NZQA and years of doing the conventional that schools have simply replaced School C with NCEA Level 1, Sixth Form Cert with Level 2 and Bursary with Level 3 to retain the time-served habit. I was going to say that there are only two institutions thatdo this but I was wrong, one of them gives time off for good behaviour!

So two schools, both excellent in what they do, engaging students and enhancing lives enjoyed happy events in what has been a difficult and somewhat broken year.

But so very different in the way they do this.

The Emperor’s New Lesson Plan

We know what succeeds but just can’t bring ourselves to do it!

New Zealand cannot continue to countenance the level of school failure that prevails in New Zealand. For years, we (i.e. the teaching profession, government officials, think tanks, parents and the employment sector) have known that the stubborn New Zealand statistics of failure are not good for  the community, families, the economy, business sector, the health system and the young  people themselves.

Bill Gates realised this, for each of the English education systems share the same sorry story. He concluded that:

“Once we used to say that school failure was not good for all those young people not succeeding and we must do something about it. Now we realise that we must do something about it because it is no good for us!”

The picture paints a sad and sorry story, a tale that has persisted for many years. 20+% of 16 year-old young people are not in school when the school legal leaving age is reached. The accumulation of NEETs (15-24-year-olds Not in Employment Education or Training) shows no sign of either diminishing of its own accord or responding to programmes to turn this around. There is talk from the education sector that absentees from school reach 76,000 each day – that is the equivalent of 2,533 empty classrooms!

Perhaps we should be reporting some of this along lines similar to the way that we have effectively made the community aware of the status and progress of the Covit-19 pandemic. Education failure is also of epidemic proportion, let’s go hard and go early!

How did this situation occur? Older members of the community will recall the situation 40 or so years ago when students often celebrated their 15th birthday by leaving school to get a job. My own high school presented me with a Fourth Form Certificate in Form 4 (Year 10) aimed at giving students something tangible – that at a time when about 15%studies for School Certificate. Students did not stay in secondary school unless they wanted School Certificate or University Entrance.

The young people who took vocational and trades subjects were imbued with the view that the purpose of education and training was to equip oneself for the world of employment. Scenarios that predicted that in just a few years we would not recognise current jobs, we would all be in the information age, and so on were simply figments of the hallucinations of the trendy. It was not true, it never happened. Even today occupations bear great similarities to how the picture looked 60 years ago.  Never mind, education kept up the mantra that “more schooling was better”. Technical subjects and the applied trades disappeared from school curricula and reappeared in the tertiary sector.

In 1960 around 20% of students stayed at secondary school for 5-years but by 1990 that proportion had grown to 65% accompanied by increasing levels of failure.

The message is clear: more does not mean better.

But there have been developments which are bringing considerable success to students – all is not lost in fulfilling the aspirations of young people and opportunities are being presented to them to proceed to careers. This is being achieved through high levels of collaboration between secondary and tertiary education sectors.

 2011 New Zealand saw the first Tertiary High School introduced at Manukau Institute of Technology. Students who had disengaged from school at around Year 10 (age 14-15 years) and if the truth be told,  well and truly withdrawn from school and learning were offered a chance to come into the Tertiary High School programme. Right from the start they were identified as tertiary students and studied a range of subjects – Level 1 and 2 NCEA and Tertiary Trades programmes (four in the first two years) and a range of programmes and activities to grow their confidence, their social skills and their line of sight to employment. The brilliance of the NCEA qualification was that it enables these flexible programmes to happen easily. From NCEA Level 3 for those proceeding to degree study. Others continued heading towards a career in the trades continuing to other entry levels for the trades.

This programme was radical and required the government of the day to make enabling changes to the NZ Education Act. The creation of the category of programmes characterised as Secondary / Tertiary Programmes and the changes to the Education Act allowed for a further development – the creation of Trades Academies in secondary schools. This development sees students selecting to attend a tertiary institution for one day-a-week for a Level 2 NCEA trade programme or two days-a-week for a NCEA Level 3 programme.

There are twenty-six providers offering these programmes. The largest is the Manukau Institute of Technology where success rates in were 87% for Maori students and 90% for Pasifika students. Evidence shows that progression rates into higher studies and/or employment are very high.

Having in place programmes that meet the needs of the student groups noted above, Manukau Institute of Technology is now implementing, in collaboration with three other Tertiary Institutions, a programme of research into effective ways of increasing levels of Learner Success at all levels. Work is proceeding on a detailed survey of the issues students face in the journey into tertiary study, the issues they face during their period of study and effective and early interventions to keep the students’ study momentum building all the way through the programme. This will take a holistic view of the student.

This work will build on the very successful programme developed at Georgia State University (GSU) which through careful and detailed analysis of the needs of students resulted in moving the GSU Priority Learner Groups (Hispanic and African American students) from being the least successful in terms of results to being the highest performing groups in the University.

Manukau Institute of Technology shares the aspirations to see the same shifts. There are answers to issues of performance to be found, developed and implemented – if only eyes were open to them and having seen the prospect of increased student success were prepared to go after it.

Does size matter?

Many studies have found that students who attend small schools outperform those in large schools on most measure of academic success. There are claims that they are also less likely to dropout and more likely to go on to tertiary. And research points to a greater feeling of connectedness in smaller schools.

The weekend paper tells me that there are 28 schools in New Zealand that have fewer than 10 students. Now that’s really small and I guess that the discussion that hinged on the government’s reported planned move to include consideration of schools of 4,500 students by the 2040s will not consider that group as being threatened by these suggestions.

There is bound to be some hysteria surrounding the proposal to build mega-schools and that will not  be very sensible. The issue is not the size of a school, but rather the quality of the school’s programmes, the levels of student success, the choices and options promoted by the programmes, the variety of sports, music, arts, languages, and so on. Of course, it is quite feasible for a small school to have a specialist programme in some of the above and indeed that is seen in other countries. But New Zealand has developed something of an obsession with being “good” at everything when it comes to assessing the quality of a school in terms of the standard general curriculum.

Let’s pause for a moment and consider some of these issues. Most New Zealand secondary schools do not have strong approaches in preparing students for life beyond schooling. This is compensated in some schools through collaboration with the 26 providers of trades academies programmes the Secondary / Tertiary Programmes to around over 7,000 students. This level of adding to the “size” of the options and choices for students does not require adding to the footprint of the school. This is a win-win for students who access a wider choice of pathways without adding to the “size” of the school.

Many other countries overseas have a greater degree of specialism in their operation and students have the opportunity to attend these specialist schools which cater for interests such as, all the technical areas, the arts and so on. If “small” means greater focus on specialist areas then let’s have some small schools. If “big” results in access to specialist equipment and facilities then a big school or two might fulfil gaps in the offerings.

But this would require educators to accept that the general school curriculum does not suit all students. It is a triumph of hope over experience that the view that standard programming will suit the young of New Zealand over the 13 years they attend our schools.

The statistics of retention, attendance, progression and success should be enough to trigger action to diversify the curriculum, the settings in which those diversified programmes are offered, and the spread of expertise and skill among those who teach. If the creation of “big schools” is designed to deal with a demographic issue, an opportunity would be lost. It would simply be the “intermediate intervention” all over again. 

But first some things would have to change.

First might be a serious investigation of the notion and worth of education sectors which seem to me to have outlived their usefulness. Apart from the difficulties of the transitions they create, readiness through academic preparation for moving on is in no way reflected other than in lock-step movement of groups of students who might or might not have met the requisite level to do so. Students should be able to proceed at a pace that engages them. Some students spend too long working slowly through material that should be completed faster. Others respond to a more measured pace. The great promise in the late 1980s  that time served would be dead evaporated early on – it is as alive as ever.

If the government is serious about creating big schools it should forget about 2043 or whatever its predicted year for introduction is and set about designing an education system that engages all students, rethinks the pathways through education and training, and starts to serve the nation by ensuring that students pursue a pathway that will see them in secure education that provides a family-sustaining income. This is urgent and New Zealand deserves no less.

Groans and Moans about the Zones

The system of “enrolment schemes” is rather more scheming than simply enrolments! More commonly known as “school zones” which serve as the golden key to the coveted entrance for out-of-zone students. They carry the power of Grand Arbiter to a Better School in the minds to parents and caregivers who dismiss the local school as “not up to scratch” (this does not require any evidence) and applications usually paint a picture of “you would be lucky to have XYZ here” which is much the same as what the school is thinking.

As a Justice of the Peace I assist the gathering of evidence required by schools that stops short only at a blood test. Breaking the school zone barrier is certainly not a high trust exercise as a fistful of certified papers and evidence is amassed to get the required result. About 20% of New Zealand’s school-aged citizens have gone and will go, through this process successfully.

There are consequences to all this. In Auckland it is marked most annoyingly by the increase in vehicles (often humping great SUVs, but sometimes a bus) from the fleet that carts students to the schools of choice (well their parents choice to be honest and quite a number in addition to the zone-hoppers are seriously pursuing a faith choice). All Auckland knows when the school holidays are on simply by the quieter roads between 8.15 am and 9.30 am.

A review has been suggested. But if this simply concerns the mechanics of the process and suggests a role for central authorities and perhaps more automated clerical procedures, an opportunity will have been lost to consider the extent to which school zones serve the students and the country to best advantage. Is it time we took a serious look at the Scandinavian education systems?

Now granted, New Zealand is not Scandanavia which has on the whole rather less demarcated social differences than New Zealand. But Pasi Sahlberg, known to New Zealand, has constantly argued that Finland does so well because of a single factor and that is equality. Each classroom will have a balance of students from across social backgrounds. This is a constant theme in research on effectiveness of school systems.

There are other lessons to be learnt from Finland: teachers are more central in the schools, teachers and teaching are highly valued, they are a bit more traditional than NZ teachers. But there are no national tests. But, and this might be the key, no child is left behind – students underperforming have access to resources and especially to increased teacher time.

Has New Zealand dropped the ball on the development of a society characterised by equity and access? Perhaps the haves and have-not social clusters become embedded and while governments talk about addressing rich and poor it is really only talk and not action. I suggest that we have given up, it is just too hard it seems.

So how will fiddling around with school zoning make differences that matter? New Zealand has for a long time had a bi-polar schooling system that at the top of school success is as good as anywhere in the world, but at other end and with different students, is as bad as it gets. Our education statistics stubbornly refuse to show improvement and numbers of students deserting the system continue to grow.

We need a serious consideration of equity in and access to quality schooling and to pathways for success in life as social beings and contributors which reflects the rich and diverse society that could be New Zealand but is too often hidden by ways of proceeding that have failed.

Tinkering with rather than thinking about NCEA

The NCEA Review tells us (again and again) that “we are making improvements.” But they cannot explain why a qualification that is working well for a wide range of students needs to be changed. Usually the students who will suffer are again the ones that were left behind by previous systems of assessment.

If NCEA needs seriously new forms of calibration and content then why does the growth of evidence seem to show that NCEA has features that commend it over the old tired methods of assessment. NCEA is a qualification that does not have, nor does it need, the complex and mysterious machinations that were unintelligible to parents and caregivers. The key stakeholders – parents, caregivers and students –  were shut out of understanding previous systems of awarding success and how success was rationed. Why do so many back-room educators strive to return to those days? If these people were to get out among the students they would learn that NCEA works largely because the students know what they need to do to succeed.

Recently released statistics for trades academies which are based entirely on NCEA, showed Manukau Institute of Technology, which has been offering trades academies for as long as they have existed, had success rates in 2019 for students gaining 80% of the credits they entered that were pleasing:  Pakeha 93.1%, Pacific 81.4% and Maori 78.2%. The Trades Academies at MIT are mature and well-tuned to maximising the advantages of NCEA.

Research shows that students in trade academies will say, slightly over-egging the situation, that NCEA is better because you always know what you are supposed to do, and you get credit when you successfully show that you can do it. On the other hand they characterise their schooling, in fairness not quite doing justice to the programme, that in school they seldom know what to do and why they are doing it, they do it because they are told to.

But there is more to this. Students through the applied learning use of NCEA develop early a sense of purpose and along the seamless pathway can get a line of sight to employment.

Why cannot the review deal with the real issues that resulted from the difficult birth that NCEA had?

  • There is no need to have multiple levels of pass in standards- based system. The mantra of Achieved, Merit, and Excellence drafting gates were a sop to conservative opinion of some members of the Principals Lead Group in the early 1990s. It greased the path to introducing a new award that replaced the old.
  • Why must students waste time and lose traction by only doing NCEA Level 1 in Year 11, NCEA Level 2 in Year 12, and NCEA Level 3 in Year 13? Students can easily work at their own pace and under-takework across sevealr levels simultaneously. There are isolated instances of this in some institutions.
  • Why must changes be made to Level 3 which are not based on the needs of most students who exit after Level 3? The University of Auckland will this year it is reported, not base entrance to university on NCEA to the extent that it has in the past. They might find that their own methods of assessing students’ academic preparation better and more appropriate!
  • What is the rationale behind considering a move to separate Literacy and Numeracy from the subject oriented credits? Literacy and Numeracy require real substance-based around real intellectual activity. Literacy and Numeracy are terms that describe fluency in clusters of cognitive activity that happen to be called language and mathematics. Experience tells us that students who are steeped in cognitive activity across a wide range of subjects have no difficulty in reaching NCEA literacy and numeracy targets.

Now, there are four issues that a review might grapple with and in doing so actually improve NCEA.

How NCEA changed a nation

I remember the torrential rain one morning at breakfast in the Cook Islands as we discussed a proposal that I thought would appeal to the Cook Island education officials. I suggested that Manukau Institute of Technology (MIT) would develop a Certificate of Technical Skills based on the New Zealand Qualifications Framework which the Cook Islands as a realm country shared.

On the one hand it would be based at Levels 1-2 and on the other would build into a programme the key characteristics of the secondary / tertiaryprogrammes that were showing good promise with asset of key principles:

  • Giving students options to experience technical grades at an earlier age;
  • Accelerating students who had weaknesses in learning skills through the completion more quickly – a key factor in successful remediation;
  • Having a strong element of mandated engagement;
  • Developing a clear line of site to a vocational pathway;
  • Using trades as the pathway of increased engagement in schooling generally;
  • Ensuring that basic skills were cemented well and truly as a sound basis.

At this time, the New Zealand Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade (MFAT) were developing a proposal for Partnership Programmes –providers across a range of business activities showing interest in such a way of working. MIT knew that it had a good proposal based on taking the trades to the secondary schools of the Pacific and was subsequently successful in its application. Meanwhile, for such applications take some time to reach a conclusion – MIT had continued to work with the Pacific Nations.

Finally, an agreement was in place, between MIT and MFAT and MIT was in a position we were in a to take the proposal out to the Pacific with Tonga absolutely keen to start straight away rather than wait and so started a remarkable story of the power of applied education to engage the disengagers and the possibilities that flow from teaching trades in an island nation.

Tonga has been totally positive and over the past few years the programme has been introduced into 14 schools. Students are introduced to four trades over two years and are awarded with Level 1 and Level 2 Certificates in Vocational and Technical Students. Since the NZ and Tongan Qualification Frameworks are aligned, students are potentially able to come into a programme at a New Zealand provider. But that has not proved to be the strongest pathway. As a result of the CVTS, enrolments of school leavers at the Tonga Institute of Science and Technology have grown as large numbers of the successful graduates of the CVTS (350 students graduate each year) enrol at their local tertiary provider – enrolments have doubled year on year.

MIT had supported TIST with significant staff development, equipment and generally with the delivery of this most important programme, now in its ninth year with MFAT support. NCEA and programmes flexibly based on it have been the fundamental basis of this Pacific success story. Lives are changed as young people overcome the difficulty of studying in a harsh environment. It is not too large a claim to say that in this instance, NCEA has changed a nation swell certainly it has had an impact!

Well done Minister! You’ve done it again!

Those struggling to conclude the review of NCEA have been shown the way by Minister Hipkins who has an practical and student oriented understanding of the way NCEA works and the value that it brings in its current shape to many students.

For too long, New Zealand education and especially the senior secondary school, has been bedevilled by the anxiety felt by University administrators in having little confidence in the NCEA system to select the stream of students who were worthy to tread the path to academia. Well, that has been solved with Auckland University declaring that students can enter the 2021 academic year without a complete NCEA Level 3 set of results characterised by a number of the requisite Excellence awards.

We have always known that NCEA was not the kind of qualification that related well or even closely to the requirements of a university programme. The last 20 years have been largely wasted discussion being distracted by the insistence of the universities, supported by a small group of schools (they know who they are), that their needs must be met first and the rest of the school system could trail along.

It was hard for the universities to grasp standards-based approaches to assessment and the fact that at the beginning levels of learning, a body of knowledge could be presented as a set of standards that expressed a curriculum in ways that students could work to achieve those standards and in doing so develop an expertise at various levels.

In the 1990s I attended a number of meetings where there was a palpable tension around such matters. One famous meeting at which the Vice-Chancellors spread themselves across the front row so as to have maximum impact on Prime Minister and Minister of Education, Rt.Hon. David Lange. After hearing NCEA being described as “intellectual finger food’ and a range of other barbs the PM assured the Vice Chancellors that he wasn’t afraid of them – ‘you’re just a gang of bikies in suits” he bellowed. Neither side contributed very helpfully on that occasion! And one of the University team declared it to be the rudest meeting he had attended in his life!

Those who would wish to argue for complicated mechanisms for the conduct of the NCEA assessment system need to understand some simple truths. No-one will operate on a human being to correct a brain injury or even tackle open heart surgery solely on the basis of having attained NCEA (with Merit).

NCEA is what provides those first steps that will place students onto a pathway, it starts early (NZ leaves it a bit late in my view) and by taking a series of small but connected steps, the student discovers their potential to head towards a destination that is worthwhile. The accumulation of credits contributes to a package of knowledge that has credibility. Think about the driver’s licence as an example of standards based assessment. Many aspiring drivers present themselves for assessment of a wide range of skills which collective add up to being a proficient driver – the skills are in themselves of different importance and the decision to grant a license is made on the basis of an overall assessment of the driver/driving overall – not on the basis of one skill.

Sometimes a student realises that the direction they are taking is not one they wish to pursue. As a result, a horizontal shift is required across to a different direction. Level 1 and Level 2 serve a useful role in the development of a young person’s progress. That is why are usefully flexible and have a range of credits that can be transferred. Level 3 is where decisions become more serious and that is the point for electing to take a clear vocational pathway. It’s where students not headed to university should be on a clear vocational track.

The success Trades Academies and other secondary tertiary programmes show a clear appetite for STP students to transfer in L3 vocational programmes rather than the  general school programmes at Level 3.

The Minister in his decision to keep students moving forward through the system and trusting the judgement of the instructors and teacher through the award of additional credits. The balance of the overall programme is retained and common-sense greatly benefits the student. Well done Minister!

(Next week:  How NZ’s NCEA has changed a nation.)

Oops! An Unintended Reform

I have been sorting papers to accommodate the move from the luxury of an office to the cosy reality of the open-space work room. When clearing out, you stop from time to time to reacquaint yourself with this paper or that book! That is how I came across a paper that has influenced me for the past 15 years – a book review that dealt with reform versus evolution in education. In these CoVIT-Panacademic times there has been some positive promotion and commendation of online learning and the weight of support seems to be swinging a little more in its acceptance. About time I hear you say!

I was reminded by this of the 1997 book which was the subject of the review, Tinkering Towards Utopia (Tyack and Cuban, 1997),  a time when reform seemed to consistently fail much to the inevitable despair of educators. Would the much vaunted reforms ever see result? The reform movement was huge, truckloads of resources were being thrown into wholesale reform  that had little impact – “So much reform: So little change” was Charles Payne’s summary. And especially in the area of online learning the future was slow in coming.

The book reviewer commented on the tension between change and reform and the mechanisms schools practised to resist change and left me with a feeling that perhaps the battle was swinging away from the traditional classroom. In some areas it seems quite clear and online learning was one area. This was largely because “…….the school exerts less influence on what children do with home computers, and as the number of these reaches significant levels, we are beginning to observe changes in the relationship between teachers and students brought about not by a reform, but by the fact that the students have acquired a new kind of sophistication but about ways to learn and methods of research.”

Come forward to the current swirl and add to it the imperative of the pandemic lock-downs. To to use an appropriate (some might say inappropriate) figure of speech, it could be that the DNA of schools as institutions is strong enough to rebuff the challenge of an attack on conventional practice but retain an immunity to change. The pressure to work differently during these times is overpowering. Seemingly there are no vaccines against attacks on the status quo in education and places called schools were quick to reclaim their children back into the places called a school, being there at times when schooling was prescribed, and re-establishing rituals of delivery.  Parents and their children who had perhaps discovered a new and different connection with learning, saw the whole palaver of the less relevant institutional mores such as assemblies, homilies from form-teachers, the wearing of a common uniform, bell ringing, and all that jazz – return into their lives much to the despair of some and the delight of others.

But to get back to on-line learning in educational institutions – will the new normal, which will never be the old normal, allow it to emerge and grow stronger in its new level of penetration into schooling and to bring with it a different balance of power between students, parents and schools or will it succumb to a pressure to return to the well-established, trusted ways-of-working with their mixed bag of outcomes.

As the reviewer said: when a school sets out to change its approaches, in the end the school changes the reform [and goes on to say that] one may at first blush see a tautology in using this proposition to explain failures of reform. But to say that School changes the reform is very different from simply saying that School resists or rejects the reform. It resists the reform in a particular way – by appropriating or assimilating it to its own structures. By doing so, it defuses the reformers and sometimes manages to take in something of what they are proposing.” So, will bits of our lessons from the pandemic shine through or will it be “back to business as usual?” And I am frustrated by having lost the name of this reviewer!

It was the Heading that Caught my Eye!

“Low Level courses not helping young Maori” headed a single NZ Herald column report on the soft underbelly of secondary and post-secondary programmes. The research being discussed had found that “a disproportionate number of rangatahi leave school after completing NCEA Level 2 to go on to level 3 certificates at PTEs [private training institutions]” and concludes that “They would have been better staying at school for Year 13.” Well, would they have been?” Taking a wider lens to the issue has to start with the stubbornly robust statistics which tell us that:

  • 20% of young students have left school by the school leaving age of 16-years;
  • There is significant disengagement from age 14-years on;
  • Young people who complete Level 3 would be encouraged to consider that they were successful (and they are!) but there is a missing element that is a goal of schooling;
  • 76,000 school students are absent from school on any given day.

Starting with the obvious, schools cannot hope to reach those who are not at school. Why are they not at school? That is not a mystery – they have disengaged and end up in the ranks of the NEETs.

The issue that the research stresses is that the Level 3 qualifications simply do not constitute a pathway that leads to employment pathways that provide a sustaining income. Yes, the students appear to be on a successful pathway until they reach the decision point – employment. They are led astray by being tempted to go to programmes that are disconnected both to their past education and to those critical pathways that constitute careers. Level 3 does not constitute a take-off point for employment. And a pathway is not a pathway unless if engages at an early point hand gives a line of sight to the future.

But all is not lost, there is a different pathway that has opened up.

The Maori and Pasifika Trades Training Programmes have matured and now constitute settings in which Maori and Pasifika students are supported, have a clear focus on employment, access to free tools, and a setting which has the promise of continuing not only on to further qualifications after Level 3 but also to employment.

But the real development that is proving itself is the array of Trades Academy Programmes that have grown out of the pioneering Secondary/Tertiary Programmes, particularly the development which instituted the Tertiary High School for students who have disengaged or are likely to disengage – a very successful intervention that has been beneficial to over 1,000 students.

The key to the success of both the Trades Academies and the Tertiary High School is that they firmly embed students into a career pathway in the trades, they are unashamedly focussed on employment.  In 2019, Manukau Institute of Technology achieved creditable levels of success – 74.5% gained NCEA Level 2 and over 80% met the assessments for the credits offered.

The MIT Tertiary High School has a pathway that proceeds through NCEA Levels 1 and 2 (with students simultaneously working at both levels and at a speed they set targets for rather than the lock-step pace on the conventional school programme) and on to Level 3 and higher but rather than take NCEA route from level 3 they start on MIT qualifications that are employment focussed.

But they differ in their choices after that. Only a few (with higher “academic” aspirations) take NCEA Level 3 a large number opt for choices that are take-off points on a career pathway. Having experiences a range of trades earlier, they have a sound basis for choosing chosen pathways that they understand and for which they have an appetite. And from there they continue onward and upward through study at levels up to Level 7 – a surprising number have successfully reached Level 7. Levels 4-6 are by and large exit levels.

But….. Don’t forget that the trades lead to early and substantial earnings. A recent study showed that the institution which produced the highest earners five year after graduation was a vocational and technical tertiary education organisation. Who was that? Oh all right I will mention it, MIT topped the list!

Some might argue that this focus is a narrow and limiting approach. Well, that is simply wrong, the secondary tertiary programmes focus on basic skills, on understanding applied technical education. Of course this has focused on specific trades for the Trades Academies and Tertiary High School students will have experienced four different trades prior to making their choice of a career pathway. Because of the focus on trades students have a purpose for learning rather than the become lost in the murky fog of conventional “education for no obvious reason” in which many struggle with and from which so many simply give up.