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Pathway-Ed: Tales from the Past #1 – Seamless is not shapeless

Stuart Middleton
27 January 2011

I bumped into Hon Dr Lockwood Smith the other day and mentioned to him that I still go back to the policy paper he released in 1993, Education for the 21st Century, a document that despite its worth had not had as much impact as it should have. Perhaps it made the mistake of including targets – New Zealand education has a deep allergy to targets. Perhaps it was the fact that it linked targets to funding – New Zealand education has a belief that funding is an inalienable right. Or perhaps it was that it contained a set of ideas that were a little or a lot ahead of their time.

“I go back particularly to one section,” I admitted.

“That would be the part about seamless education.” he said without hesitation.

Got it in one.

The notion of seamless education was a vision of a system in which “New Zealand will have a system under which it no longer matters with which provider or in which educational programme students are studying. All learning will lead to qualifications within the same framework.”

 The National Qualifications Framework and the new school curriculum were in their early stages of development or implementation and discussion around the country was hot. Startled by the fear of academic contamination the university sector didn’t want any part in it. A noted academic described unit standards as “intellectual finger food”. Oh dear, they were fractious times.

But in that section were even more revolutionary ideas:

  • that students would be able to undertake education and training in more than one setting at the same time”;
  • that  senior secondary school students might be able to “combine regular school courses with polytechnic or university courses and workplace training provided by local industries”;
  • institutions could enter into agreements with each other;
  • schools would have the “opportunity to offer courses which have previously been available only at polytechnics or universities”;
  • “Industry training organisations will be able to develop training programmes both on and off the job to meet their industries’ future needs.

This was 1993, 17 years ago and only now do we start to see serious progress starting to emerge in these things. Well, to be fair, ITO’s have got on in implementing this vision for the 21st Century but the rest of the system has been slow to respond.

Instead of seamless education we have seen a maze of Berlin Walls erected to repel any advances into our territory or our business at our level. The victims in these battles have been young people shot by educational failure before they had a chance of going over the top.

The minefields were laid. Time served became cemented into the system – you can’t do that you are only in Year XYZ. You can’t teach in this sector because you don’t have the correct degree – this sector has to have this degree because learning is so very different at this level. Oh yes, NCEA Level 1, that equals Year 11, NCEA Level 2 that equals Year 12 and so on. Financial penalties were inflicted on students who wished to leave school at the legal leaving age but before the age of 19 years to continue education and training.

What was meant to be an exciting new future became a living nightmare for students who for a whole variety of reasons could not find success in such a fractionated system.

You see, the notion of a seamless education is about the learner not about the teachers and the administrators and that still remains the key philosophic shift that needs to happen. “What is best for this learner?” has to be a more urgent question than “What can we do?” or “What’s best for us?” Making decisions based on what is in the best interests of a learner leads to good solutions which demand that we work in an integrated fashion, allowing students to move at different paces in different settings. It also means multiple pathways rather than the straight and narrow road of the academic secondary school programme.

So… we have to allow students who wish to access career and technical education sooner to do so. In a seamless education system this will mean that students who are coping well and succeeding needn’t spend so long in a school (this in a week when the university continues to cement entrance to the completion of the 13th year!). Those up against blocks should be able to easily move sideways to undertake more appropriate programmes in different places.

Seamless only appeared shapeless because people wanted it to fit the existing system.

We would all agree that education must provide strong foundations, and a wide range of opportunities thereafter, to meet the diverse needs of all New Zealanders. The education system must be without barriers to participation and life-long learning.

Actually, dear reader, the previous paragraph was the final paragraph of the section on THE SEAMLESS EDUCATION SYSTEM: A VISION FOR THE FUTURE published seventeen years ago.

We missed a grand opportunity back then.

Come back Lockwood, all is forgiven.

Published inEducation


  1. Natasha Natasha

    Stuart, are you familiar with the work on the New Zealand Qualifications Framework?

    • Cilla Cilla

      Yes I am, but I am a little bit behind with the latest work that has been done. If you have stuff to share with me, I’d be interested in seeing it: [email protected] – who knows, it might lead to another little piece I could use.

  2. Ian Douthwaite Ian Douthwaite

    Hmm.. renaming the framework won’t fix it of course.

    A big barrier to achieving the sort of change you describe Stuart was in my view due to the failure to change the funding models at the same time, which is of course an even more difficult task.

    However, while on the one hand the benefits of ‘seamless’ education (and the negatives associated with artficial boundaries and barriers) are compelling, so too are the patterns and rhythms of life stages experienced by young people, and we shouldn;t lose sight of the power that a system of comparatively sharply-defined learning stages and contexts has on people.For example, I don’t think it’s any accident that a lot of post-school learning programmes are for one calendar year — and that availability and uptake of programmes more or less than a year (except multi-year degrees) are comparatively low. In this light, the idea of semalessness also needs to account for how individuals see their lives unfolding at certain times, and the work or Karen Vaughan and others at NZCER is enligthening in this respect.

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