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Think-Ed: Wanting the best for the Senior School Cohort of 2011

Stuart Middleton
31 January 2011

I opened the Sunday paper just the day before a new school year was to begin to read the exciting statement:

“Back to their future and to the only chance they’ll get at being 16. The first week back at school. It’s an exciting time for senior students. It’s a time when the world starts to appear larger and closer… a time of recognizing what is possible… a time to start seizing opportunities…. If you lose them at 16, you risk losing them forever.”[1]

This excited me because it is the bald statement of a truth that so many in New Zealand have backed off for too long. The senior years of school education is critical, that is why the fact that 20% of students never get to go into the senior secondary school – they are already out of the education system by the age of 16 years – demands urgent attention. It is also worrying that during the three years of secondary schooling a further 20% will fail to achieve to a level that will enable them to securely move on to whatever is to follow.

So the stark reality faced by those who recognize the value of successful senior schooling is that 20% of students have disengaged from schooling by the age of 16 years and that 25% of those who are left are not likely to complete a coherent set of achievements that provide the foundation of a post-secondary qualification.

This is not a reflection of the quality of teachers in New Zealand because the major English-speaking systems all face this same issue. The issue is systemic and structural – twenty years of insisting that universal secondary education means five years of general academic education has shown one thing – that the senior secondary school needs restructuring to allow students to chose a far greater variety of pathways through it. We know from the PISA results that when everything goes well, New Zealand teachers can bring students through to a level of achievement that is as good as anywhere else and better than most. We know also from those results that by age of 16 years the tale of those who are not achieving is long and troubling.

The good news is that we can with some certainty say that about 75% of the student cohort which is starting their senior secondary schooling this week will finish with a set of achievements that will take them on to something positive.

The APASS Study in the United States is a major study across 50 states of the United States of America into the academic pathways that take students through high school and on to college.

Recently published findings are:

First and most importantly, it concludes that a single pathway cannot meet the needs of students in secondary schools who wish to continue on to further study at higher levels. This seems common sense and supports the view that multiple pathways will emerge as the only way in which we can meet the needs of more students.

Secondly, the study urges us to develop much closer links between secondary schools and providers of post-secondary education – collaborative partnerships will be crucial.

Thirdly, such partnerships must be expressed in action rather than simply being talked about with all levels of the education system working together to plan curricular pathways and organizational structures that allow for flexibility.

Fourthly, we need better data about which pathways work with more students, which keep the students in the programme and moving forward smoothly across transition points.

Fifthly, attention must be paid not only to those programmes that we conventionally call “academic” but also to those areas we think of as “vocational” or “technical”, i.e. the career and trades training areas.

Finally, this will only be achieved through close co-operation and discussions between different sectors.

Much of this is self-evident and in some instances already taking place. But it needs to be consistent and focused on results and action. Getting results for the 16-year olds in our system who are moving through into the senior school this week needs to happen quickly if we are not to repeat the patterns of the past – i.e. up to 25% of senior students not getting the opportunity to “seize opportunities” simply because they fail to achieve useful levels of coherent knowledge and skills during the time they spend in the senior school.

Sentiments such as those I found in the statement in the newspaper are all very well and good but actions would be much more useful. Who would disagree with the sentiments of the italicized quotation above? Who would not want students to get success from their time spent in the senior school? Who would believe that we can get different results from doing the same thing?

Voltaire urged that “if it is not necessary to change, it is necessary not to change.” The facts pertaining to the achievement of students in the senior school in New Zealand surely call for change. The numbers who never make it to the senior school scream for change.

1. NZPPTA Advertisement, Sunday Star Times, 30 January 2011, p.A13

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