ThinkEd: Here we go again!

Stuart Middleton
EdTalkNZ
17 January 2010
 

New Year and a new start? Well perhaps not. Taking the opportunity to have a leisurely read of the Sunday papers I was interested to see whether the New Year would bring a fresh perspective on education. A positive one which while celebrating our successes kept its feet on the ground when it came to commentary on the “could do better” areas.

It wasn’t a promising start with NCEA and National Standards the key headlines – I think that educational journalists see these topics as a soap opera and even if you have missed a few episodes there is still a good story in them.

This time it is the news that Auckland Grammar School will not offer NCEA to Year 11 students this coming year in order to direct them toward the Cambridge Examinations in Years 12 and 13. I suspect that the situation is not as simple as this as there were suggestions that some students might be able to do NCEA and some subjects would follow the NCEA assessment regime. The truth is usually in the middle.

I believe strongly in the view that schools should be able to set their own pathways and have long lamented the lack of exploitation of the opportunities to do this within the New Zealand framework of the National Education Guidelines and the New Zealand Curriculum. But there is another matter here – it is that offering NCEA is a legal requirement of the government and it certainly does create an issue if this is not done.

It could be that the school “offers” NCEA but counsels and advises strongly against it. It could be that the claimed benefits of external examinations have strong appeal to the parents of this group of students. It could be… You see it won’t be a matter of the letter of the law but rather a higher issue of what is best for young people.

The real test will be whether the option of NCEA is actually there and able to be taken up when it is the best option for students. We are told that two other schools might join Grammar in this approach to NCEA.

It is a similar issue with National Standards. It is a requirement of the government that they be introduced. But apparently 300 schools are dragging the chain on this one. But the monitoring report is optimistic telling us that “most principals believe information from National Standards will add value to the processes schools use for reporting to families, students and Boards, making informed decisions about how to improve student achievement, and identifying teachers’ professional development needs. While how much value principals believe National Standards will add to each of these processes varies, only a small proportion of principals believe information from National Standards will be very valuable.” This NZCER work reflects promising trends.

So the situation is not all that grim. Those of us who have had the chance to see what is happening in other English speaking education systems feel grateful that the NZ government has opted for a reporting orientation in the standards rather than a testing orientation. Communicating with the community of parents and caregivers on matters related to progress is a challenge to all education systems, the New Zealand approach has the potential to develop a confidence among parents and caregivers that the information they are being given will be understandable and helpful.

In any major change in education there is a period of uncertainty as we move away from the old way of working (or not working in some instances) to a new way of working. That uncertainty is an important reflection of the process of schools making decisions about what suits them best and what is most appropriate to their communities. Opposition to change is at one end of a spectrum that has willingness to change and optimism about the change at the other.

You would have to say that after the first year of a three year implementation, the National Standards are starting to bed in well. The real pity of the reported opposition is its emphasis on opposition rather than professional contribution to developing the standards in ways that reflect the special needs of the communities of New Zealand, the relationship of schools to them and the excellent skills of teacher’s in schools.

So, let’s hope that the New Year is not simply a re-hash of the old. There are 2,560 schools in New Zealand and if the unwillingness is reflected by the three secondary schools and the 300 primary schools, then both NCEA and National Standards developments are going very well indeed.

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