Pathway-Ed: Tales from the Past #2 – Challenges of changes that don't go away

Stuart Middleton
EdTalkNZ
3 February 2011

This is the Silver Jubilee Year. No, not of some minor royal,  the A and P Society or even a school. It is the Silver Jubilee Year of a PPTA paper written in 1986 that deals with the issue of what the writer of the paper, Phil Capper, called the “Jagged Edge. (Capper, P. (1986) Jagged Edge, NZPPTA H.X.86/229, Wellington).

Let me quote a bit of it..

“This document is a discussion paper in which I attempt to bring together developments taking place in a number of areas which … present a challenge to the secondary education sector; and which underlies many of our [PPTA] policies.

The developments that represented this threat at that time were curriculum reform, assessment reform, transition education, ACCESS, Link Programmes, Lifelong Learning, education outside the classroom, bicultural education and vocational education. Many will remember these developments with some nostalgia.

What these developments had in common was recognition that the standard menu of offerings in schools was not catering for the needs of all students. The developments, especially the reforms, were a possible route through which, in Capper’s view, schools could “respond more readily to what the community wants, especially in the upper secondary school. If schools do not respond to the opportunities and challenges implicit in this, then I believe that we will see a flight of post-compulsory students to other educational institutions and the reduction of all but the most academic schools to virtual junior high schools.”

This is prescient stuff. The message, twenty-five years ago, was abundantly clear in the paper: the senior secondary school was not meeting the needs of a all students. This is the issue we face today and then, just as now, there need be no doubt that this situation would be responded to one way or another and if schools didn’t respond then others would. But as I have noted previously, it is not what reforms do to schools but what schools do to reforms that matters and change, when it did come, was both slow and of relatively little impact.

Twenty-five years ago, this PPTA paper grappled with a situation that still pertains today with one exception. This time alternatives to the conventional secondary school are appearing and schools are faced with issues (essentially those outlined by Capper back then) that arise from the need for schools to be flexible, to work with others and to see resources in terms of the student for whom they are provided rather than the school to which they are given. At this time, the developments are different but their impact on schools will be much the same if schools continue to exhibit the degree of unwavering commitment to the traditional patterns of schooling that Capper warns against.

In fact in concluding the paper, Capper argues that teachers were increasingly being placed into an indefensible position. He even questions the assumption that there is “something called a secondary school, in which people called secondary teachers impart something called secondary education to people called secondary pupils during a period of time known as the school day, term or year.”

Even now such an analysis would be thought of as a little radical and yet time has only underlined the basic truth of its hard-hitting comment. Six years later, Capper returned to the topic (Capper, P. (19992) Jagged Edge Revisited: Part the First – The Secondary Tertiary Boundary, NZPPTA, HX 92/032) this time describing the issue as “questioning the continued validity of regarding the secondary service as a fixed and discrete entity” and a blurring of the boundaries between secondary education and other sectors which posed a challenge at that time to the policies being pursued by the teachers’ organisation.

Issues that are not dealt with do not go away and even after twenty-five years will re-surface. In this instance, the issue that is captured by Capper has now become quite a focus throughout the English-speaking education systems but there is one key difference. There is this time a clear understanding of the demographic overlay that adds urgency and indeed inevitability that change must happen.

Schools have not been idle; teachers have not simply turned their backs in order to ignore the issues.  Much work has been done in developments such as NCEA and other qualifications, small concessions have been made with academies of one kind or another, and increasingly teachers are returning to professionally engage with the issue Capper highlighted – the appropriateness of current senior secondary schooling to a wide group of students in the face of developments of alternatives.

It must also be remembered that Capper was writing in the late 1980s and early 1990s at a time when the trend of keeping students in secondary schools for five years was starting to make  explicit the fact that there were at that time numbers of students in the senior secondary school that had never in the previous hundred years been there. The elongation of secondary education from two years to five years had rapidly happened in the period 1975 to 1990 with the 12% of students who had been staying at secondary school for five years increasing to 65%. The senior secondary school was now being asked to attempt something that it had never in our history achieved – i.e. provide a five year programme for a full cross-section of students. This was a major cause of disengagement from education.

So the stakes in all this are much higher this time as we replay a consideration of the issues Capper raised. No response is not an option. The role of secondary schools will play in any response will depend in large measure on the flexibility that they welcome into the senior secondary school.

A recent book from the USA has the title So Much Reform So little Change. This is now a luxury we cannot afford.

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