4 April 2011
I have just returned from the centennial celebration of my primary school, Frankton Primary School. I was invited to speak as a “past pupil” and that was a great honour as my Uncles had been foundation students, my Mother had started in 1915 and the four Middleton boys had been there throughout the 1940s and 1950s.
I commented on the simplicity of the focus in earlier times. We went to school to learn to read and write and do our sums (and learn about the British Empire I had added) and we were blissfully unaware of educational failure is it existed in the school. This observation lead to many comments from others over lunch that I had captured something that rang a bell for them. As one former pupil said to me “”It might have been simpler then but we had so many more options about our schooling.”
I thought about that as we drove home – there was an element of truth in what he had said. Despite an intention to provide young people with more options we had actually narrowed the possibilities through creating a one-pathway-for-all approach premised on the belief that a “highly educated” community required us to lift academic skills and keep students in school longer. What we know now is that it isn’t working and we are moving steadily towards historically high levels of educational failure partly explained by increasing access to education but this is distorted by the numbers of students who should be in education but who are not in employment, education or training.
So the old-timer’s observation about “so many more opportunities back then” has an ironic touch to it when we consider the growing emphasis placed internationally on “multiple pathways”. Put simply this means a movement back towards “a multiyear comprehensive high school programme of integrated academic and technical study that is organised around a broad theme, interest area, or industry sector.”  This sees a focus on increasing the opportunities in Years 7 to 13 for career exploration and placing a huge emphasis on seamless education between career and technical education in high schools and instruction in post-secondary programmes. This requires a new and serious involvement of business and industry in relationships with educational delivery of career and technical education.
A clear shift between what happened in the old days and the goal of today is the involvement of high schools in the development. Back then students simply left high school at age 15 and went into the opportunities that existed – workplace training both informal and formal, night classes and more recently polytechnic programmes. To this there were widespread opportunities to take up apprenticeships that were significantly work-based.
Of course we now look down our educated noses at low-skilled and unskilled employment but for many young people this was always a first step into the world of post-school employment and was not always an ultimate destination.
The irony is that career and technical pathways were removed from our schools largely to direct most students towards “academic” pathways where, it was thought, the knowledge wave would sweep all young people towards high-tech, “academic” futures. In the event it educationally drowned quite a number. Now there is growing evidence that career and technical education pathways can prepare students for post-secondary success in academic pathways at least as effectively.
It could take universities quite some time to understand this as the old paradigm of “academic” on the one hand and “technical/vocational” on the other will prove to be hard to shift. Mutliple pathways require us to see that academic and vocational or academic and technical are not mutually exclusive terms.
Some countries (Germany, Scandinavia for instance) provide a range of pathways that allow students to focus their learning on goals that are heading towards a future that is academic (usually a university course) or technical (trades etc) and have little difficulty in allowing students to move between pathways as aspirations change or aptitudes become more apparent. This is made easier by the continuation of a core set of studies in language, mathematics, civics, and digital skills Perhaps the issue in countries that are now in strife (the English-speaking five) is that they combined the dominant restrictive academic pathway with specialisation that was simply too early. And to some extent this was exacerbated by the level of literacy and mathematic skills that students brought with them into the high school.
So there is much talk about “multiple pathways” and we are starting to focus in New Zealand on the provision of such a set of varied options for young people. The development of trades academies, service academies, programmes that combine school and workplace, or school and tertiary collaborative programmes, new developments such as tertiary high schools and suchlike are all first steps towards a new future for students.
And will it be worth it? It is early days but results from one multiple pathway programme that started last year suggest that it will. National NCEA 2010 pass rates were announced this week and showed that 75% of Year 11 students who sat NCEA, passed Level 1. Comparing these national results to the NCEA results for this multiple pathways programme is salutary. Students were selected for the programme on the basis that they, their caregivers and their school agreed that they were unlikely to get success were they to continue, possibly even disengaging from education completely.
In this multiple pathways programme, 70% of Year 11 students passed (compared with 75% nationally). But this multiple pathways programme achieved a Level 1 pass rate of 80% for Maori students (compared to 61% nationally) and a pass rate of 71% for Pasifika students (compared to 54%).
In addition to these results, the multiple pathways students were not lock-stepped into the equation that locks NCEA levels into school years. Of those gaining NCEA Level 1 in the multiple pathways programme, 66% also gained additional Level 2 credits (range 2-24) and 95% gained additional Level 3 credits (range 4-8).
In addition to these stunning successes, 25% of the students who gained NCEA Level 1 qualified as well to enter an industry-recognised diploma programme in their second year across a range of career and technical disciplines.
This is what a multiple pathways approach is all about – different routes to student success.
1. Multiple Pathways to Student Success, California Department of Education, Sacramento, 2010