Talk-ED: Nec Tamen Comsumebatur – Rooting out the Causes of Failure

Stuart Middleton
EdTalkNZ
15 August 2011

Years ago I bought some land that had a lot of gorse on it. Some of it was huge with trunks 5”-6” in diameter. I sprayed it and burned it and it came back. I slashed it and burned it and it came back. In the end I realised that if I didn’t get the roots I was doomed to an inevitable defeat at the hand of this prickly nuisance.

Cutting off the growth above the ground and pouring a little creosote on the exposed stump did the trick. The next year I was able to walk around and pull by hand the stumps out of the ground. It never came back.

I think that this is a parable that governments might wish to heed when addressing the issues of youth benefit dependency. The announcement that youths on benefits are to have their control of money withdrawn could be a good thing and it could be a bad thing.

If it is simply slash and cut and burn it is doomed to fail. If it is the start of a careful system of tracking and monitoring and intervention such as those in Scandanavia then it could be a good thing.

Think Lisbeth Salander in Stieg Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Of course Nils Bjurman was a bad bastard in every way, but the Scandinavians have careful tracking and monitoring and supervision systems and placing someone under complete supervision with control over their money is the most severe intervention. But that level of intervention doesn’t sit there on its own. All Scandinavian young people are tracked and supervised in an attempt to ensure positive outcomes and there is a series of graduated interventions before the complete “ward of state” response.

A recent report from Sweden details the concern because truancy rates in some areas are approaching 2% – we dream of reducing ours to that! Young people have options in education and training. Someone is responsible for educational failure, someone has the job of tracking students to minimise failure and negative outcomes.

It should also be pointed out that to promote an intervention with only this group ignores that there is in operation a pipeline that effectively delivers many more failing young people to that NEETS group. Even if the announced intervention works very well, it will not make a difference as many more youths take their place – without a balanced set of interventions I see a bureaucratic backlog growing at great expense.

What is needed is a complete package and the government has made a good start with this. The Youth Guarantee package is starting to show signs of being a comprehensive set of interventions and new ways of working. It will lead to multiple pathways for young people that will lead them to increased success in education and training, will lead them to qualifications and finally lead them to employment. Trades academies, service academies, fees free places in tertiary, vocational pathways, tracking and monitoring students and effective careers advice and guidance – this is where resources should be directed.

Dealing with the very group that has been targeted in this announcement requires attention to the three dots – access to early childhood education, successfully attaining NCEA Level 2 (and that is the biggest challenge in all this and requires a huge rethink on the part of primary and secondary schools) and the successful attaining of a postsecondary qualification.

The youths on benefits have been created by the failure to address these three issues and by our watching increased levels of behaviour develop that lead to unprecedented levels of dropping out of a positive future. When statistics that point to a creeping upwards of various participation figures are trotted out, they simply fail to acknowledge that we are seeing the development of unprecedented failure among young people.

The recent New Zealand Institute report, Fewer Snakes, More Ladders, is clear – “there are no signs of trends for improvement”.

It is good to see action but tinkering with the major issue of our time will not cut it, just as I did not get a result with the gorse when I tried naively to cut it.

Young people on benefits are a symptom, they are the part of the gorse bush that is above the ground. It is no good dealing to that which is highly visible without also paying attention to that which is hidden but is the root cause.

One comment

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