Talk-ED: Learning, especially from others

Stuart Middleton
EdTalkNZ
12 September 2011

I have been wondering about the differences between education systems that seem to be successful and those that struggle with the issues that dog us at this end of the world. Those issues of disengagement and concerning levels of educational failure and persistently lacklustre levels of success at postsecondary levels just don’t seem to respond to efforts made to address them. While huge effort is made it is hard to escape the conclusion of the recent New Zealand Institute Report (More Ladders, Fewer Snakes) that the trends of improvement are not yet apparent.

We make it hard for ourselves by being unable to yet report on cohort success and continue to be able only to wind back the education success odometer as if it were a second-hand car to produce a percentage figure that doesn’t tell us what is happening. This habit can hide improvements just as easily as it can mask declines.

It can not be a coincidence that the set of countries that share these issues to a remarkable level of similarity – a level that defies chance – and which consists of New Zealand, Australia, Canada the United Kingdom and the United States of America all have a similar unitary education system in which comprehensive high schools provide programmes that are very much the same for all students and are premised on the conventional academic track to university. Developments over the past thirty years have cemented this in place very firmly.

This has led to a situation where the secondary school is now seen as the key site for change and where notions such as multiple pathways are called for.

By contrast, the dual systems of Europe and Scandinavia multiple pathways are available to students with flexible options in the senior secondary school which are well-connected to the tertiary sector. Students are able to move across pathways as aspirations and aptitudes become clearer.

The unitary systems are characterised by the focus on one general education offered to age 19 in comprehensive secondary schools which have continued the traditional focus of universal primary education and the elitist provision of higher education in a new combination of a general academic programme for all. Trades have disappeared from secondary schools with their being located very predominantly in the tertiary sector. This was the result of a range of factors but the experiment with the new subject of “Technology” must raise education eyebrows.

There has been a bifurcation of these unitary secondary school systems into one group that is favoured (high decile in New Zealand, private in Australia) and those viewed less positively (low decile in NZ and state in Australia). Across both systems disengagement has increased and effective connections with postsecondary education and training has decreased.  This has overshadowed the good work that is happening in schools.

Meanwhile in the dual systems there are clearer differentiated curriculum offerings in the senior secondary school with a clearer vocational focus in some. There is also a concerted attempt to maintain the growth of general education (language, mathematics, digital skills) to a higher level. Work experience is frequently built into school programmes in a connected manner. But most importantly, there are effective systems for tracking students and monitoring them. It is far less optional, attending and applying, than is the case in New Zealand.

Take Finland as an example. It set about reorienting its education system in the latter part of the last century after serious financial shocks from the collapse of Western Russia. About one third of students pursue vocational pathways, success in international measures of attainment is at the top and they have less than 5% (and diminishing) levels of disengagement.

If Finland can do it, surely New Zealand and Australia can.

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