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Month: December 2011

Pathways-ED: Yes, Minister. It's not quite as simple as that!

Stuart Middleton
15 December 2011


There is always interest when the captain of the team tells who will be playing in what position and the announcement of the cabinet posts earlier this week was no exception.

In fact this single theme could well serve this government right across the array of education sectors. Accountability in education in New Zealand is not one of our strong points – no-one is clearly held responsible for failure and disengagement. If we are to have National Standards for the schooling sector, the close scrutiny of NCEA results and accountability measures and levers for the tertiary sector then let’s develop a scorecard for the performance of a government in education and the performance of the Education Ministers as a team.

The Auckland Council has set the pace in this by building into its Auckland Plan clear goals , targets and priorities in education that are centred on three clear statements well familiar to readers of EdTalkNZ – 100% access to quality early childhood education, Level 2 NCEA for each and every young person and postsecondary qualification for all school leavers. The team of government education Ministers would do well to focus on these as a measure for the difference they make while in office.

And as they should be measured as a team, it will be no good if each of them simply gets on with their patch while ignoring the fact that young people have to navigate a system characterised by transitions and tracks that seemingly lack continuity. They will have to work together. So what about each Ministers role?

The continuity in the Tertiary Education portfolio is welcomed and Hon Steven Joyce will bring the sort of focus that is critical to continuing the progress to towards a system that is accountable for results and measured by them. Without the distraction of ships sitting on rocks and trains running under the rocks in Auckland, the Minister can with profit focus on working with his Minister of Education colleague to make Youth Guarantee (something of a flagship policy for this government) reach full expression.

The Minister of Education, Hon Hekia Parata, brings wide experience in the state sector to the role and provided that there can be a clear focus in her tenure in the role, she will do well. The being-all-things-to-all-people-approach has never worked and will never work. I would not think that Minister Parata will fall into that trap. Schooling is a simple process – students arrive at school ready to go – well more of them would if we got the ECE business right – and over 9 years lay the foundations for future learning.

A focus in the nine years of a general education simply has to be on essential skills and knowledge. We get it brilliantly right with the top end of the cohort and the challenge is to get it right for all young ones. To achieve this, schools will have to do more by doing less. Focus will be everything.

The new Minister can be expected to bring to her role an understanding of the importance of first languages and their impact on literacy development. Her colleague Hon Pita Sharples knows about all this with regard to Maori young ones and should be given scope to get on with doing what is necessary. As Minister of Education, Minister Parata might direct a lot of attention to the language needs and development of Pacific Island young ones (useful here that she is also Minister of Pacific Island Affairs), the migrant communities and Pakeha whose start in life simply hasn’t prepared them for school.

New Zealand is blessed in having an educator of the calibre of Hon Pita Sharples in the role of Associate Minister of Education. He talks about this being his last term. He must be given the opportunity to make a lasting impression as an Associate Minister of Education (and appropriately as Minister of Māori Affairs – he has much to offer to us all.

And completing the team of Education Ministers is Associate Minister of Education, Hon John Banks. I do not think for one minute that his call for charter schools was anything more than the exuberance of the agreement between ACT and the Government and his appointment to the role. It certainly wasn’t based on the ACT Manifesto, the needs of young people or the evidence that is available to us from other countries. If he wants to make a contribution he should realise that all New Zealand schools have the attributes of a charter school and set about helping the team assist all New Zealand schools to be high performing and results driven.

This concept of a team of ministers will be critical. I have written many times of the disastrous lack of connection between the parts of school in New Zealand (simply because we want so much to be like the US, the UK. Australia, and parts of Canada). If our Education Ministers can act like a team in which developments and decisions are assessed against a template of a connected and seamless education system and are measured not only for their effect in one Minister’s patch but also for their effect across the other patches, we might start to make progress.

Systemic discontinuity is clearly the greatest obstacle faced by learners in New Zealand. Any serious effort to address it at the delivery end has to be matched by an even greater effort in the approach the Government takes to education in its team of ministers. Actually it has also to be matched by a set of seamless relationships between the MOE and NZQA and TEC and ERO.

All this sounds like a Royal Commission or must they be reserved only for physical disasters?  

We wish the team of Education Ministers well.


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Talk-ED: A “snapshot” view of a secondary / postsecondary interface programme in America


Guest blogger, Colleen Young, Administrator, Centre for Studies in Multiple Pathways, joins us today.


The “one-size-fits-all” education system is tearing our secondary student body apart.  Granted, for some students the academic route is working, but for an increasing number of students in the English speaking countries, senior school students are becoming bored with the curriculum on offer, experiencing little educational success and they are very likely to fail within the current system. Educational policy-makers are constantly searching for answers. 

Recently I visited two Early College High Schools in the United States. This is a new form of schooling founded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation aimed at improving student success for minority students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds.  It was refreshing to see re-engaged students who knew their future career pathways and how they were going to get there. In one of the schools, two Grade 10 (Year 11) students took me on tour.  They were so proud of their school.  They loved their integrated secondary/postsecondary programme and when they introduced me to their teachers; it was obvious that they had formed quality relationships with them.  So, what did these schools have in common and why were both schools achieving such excellent educational outcomes for the students?

For a start, like the Tertiary High School, based at Manukau Institute of Technology, for Year 11-Year 13 students, both schools are situated on campus.  There are no tuition or book costs for up to five years. Studying on site at the College eases the students into the new postsecondary environment and makes for a smooth transition.

In addition, the funding of the institutions differed from a traditional school. Both schools were initially, (and one of them still is) funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation which gave the schools complete autonomy and removed them from the state system.  Fierce marketing done by each of the schools allowed prospective students and their families to understand the Early College High School concept. The target audience is similar to the Tertiary High School where students may apply who come from lower socioeconomic, low income families, underrepresented groups and who are possibly first generations, college going students. 

Demand for places always exceeded supply.  Students who were lucky enough to gain a place in one of these schools are able to learn in a small school between 100 and 200 students.  As a result these students are able to receive more one-on-one academic and social support. Teachers work individually with students to remove any barriers they may be facing that may be inhibiting their educational success. Knowing some students miss out on a place may mean the students valued their place more than the place they had in their previous school.  This appeared to be the case as from what I saw wandering around the classrooms the students appeared to be working hard and enjoying their learning experience.  Staff that I spoke to said they had very few behavioural problems.

To conclude, there appear to be four differences in these two schools in comparison to the traditional school model.   These are:  the way a school is funded in terms of staffing and resources, the autonomy for decision making, the creation of a collaborative and flexible integrated programme between the two institutions which is relevant, interesting, challenging and rigorous for the students; and a small school which in turn allows for smaller class sizes therefore providing more time for individual teacher and student interaction.

The question remains:  Can our senior secondary schools change the way the programmes are developed and delivered to the senior students which in turn would mean increasing the collaboration between secondary and tertiary institutions?  In addition, could the policies be adapted so that funding can follow the student?  If so, then more students at risk of failing in our traditional school system could be given access to a variety of career options and opportunities in order to create a brighter and happier future for them.

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Pathways-ED: Charter Schools – what would they add?

Stuart Middleton
8 December 2011

Who would have predicted that the idea of Charter Schools would have emerged from the volatility of an MMP election? It is a time for quiet and calm reflection on the matter rather than our usual search for the boxing gloves for three rounds in the ring.

Charter Schools go back to 1988 in the USA when the notion that the introduction of autonomous public schools with a clear focus on student achievement would address the stubborn issues in English-speaking education systems (and especially the USA) of the poor performance of too many students who seemingly were clustered in too many schools. Nothing unusual in that and New Zealand then and still (like the USA) continues to address that very same issue.

Charter Schools were to have a charter, an agreement between the state, the government, and the school, increased autonomy, a more flexible reach for students that went beyond the mandated zones and an ability to access funding from outside the conventional public / state funding.

Does all this sound familiar? It should. Because in 1989 the New Zealand government handed to all New Zealand schools the very same degree of autonomy. Every school was to be a charter school, there was to be increased flexibility of access (the zoning system was to challenged), funding could be used by the school flexibly (it was called bulk funding) and relationships between schools and business was to be allowed to flourish. All this followed the development of state integrated schools – early precursors of the charter model.

No education system in the world gives schools the autonomy they have in New Zealand but it is beyond the scope of this short piece to provide a commentary on what happened to all this but the point is that the notion of a “charter school” is not new to New Zealand and the concept has by and large been found to not be a silver bullet.

The critics of the charter school idea are silly to claim that the idea has been tried and has failed in the USA and the UK. It is just as silly to claim the idea has been an unqualified success. The truth is that charter schools have been about as good and as bad as public / state school systems. The jury is out on this idea. It would be foolish for us to go chasing after the concept at this time and there is no sound educational argument that we should.

Of course, the ideological argument which is really no argument at all, might win the day and we could continue the tradition of New Zealand claiming what it sees as its God-given right to suck up ideas from other education systems regardless of evidence of success or appropriateness. As for a trial or two – the road to hell is paved with good intentions and failed / stalled / forgotten education pilot programmes from New Zealand.

We need step changes at this time if we are to more successfully get on top of the issues of student achievement and success and the irony of the charter school proposal in both its nature and its timing is that the current government is on some productive tracks towards making progress in doing just that.

Regardless of whether teacher unions and principal associations like it or not, National Standards or something like it is essential to maintaining public confidence in state education. It was a lack of confidence in public education in the USA that unleashed the charter movement. New Zealand has never experienced the comprehensive lack of confidence in state education that other systems, the US, the UK and to a lesser degree Australia, have had to cope with. But it is not a given and we need to work at it. The primary sector needs to get on with the job of making National Standards work and the secondary sector should look forward to their introduction in some form or other for Years 9 and 10.

At the senior secondary school the government (and its MMP partners) would be advised to have confidence in its Youth Guarantee policy setting that seems likely to not only address achievement issues but articulate the school system into the wider world in ways that will enhance student success.

Continuing access to a free education in places other than the secondary school is both equitable and already successful. This is achieved within the existing education and training system at about the same cost as the conventional tracks in which so many of the students would simply fail.

The development of alternate ways of completing secondary schooling through mixed mode programmes (such as trades academies and secondary tertiary programmes) or through programmes such as the Tertiary High School are already leading increasing numbers of students to successful outcomes and qualifications.

The development of Vocational Pathways within NCEA is adding the sophistication to NCEA that was always meant to be there but was thwarted by the pressures to turn it into another examination system.

Meanwhile the performance of students at the top end of academic achievement is simply second to none in world terms.

In short, given continued commitment to the directions currently being pursued, we are likely to have success in addressing the issues of educational outcomes. Not only that, we will have found ways of doing this which are a good fit with the way we work – this is New Zealand and this is how we do it! A new maturity will emerge in an education system that has in the past lead the way.

One final point. There is neither the tradition nor an appetite in the New Zealand business and philanthropic communities to use its money to take over what it sees as the responsibility of the state in the ways that there is especially in the USA. Relationships? Yes. Lending complementary skills? Yes. Partnerships? Yes. Picking up the tab for failure? No.

We have some frameworks in place, now we need focus and commitment, not distraction.


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Talk-ED: Education Advice to the Incoming Opposition

Stuart Middleton
5 Dec 2011


Anyone can give advice to the incoming government, indeed scores of public servants are, as you read this, putting the finishing touches to their analysis and advice. Here, for the first time in New Zealand’s political history we publish Advice to the Incoming Opposition: Education (to be shared among however many political parties end up in opposition).

National Standards

Get over it. Move on. The public sees opposition to them only as a fuzzy attitude towards standards in basic skill areas such as reading, writing and sums and wonders why the teachers, principals and opposition parties don’t share their enthusiasm for high standards. The message on this one was lost a long time ago.


Embrace it. NCEA is admired as a flexible assessment framework within which students can find pathways to a meaningful future. Get behind the stroking of the iron sands (ref. Form 4 Science a long time ago) that are Vocational Pathways, seek connections between NCEA and postsecondary programmes.

Early Childhood Education

Admit it, the 20 free hours was a very badly targeted piece of assistance that ended up being counter-productive as it was hi-jacked by everyone other than the target group. Keep it simple – two days a week of quality early childhood education for every pre-school nipper in New Zealand. Be flexible – put ECE centres onto primary sites, train a couple of people from each community-based childcare centre, stop subsidising to such an extent the multi-million dollar private centres which provide parking spaces for rich kids.


We have the best teachers in the world but too many of them are doing the wrong thing. Allow teachers to have manageable groups that focus on the critical skills of learning. Allow teachers to achieve more by doing less. Support teachers by supporting families. When you have done rebuilding Christchurch start re-building schools – too many of our schools (especially low –decile schools) need attention. Be flexible about qualifications for teaching – don’t be distracted by arguments about who should teach students in secondary tertiary interface programmes – that will sort itself out as the students respond and are hugely successful.

Decile Ratings

Call for a Royal Commission into Decile Ratings – this device has outlived what little usefulness it had, promising much and delivering very little. It has simply become either a badge of honour or a mark of shame. Until you do persuade the government to abolish it, make it illegal for it to be used to compare education institutions – that will take some of the heat out of it.


Look at a copy of David Shearer’s Labour Party Tertiary Policy and his Skills Policy – they were pretty good and didn’t get much use during the election which was more a kind of game show (Personality Squares?) than a meeting of ideas. Learn the basic vocabulary of the skills debate – NEET, disengagement, etc – and remember that jobs do not create employment, education does.


A mate got it in one today – re-create the University of New Zealand and put the savings into educating more young ones to higher levels while at the same time taking us a little closer to having a world class university education widely available.

Student Loans and Allowances

The Royal Commission (see above) could get on to this after it has disposed of the decile rating system. Now some innovation is called for here. What about only asking for the money to be repaid if the student is successful and gets employment? What about a consumer guarantee attached to the payment of fees? What about payment to the institution of half the fees on enrolment and the other half on successful completion? What about putting “To avoid paying student loans” on the departure card, it was easy to put Rugby World Cup” on the arrival cards.  There is little wisdom in cycling investment through students so that it comes out as wasteful debt or money squandered by failure. Glue funding measures inseparably to accountability measures.

Finally, there is one further piece of advice. Allan Peachey was a teacher and on his watch as Chair of the Education Select Committee it gained a reputation for addressing issues in a bipartisan matter. That needs to continue. The opposition that makes a positive contribution to the education debate will be one characterised by thinking and ideas, by constructive proposals and by support for all those even when they come out of the government side of the house.

Nothing is more political than education. But it doesn’t deserve the petty politics that too often pass as debate and discussion in parliament.