23 January 2012
It’s that time again when all over the country students set off to start another calendar year of schooling, education and training. Some of those students will be the first batch of the 30,000 or so who will start school for the first time having reached that magic day, their fifth birthday. What a wonderful thing it is that we retain this tradition rather than do the bulk lot thing that they do in other systems (the Feb or Sept start).
The social contract is clear. Students are required to attend school regularly starting at the appropriate age, do what is asked of them, develop appropriate social behaviours and wear correct uniform. For their part, schools are required to teach a specific curriculum to a set of specific standards. If each party meets its obligations a young person should be able to face a secure future with knowledge, skills and aspirations that will take them into adulthood and able to earn a family sustaining age.
Well, that is all very well and good in theory. Increasingly schooling in schools is not enough and a postsecondary qualification is essential. So that brings into play another set of complexities – tertiary education. The young one’s starting school do not realise the extent to which that will present challenges that they are not often able to control.
So all of these little ones and their bigger brothers and sisters setting off to school at the moment in their new polo shirts of primary colours and sun hats big enough to camp under, face a treacherous pathway ahead. Actually they would have walked to school once upon a time but now an armoured division of SUVs will see them safely to school in many suburbs while in others parents will walk to school with them.
Do they know what their chances are?
I did a little study – what a real statistician would call a quick and dirty job – of a cohort of 100 New Zealand babies, right numbers of different ethnicities and so on, and applied what we know to be the success/failure trajectories of each group. I concluded that of those 100 babies born last year, only 29 would achieve a postsecondary qualification on the current performance of the education system, 71 would not. And I do not mean a degree qualification. I mean anything from a postsecondary certificate up. So about one in three will reach the minimum level of qualifications required.
That aligns with what we know to be the picture of disengagement and I do not see evidence that suggests that there is a trend of improvement. The increase in disengagement is stubbornly resistant to the efforts of educators.
One reason is that the demographics are working against us – the groups of students we teach well and to internationally stunning levels are getting smaller while the groups that struggle (and have for longer than we care to admit) are getting bigger.
Add to that the steady placement of vocational education options at increasingly older entry levels along with a blind belief that the comprehensive secondary school might meet the needs of all students (it never has in the past why should it now?) and that figure of 29% successfully competing a postsecondary qualification looks to be a stretch in 30 or 40 years.
Change in the education system is urgently needed and that is up to the grown ups not the little ones. So here is an agenda for professional concerns in 2012:
First, all jurisdictions want accountability one way or another so get over it and move on. If National Standards are right then change them but work constructively in the system rather than continue to bamboozle the community by staunchly rejecting standards – well that is how it seems to an outsider.
Secondly, seriously question whether we have been pulling the wool over the community’s eyes on the question of what schools can actually do. Less is more in curriculum design so sorting out what matters and doing that will make all the other stuff easy to do. If someone can read well they can do anything. Equitable access to technology is more important than more programmes (admit it, you got a gadget for Xmas and gave it to your grandchild to show you how to get it going).
Let’s be adamant about what schools can do and then ensure that we do that stuff so well that each and every student will receive a brilliant start in life through education.
Thirdly, get purpose into the lives of young people at school. Why they are there is the most important factor – if I ask a child in school the question “Why are you doing that?” and they cannot answer I seriously question the quality of the teaching.
Related to this is that focus on the end game of education. Forty years ago when everything seemed to be working and most people were in fact working, a central goal of education was to equip people to work. Is that such a bad thing? Sanitising education so that it is not tainted by vocational goals is crazy. Actually the universities know this and are blatantly vocational under the guise of being the critics and conscious of other people.
Having a strong focus on employability in real jobs need not in any way jeopardise the attainment of a liberal education which is in fact one which liberates and what could be more liberating to those imprisoned by educational failure to have such a quality education?
None of this seems very difficult really. It is just that it is urgent! Those little fellows starting the journey over the next 10 days or so need to be assured that it is worthwhile. The results in the school success statistics in 2025 will not be some disembodied set of figures, they will in fact be each and every one of these little ones.