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Pathways-ED: Oh dear me! It's the OECD! And we should be taking notice.

Stuart Middleton
16 February 2012


The importance of educational success to economic growth is now well and truly accepted across many discipline. It was interesting therefore to have my attention drawn last week to a report from the OECD that argues increased investment in “disadvantaged schools and students to ensure that everyone gets a fair chance.”

The proportion of 25-34 years-old who have not completed upper secondary school now averages 20%. New Zealand is listed at 21% but look at the countries that are lower than us: Greece, Italy, Iceland, Spain, Portugal, Mexico and Turkey. Do these names ring a bell in recent media coverage about weak economies, threats of depression and civil unrest? WE are running a risk of joining a club the membership of which a greatly not to be sought in economic terms.

The basic argument of the report is simple. The disengaged, the drop-outs, “are most often from poor or immigrant families, or have poorly educated parents. They are also more likely to attend schools with fewer resources, and their parents cannot generally afford private tutoring.” Are the bells still ringing?

The OECD Report suggests five strategies for tackling the issue.

1          Eliminate the repetition of material studies, levels repeated, having a second shot in order to improve results

New Zealand doesn’t do much of this which is estimated to consume as much as 10% of the annual spending on schooling in some countries. Rather, we push students on to the next level regardless and create considerable accumulated failure as a result. We run a lock-step system. If we were able to work genuinely towards individual pathway plans (call them what you will) we could reach higher levels of effectiveness. A start would be clear unequivocal statements about expectation for learning at crucial points

2          Avoid early tracking or streaming where lower tracks  are generally an educational death warrant.

In the general education system we have pretty well done away with tracking (or streaming as we know it) but in order to throw it out, we indiscriminately also threw out the capacity to provide genuinely differentiated programme in the senior secondary school for which we have paid a heavy price and about which I have written on many occasions.

3          Manage school choice to avoid segregation

It is a clear international trend to improve parental choice. But in doing so it is difficult to avoid segregation between school type or characteristics. Just as our worst areas of housing in New Zealand are the direct outcome of planning decisions – those suburbs were generally planned and built quite deliberately. Now we wonder how to transform them.

So too with schools and this is exacerbated by the convenience of the decile labelling system. The report concludes that there needs to be positive discrimination in favour of disadvantaged schools and financial incentives for advantaged schools to take their share of the high maintenance students from disadvantaged communities.

4          Allocate funding according to student needs and invest in early age.

No argument here. But how? Well obviously the decile rating system gives us a crude tool to know where disadvantaged students are clustered. If we are serious, we would be directing greatly increased funding in that direction but, here’s the rub, not simply to continue to do what we have always done! And managing the accountability/autonomy equation more effectively would also help.

Perhaps the proportions spent on sectors need addressing. The OECD average spend on see 2.5 times more spent on tertiary education than on the early childhood education system.  (In New Zealand that difference is a whacking 3.8 times in favour of tertiary. We are probably getting the results we can expect from the investments we are making.

5          “Encourage students to complete by improving the quality of secondary-level vocational training courses including work-based training, and making the different secondary pathways equivalent.”

This is heartening since New Zealand is starting to recognise just these actions as critical to turning around the issues of disengagement and dropping out. Youth Guarantee, Trades Academies, Service Academies, Vocational Pathways, Secondary / Tertiary Programmes, Gateway and STAR are all policies and actions that have the potential to impact on those issues. We also have through NCEA the potential to give equivalence between pathways even though there is a possibility of this being put at risk by changes made to NCEA and the promotion of alternative examinations. Strong government leadership is required in this area.

So if New Zealand aspires to climb up from 26th (out of 34 countries) in the OECD disengagement/drop-out stakes it might pay to give attention to reports such as this. I shudder to think of where we would be if we were not a bipolar system that has an extraordinary high level of performance for enough students to balance against the high level of underachievement.

Is there a tipping point in all this? And how far ahead might it be?


Published inEducation

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