Skip to content

Month: March 2012

Pathways-ED: Lead on, McProf!


Stuart Middleton
29 March 2012


I gave a little speech the other day on leadership in higher education. Much of it was pretty standard stuff until I got to the bit where I wanted to talk about how successful leadership in Higher Education should be measured.

There was some enthusiasm for successful leadership to be measured along sound business lines – the management of a tight ship where income is not exceeded by expenditure where the best people are hired and inspirational leadership rockets a pretty ordinary HE institution up an international list of world class universities, a list that few can pronounce and even fewer understand – the Boys Own Dream of the Vice- Chancellor!

Then in a moment of uncharacteristic clarity it came to me, why should the quality of an HE educational leader be judged any differently from how we judge the quality of the performance of all the others who work in HE? Yes, I thought, this is the answer.

The three key metrics for judging success in education including HE should be participation, retention and successful completion, the three old hardy annuals of getting them in, keeping them there and getting them through. Yes, let the VC be judged precisely on the performance of his/her institution on those three measures.

The connection an HE leader has with their different communities, the scholarship programmes they support, the direction in which they drive programming and collaborative partnerships and the articulation agreements they seek to have with other providers are all critical to establishing pathways into HE for under-represented groups. The student demographic profile of an institution and the degree to which it responsibly reflects the wider community of an HE institution is a direct reflection on the quality of leadership at that institution.

The HE leader that ensures that the right kinds of support programmes are in place and resourced adequately, who is prepared to make retention a key strategic priority is one who is demonstrating sound leadership.

Finally there’s that question of successful completion. Oh, is it to be successful completion of courses or programmes or qualifications. Well let’s keep it simple and make it the successful completion of qualifications. That seems only fair since it is the successful completion of qualifications that is the marketing promise of HE institutions and, a little sweetener here for the VC,  the track into postgraduate qualifications.

So that was done and dusted, I had solved all the issues of summing up successful leadership in Higher Education. Then the questions flew sharply and quickly. What about research performance? What about the capital works programme? What about the civic relationships, the chummy chats with business, industry and commerce, the sector politics, the successful outcomes to industrial negotiations, keeping the Council and the Senate under some semblance of order? What about…..? What about…..? What about …….? There seems to be no end to the list of crucial success factors and KPIs that seem not to be about participation, retention and successful outcomes and perhaps even leadership and much more about the normal requirements of management.

But as I headed home I wondered if that was really the case. Participation, retention and successful outcomes seemed to me to be the whole point behind virtually everything that the HE Leader did. Of course there was an issue that if these were to be the measures, they depended in very large part to be reliant on others. Those who teach and support students, maintain the facilities, prepare the laboratories and so on, are surely driven by those three goals. And if they are not, shouldn’t they be? Should not the entire institution be united in a desire to be the best institution on those three counts?

Or are our HE institutions a little more focused on other things? Things that require more complex words to describe and which inevitably become a little more elusive when we try to pin then down? That seems a pity.

Leadership has become such a complex and mysterious thing. It was bound to happen once it became a subject in higher education. Why must we shroud so much that we do in complexity when really the essential core of education in general and higher education in particular is simple. Students come into our care, we take them along a pathway and they demonstrate the knowledge, skills and understandings that allow us to give them the attestation of an academic qualification.

I got into trouble once and was lambasted in a rather polemic book written by a right-wing commentator for a quip when I was speaking about standards in education and had said that I felt the same way about standards as Gandhi had when asked about British civilization. He had replied that he thought it would be a good idea.

Leadership in higher education? Now there’s a good idea!





Talk-ED: Quality matters!

Stuart Middleton
22 March 2012


It looks as if the stars are coming into alignment in education. First there was the Prime Minister with clear statements about education and training and some inarguable goals followed by a minor distraction from what has turned out to be a falling star, Nick Smith.

Now we have the Secretary to the Treasury, Gabriel Makhlouf, in a speech on the kind of economic leadership needed in these somewhat unusual times, providing an evidence-based commentary on the importance of education and the role of schools in lifting the levels of New Zealand’s skills.

The importance of education as is made clear.  “A skilled workforce is crucial to raising growth and productivity… better skills make us more adaptable… and education is like a factory for opportunity and ideas.”  Acknowledging that improvement in education is a necessity right across all forms and levels, like so many other commentators he focuses on the school system.

The response to the Treasury Briefing to the Incoming Minister noted that class size was a mechanism for freeing resources that might be used for improvement and Mahlouf rightly brings some perspective into this – the issue is not the number of students in a classroom, it is the achievement that comes out of 13 years, 38-40 weeks each year, 25 hours each week, of schooling that is the real issue.

This is not the first time that Treasury briefing papers to an incoming Minister have been the starting point for education reform. In 1987 a very substantial briefing led to the reforms of educational administration and wide-reaching tertiary reforms. Is this the trigger for another period of reform?

He does pick his targets carefully. Despite the use of a rather flattering and kind measure for achievement of NCEA Level 2 (a global figure of 70% rather than the much more challenging Maori and Pasifika outcomes) he questions whether three out of ten students are “simply too hard to teach or are incapable of learning basic skills” and concludes that “the system is failing some students.”

I recall a Treasury official walking into my office some years ago and getting straight to the point by asking me to tell him who in the country is accountable for educational failure.  I replied, without hesitation, “no-one!”. And this has remained the case.

The speech develops a theme around two points. First, the critical factor in student performance is the quality of teaching and, secondly, education like all of us will have to seek improvement within the existing resources that it has.

Jacques Barzun many years ago asserted that it was not the competence of teachers that was the problem; rather it was the fact that too many good teachers were doing the wrong thing. That probably still applies and the remedy is clear – find out what is happening in classrooms, establish what curriculum and practices would affect improvements in student outcomes and put into place professional development that addresses it. This raises issues that we shy away from in education.

We find it hard to accept that there are differences between teachers that result in variable student outcomes. We find it hard to accept assessment of teacher performance that would guide us towards helping those teachers who are off the mark in leading students to positive outcomes. We find it hard to believe that the curriculum needs scrutiny and continue to treat it as if it were a holy document when clearly it is playing a part in driving us towards those variable outcomes.

And we love discussions that distract rather than enlighten. The reactions to Treasury’s earlier suggestion that class size might be a mechanism for generating the resources to achieve the remediation of the performance of the schooling system unleashed the tired old responses. Every Mum in the country knows that to make ends meet she must either find extra money or shift what money she has around when a new household expense comes around. When one option is not open, the other is the only way. Mum has to decide priorities.

Makhlouf tidily sums up just such a priority: “Class size matters but the quality of teaching matters more.”  

I hope that this speech and the material accompanying it is a starting point on an urgent and serious discussion of the central issue in economic recovery, growth and development, the level of education outcomes for young New Zealanders.


Leave a Comment

Talk-ED: A double helping!

Stuart Middleton
20 March 2012


The Entree:    What’s not local about education and training?

Local Government Minister Nick Smith is wide of the mark when he calls for local government to get “out of education” and uses the example of “a council that sets a target of Level 2 NCEA”.  He goes on to say that local government has no business doing central government business. This is referring to the Auckland Council’s clear target for education and skills in the region.

He is right to say that local government should not be doing central government business but misses the point that local government has a role to play in seeing that central government does its business. There is no issue with the Level 2 NCEA goal – last Thursday Prime Minister John Key clearly set exactly the same goal for the government and his Ministers (see below).

The role of local government with regard to this target is to advocate for central government to deliver on it. It might also have a role in facilitating collaboration and innovation across the region to support the goal. Such a goal, and this is clear to the Government and certainly the Prime Minister if not to Minister Smith, is at the heart of economic growth and development. When the Auckland Council and the central Government sit down to talk about such matters, it is exciting to think that they will share the same goal.

One party (central government) will be held to account in that discussion for delivering on it while the other party (local government) will be showing how it contributes to a region that is similarly committed to it and which contributes in appropriate ways to it. No local government has an appetite to do the government’s work!  But if unitary councils are to be taken seriously, central government has to see that its work is contributing to regional aspirations.

Minister Smith needs to get up to speed on education and training, its performance and its role.


The Main Course:  Whose will be done?  Education must respond.

The recent speech from Prime Minister John Key outlined some directions that will impact on education and training.

Education will have a key role to play in the reduction of numbers of people on a “working age benefit”. Many of this target group will through in some cases no fault of their own – life dealt a pretty rough hand – require additional training and education before they are able to work. The skills of employment may have moved beyond the level of competence that they were able to reach in previous employment or in their education (IT springs to mind).

This raises the issue of transition – just how are people assisted to move from benefit dependency to self-reliance in employment as a wage earner. It is not black and white, one minute you have a benefit, the next you are in sound employment. And certainly an interview in a WINZ office will not achieve it. Education institutions should get their thinking caps on.

It is interesting to see access to ECE placed into a “supporting vulnerable children” set of responses – increasing access, increased immunisation and reducing the rate of assaults on children. I hope the goal is to reduce assaults on children down to zero!  Again education is a key.

And it is also an explicit player in the goal to boost skills and employment. NCEA Level 2 (or an equivalent) will be a key marker of a platform from which 18 year olds can launch the pathways into the world of further education and training and of employment. This is sensible. It sets a clear target that should be attainable by all students without requiring them to continue along a track headed towards university when this is not the goal. But it is also a big ask for us to achieve!

Add to this the development of “Vocational Pathways” within NCEA and the promise they have to bring integrity and cohesion to the programmes of many students not heading towards university. We are starting to see shape in the senior levels of schooling with these proposals.

It therefore makes sense for the performance of 19-24 year olds to get some attention. The goal has been placed at an excellent level – advanced trade qualifications, diplomas and degrees (at Level 4 and above). 

Evidence supports this goal as one which will lead to employment, to a family sustaining income and to allowing a person to make a positive contribution to society. For it is a fact that a person qualified to at least this level is highly unlikely to be engaged in the dark arts of crime. It all ties together.

Get a well educated and knowledgeable community and you will get one which is less dependent of benefits, less likely to bash children, be more assertive about getting education for their children and looking after them and, of course, will be both employable and employed. So the challenge is there to all of us in the education community and we simply have to be up to it. With the clear connections now being made between education and social and economic development clearly and in measurable terms, we will have nowhere to go if we don’t perform on such measures. Certainly we cannot sit back and blame it on the government – this government or any government for that matter.

Finally, there must be at least a touch of interest in the creation of the “Super-Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment.” Of course there are cost-cuttings and efficiency considerations in this expression of the latest attempt to clean up the Public Service. But there might also be quite a lot of good sense in seeing new connections and taking a multidisciplinary approach to public policy and oversight. The inclusion of Building and Housing also seems more like a continuation of a search for a safer pair of hands. But to group economic development, labour, science and innovation seems to create a potential for increased impact and progress in those areas.

Will the spotlight turn next to education? Bringing together the Ministry of Education, the Tertiary Education Commission, the Education Review Office and the New Zealand Qualifications Authority would at least be an interesting discussion and might well have legs. Perhaps the Careers Service could also be included. Have I left anyone out?

We talk a lot about connection and transition in education and how the lack of smooth transitions gets in the way of education success for too many and yet we all work within an education system that is built around a lack of connection.

Connections, transitions, lifting education access and outcomes – a lively setting for education is emerging.



1 Comment

Talk-ED: It's not working!

Stuart Middleton
12 March 2012

I got into a discussion about youth unemployment recently with an interesting group of people. There was strong agreement that there was an issue, if not a crisis.

I suggested that we not only had the issue of youth unemployment but also an issue of unemployable youth. We are creating the confluence of two weather systems that will create a storm of Wahine proportions as the deep depression of youth unemployment meets the deep depression of unemployable youth to create dangerous waters and cyclonic winds that will in all probability rip the social fabric.

The issue of youth unemployment in New Zealand is exacerbated by a number of factors.

First, New Zealand has one of the highest proportions of youth workers aged 15-24 years in the labour force. Consequently when things turn tough we see a higher proportion of youth affected negatively. Nearly half of New Zealand’s unemployed is made up of this younger age group. Furthermore this youthful group splits into two clearly distinct groups – one is skilled and qualified while the other is disengaged from education and training and subsequently has little prospect of work.  No amount of improvement in the economy will address the issue of this latter group.

These two groups split along ethnic lines and hence the connection between this first exacerbating factor and the second. With the second group having such large representation of Maori and Pasifika youth the performance of these groups in the education system is critical.

NZQA has recently published the results of the 2008 Year 11 cohort in the NCEA as this group went through the senior school what was their level of achievement. This is a much more honest reporting than any that is based on the percentage of Year levels achieving since the cumulative percentages based on percentages inflates the result considerably. Now remember that this is the Year 11.

Remember too that this cohort is the group that actually made it to Year 11. So the cohort will be around 80% of the group that set out in education. And where numbers of Maori and Pacific students are higher the cohort will reflect an even smaller percentage of the actual cohort.

So with that in mind, this is the picture of real achievement:

In Year 11 students achieve in NCEA as follows:

NCEA L1 achieved…          … in Year 11          …In Year 12           ….in Year 13                         

NZ European                         72%                       81%                        81%                

Asian                                       70%                       80%                        81%                

Maori                                        44%                       57%                        59%                

Pacific                                      44%                       68%                        71%                

NCEA Level 2 has emerged as the level which all students should achieve prior to leaving school so as to have a good basis for further education and training. So what are the actual figures for the achievement of Level 2 by the end of Year 13?

NZ European                           68%                                                                                

Asian                                       74%               

Maori                                         43%

Pacific                                       58%

So even this basic measure of completing secondary school with the requisite achievement for further success is a cause for concern and those figures has in it a very clear message about youth unemployment.

Urgency must be brought to relating more closely the curriculum of the senior secondary school to the requirements of employment and to pathways that lead seamlessly from school into jobs and into further education and training. Each sector has a contribution to make to this. We will never solve all of the issues of youth unemployment if we cannot plug the flow of unemployable into the 15-24 year old group.

“Unemployment” should be a category for those who can work and want to work but who cannot get a job. Using it as a bucket category which in addition includes those who are unemployable and those who are in some form of social welfare trap, or both, leads to fuzzy responses that miss their mark.

What we do know is that the ethnicity of the demographics tells us that addressing this is urgent. A storm is brewing and like El Nino and La Nina they will not go away.


Leave a Comment

Pathways-ED: Beating the statistics of the unemployed

Stuart Middleton
8 March 2012


The worrying statistics keep flowing. In the past week we are told that….

  • 50% of Pacific Island young people in New Zealand between the age of 16 and 24 years are unemployed;
  • in the UK there are now over 1 million between the ages of 19 and 24 who are unemployed.

You have to be worried and it underlines that our education systems need some changes.

It is absurd to write of education systems as not working – they plainly are for a large number of people, they always have worked for that number of people and the top of the UK, USA, Australia and New Zealand systems are right up with the best.

But these countries do not really have one education system they each have two.

One of these systems wins Nobel Prizes, invents things, pushes technology to new places, makes brilliant advances in medical sciences and makes a global contribution to knowledge.

The other systems in each of these countries stutter along with groups of students that they find difficult to engage and even harder to teach.

And the demographics are working against us. The groups with which we have traditionally gained good outcomes is getting proportionately smaller while those that we struggle with are growing quickly. The traditional supply of the traditionally successful students will one day simply not be there in quantities that can sustain the activity we want, especially in higher education.

Partly our issues are exacerbated by our unwillingness to use measures that are clear and tough. Often I read that a “Decile 2 school is performing at the level of a Decile 4 school.” This is nonsense. Why benchmark performance against Decile 4. If we were serious we would benchmark the Decile 2 school against a Decile 10 school and set out to address the gaps. Either that or we throw our hands in the air and give up on equitable outcomes.

Actually decile ratings don’t mean all that much in the middle range. There is a homogeneity about schools with low ratings and school with high ratings. Those in the middle are an amalgam often of New Zealand’s mix. A decile rating is an average so mix some factors that contribute to low ratings with those that contribute to high ratings and you have a middle rating.

There is only a small set of measures that will get us cracking and the metrics for them are simple.

Participation – get them in. Universal means universal so there must be 100% access to and participation in early childhood education, primary and secondary schooling with no loss in the cohort. If 100 students are born, 100 should be in ECE and 100 should come out of secondary school. In fact with immigration the numbers should probably increase. Access and disengagement are the issues to tackle here.

Retention – keeping them there. This is the big issue. Students simply have to be engaged if they are to succeed. Schools are no use to an absent student. So really putting place tracking and monitoring, programmes that engage all students, doing something meaningful about truancy, proving additional support to families and to school to deal with the intrusive non-educational issues. An education system that fails to retain students isn’t simply doing a poor job, it’s not getting a chance to do any job with those students.

Success – getting them through. This means meaningful qualifications. The emergence of NCEA Level 2 and the school leaving qualification is a good development. I came across a view recently that wondered if NCEA Level 2 was “too hard to ask!”.   Well, heaven preserve us. NCEA Level 2 will not put a man on the moon nor will it win a Nobel. But it is a critical staging post on the way to somewhere positive and rewarding. So the issues here are multiple pathways (different students need different tracks to success), accountability measures (that make the gaining of meaningful qualifications not only a measure of success for the student but also the mark of success for the institution) and a greater focus on real qualifications.

These three simple measures require complex responses. Otherwise the statistics of the unemployed will need to be differentiated – the unemployed and the unemployable.



Leave a Comment

Talk-ED: Time to blow the whistle on the sideshow!

Stuart Middleton
5 March 2012

Nero will around soon to hand out the violins.

Once again as the rugby season approaches the secondary school system is made to look silly by the annual argument about eligibility to play school sport for this school or that school. The issue is this: some secondary school principals cannot trust each other. They believe that their colleagues (but without exception never themselves) will stoop to illegal means to gain advantage by poaching athletes with skill from other schools.

It really is the poacher up against the gamekeeper and the poacher turned gamekeeper all rolled into one.

They wish to have a stand-down period which will expunge any naughty thoughts from the minds of young people who want to play sport for their new school and serve to teach the new Principal a jolly good lesson.

Set to music by Gilbert and Sullivan it would be a hit – intrigue, pomposity, victims, heroes and some damned fine choruses.

I felt some sympathy for the young lad who, having shifted school (as is his right), is now not allowed to play for six weeks (which is a breech of his rights). He wonders why a drunken All Black responsible for a certain amount of mayhem gets four weeks and he gets six weeks for doing nothing. He might well wonder why a cricketer who has repeated  misdemeanours gets one week and he gets 6!

A cricket coach tells me of being accosted by a Principal from the school they were playing against who declaimed that a certain young man should not be playing. He left with the assertion that “You are in trouble!” – later he was proved to be wrong.

I cannot understand for one minute why Principals who expect all their students to play by the rules seem unable to expect that they and their colleagues will as well.

If a young boy or a young girl sees opportunities at another school and is able to make the change, who should stand in their way? Such changes do not always pay off and there are quite a few instances of young men and women who don’t make the grade. Of course the school to which they are going must be able to show that they have behaved ethically and professionally. Principals have, since principal groups first existed, exercised too much of their time at meetings coming to an agreement about how “school transfers” are to be managed. (If FIFA can get it right, a group of principals working at a school level ought to be able to.)

Having agreed they should simply let themselves and their colleagues be guided by those rules. Schools derive leadership from both Principals and Principles and when there are Principals with Principles the results can be magic.

All principals know how tedious it is to have to sort out a “she said/he said”,  “no I didn’t / yes you did” sort of argument between Year 10 students. Well, that is the same tedium that the public sees in the arguments school leaders have about school sport and eligibility.

Those who set school sport on the greasy slippery slope of inducements for playing school sport for schools might have stopped and given it a little more thought at the time. Come to think of it, that is exactly the advice they often give to silly students who end up in their office after some incident or another.

And there are surely real issues in education that need their attention.


1 Comment

Pathways-ED: Warning: Meetings may harm your health

Stuart Middleton
1 March 2012


It’s official – going to meetings can harm you.

Researchers at Virginia Tech in the US have confirmed through a research study that the performance of people in IQ tests after having attended meetings is clearly lower than if they do not attend. The effect is greater on women than on men.

Read Montague, the leader of the research team, is reported as saying that “You may joke about how committee meetings make you feel brain-dead but our findings suggest that you may act brain-dead as well.”

This seems to me to be harsh finding and the reasons, if there is truth in the findings, might be the result of both the matter of the meetings and the way they are conducted. Too often we all sit in meetings at which the matters under discussion could have been addressed by a phone call, or an email, or even a newsletter. When I said to a colleague recently that “it is as if the phone and email have not yet been invented…..” they replied with a sigh, “… and all the pigeons have bird ‘flu!”

Meetings that are animated notice boards are not really meetings at all. Meetings are not a very efficient way of giving information. Distribution is disrupted by the attendance at meetings, the key messages or meanings of the matter can be distorted not once but many times as emphases change in the re-telling, parts are embellished or left out. The only certain means of communication is written and with the luxury of the varied means of distribution we have these days, getting material out to everybody is relatively easy.

Then there are the Laptop Lapses when a presentation is in order. “Who knows how to log in to the computer?” I once was in the middle of a presentation when the laptop, provided by the organisation, went ta ta’s to update some programme or other and then without permission closed down and restarted. The technical people were off having coffee and no-one knew the logins. It was something of a shambles saved only by a long string of anecdotes some of which had passing relevance to the topic.

Anecdotes are usually a sign of desperation in a meeting. You can sense them coming on. The topic is struggling and then it happens, the great plunge into the darkness of the anecdote. A good thing to come out of this might be that the person has participated but usually there is a sense of “So what?” when the little tale concludes.

It can also cause discussion drift – the agenda is put to one side and another issue takes over which leads to another issue which …..and so on. Only stern chairing of the meeting can stop this occurring.

In education we sometimes indulge in meetings that address issues as relevant as the alignment of the teacups while not addressing the very small number of issues that are a real reason for meeting. Who participates in education? What are retention rates doing at each level? What are the outcomes of education? How do we lift all of these? There will be myriad matters that require meetings about topics that contribute to those defining questions and discussions so I am not saying that meetings are not important. What makes them important is their contribution to those fundamental issues.

In a modern environment there are alternatives to face-to-face meetings. There is merit in using chat rooms, blogs and suchlike to hold asynchronous meetings in which participants over say 24 hours contribute to discussion of an issue perhaps as a preparatory clearing of the decks for a really focussed shorter meeting of key people. And this raises another issue. Sometimes it is important for “a” group to meet about something but it ends up with the wrong group addressing it – a group is not necessarily this group!

So here is where there might be a case for a modular meeting. A core group of say three people manage the business of a particular area but their meetings are modular and include others depending on the capacity of different people to contribute to the discussion or a particular topic for varying lengths of time. This should produce a meeting that is well planned, well managed and timed.

But, on the other hand, I forget who said it but there is some wisdom in the statement that if you live in a country run by committee, be on the committee!


Leave a Comment