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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.



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