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Pathways-ED: Relationships up against a wall

Stuart Middleton
1 August 2012


It was not done lightly when they named the parts of Berlin after the Second World War that had come to be considered as exclusive property of this super power or that super power, “sectors”. The Americans had the American Sector and the Russians theirs. Movement between the two was restricted by that ghastly wall and Checkpoint Charlie became synonymous with freedom of access.

They had, after all, the lessons to be learnt from education where sectors had similarly become territory won and territory to be defended. The No-man’s Land was territory to dispute and little consideration was given to what is best for the citizen / students.

I was astounded that recently a one-day seminar on relationships between sectors with top presenters was offered by a reputable Australian organisation, ATEM, but was able to attract only 7 registrations from throughout Australia – well, it might have been six because I had registered.

Issues related to educational sectors and to relationships between them in Australia seemed to me to be an issue that demands attention. Especially in the tertiary area where chickens hatched in the late 1980s have all the appearance of coming home to roost. In New Zealand they also demand attention.

Relationships between higher education, further education, vocational education, academic education are simply beyond resolution by considering them each to belong to a “tertiary sector”. And just as the spoils of war are commemorated and held to be holy long after the fighting stops, much of the sector debate in education is based on the spoils of past wars and the now somewhat jingoist slogans of the factions – We are academic, protect the standard!  We are vocational , they need us to dig for victory! We are primary, we teach people! We are secondary, we teach subjects to people!

It is all nostalgia for a past age when education systems had the appearance of working. Let’s face the realities of peacetime.

The transitions between sectors has become dysfunctional with too many students successfully navigating through the checkpoints which have become chokepoints. The old academic / vocation distinction no longer applies. Education systems in Anglophone countries are characterised by unprecedented rates of failure and dropouts – casualties of this war. These countries all share the dilemma of skill shortages and increasing youth unemployment.

Lets calmly look at these sectors. Early childhood education is critical to later success in education and while we boast of pretty good national levels of access, the disparity of access between certain groups in the community is a less happy picture. A solution would be to subsume the ECE sector into the primary sector thus increasing the ease of access without increasing the need to escalate governance and capital works costs. Australia in ahead of New Zealand in halving the K Level entry group but this seems to be more of a Level 0 for primary than a dedicated pre-school effort. And one year is too short.

All systems know the importance of the primary, elementary part of the education system. The issue with this sector is that it is not encouraged other than through mechanisms of name and shame to have a successful but more narrow focus on the teaching of basic skills. I am not suggesting that we return to the old inspection when an Inspector of Schools would arrive at a school to hear the students read to ascertain whether Standard 4 or 5 or 6 had been achieved. But clear statements about exit levels would help with the critical platform that is primary education.

Where the primary sector has identity issues is at the upper end when it seems to grapple with the dilemma of being like a primary school but wanting to be like a secondary school. The solution is clear, create a new sector, Years 7-10, and let them get on with the job of making a successful transition from primary into the discipline-based secondary style programme. Introductory work on real pathways would replace the current work that is reduced to dabbling by the lack of clear pathways with continuity into post-primary education and training.

This would mean taking the senior secondary school out of the “school” sector and placing it in the “tertiary” sector. Having reached Year 11 students would have multiple pathways for further education and training which would be both, and simultaneously, academic and vocational. The different institutions of the senior secondary school, the university, the ITPs, Wanānga, PTEs ITOs and so on would then have a distinctive contribution to make to providing appropriate pathways, rich in their diversity, rewarding in their outcomes and  connected to the real world of family sustaining incomes, of employment and of continued learning.

A brief flypast over the battlefield cannot do justice to a complex issue but the general point is clear. Our current sectors have developed by accident not design, they have resulted in the development of distinctive features (unions, qualifications, sites etc) that are more intended to distinguish territory than they are based on what we know about learning and young people.

I would love to have got together with those six people who shared my enthusiasm for starting the conversation about sectors and the relationships between them. Who knows, it might have led to change somewhere ahead of us. One day the public will want to push the walls over. How much better it would be if we could do it before contempt for institutionalised education reaches that level?


Published inEducation


  1. Jim Doyle Jim Doyle

    Stuart, a recent rant I had in the Dom Post, below. We really do need joined-up thinking. Imagine a world where the focus is on achieving the best outcomes for learners and not who gets the biggest share of the pie!

    Time to get our Education and Training Priorities Right
    Our education and training system is not working. While the failure is not ubiquitous, it is malignant and is remorselessly embedded. We know it’s there, we play around the edges of trying to do something about it from time to time but we have failed to make any inroads into it.
    So what is this failure? About one in five young people leave the school system with no qualification. That equates to 10,000 people every year. Even more alarming is the recent research which shows that over the past six years more than 60% of people learning at the lower levels of tertiary education, failed. This equates to almost 98,000 people. The levels we are talking about here are at the levels 1-3, in other words the same as the last three years of school. So not only are these people failing at secondary level they are also failing under the system designed to rescue them.
    People are aware of this as we constantly hear complaints such as: too many of our schools are failing our young people, schools are not preparing young people for the workplace, far too many people are failing in our tertiary institutions, too many people are leaving tertiary education without the necessary ‘soft’ skills, tertiary institutions are not responsive to the needs of industry, the industry training system is not delivering, etc etc.
    Those depressing statistics above would tend to lead one to conclude that the concerns expressed have some validity.
    There are two striking aspects of the NZ education system when compared to other developed countries. We perform very well at the top, academic end but we also have a very long tail of relative failure at the other end. These facts are well known to officials and politicians and for sure there have been efforts made to address the problem but we can be certain that those efforts have, to date, failed.
    There is another striking aspect of our education system that may be highly relevant here. For a very long time now we have bought into the myth that when it comes to investing money in tertiary education, the best place to put it is at the top end. Higher level qualifications are of greater value than lower level ones. Longer qualifications are of greater value than shorter ones. Indeed only last week it was announced that $40m of training money will be made contestable, in other words it will go to the lowest bidder, all other things being equal. One can only imagine the outraged uproar we would get from the university sector if such a scheme was applied to PhD study.
    Perhaps one of the problems we have had in dealing with this failure is that we have not adopted a ‘joined-up’ thinking approach to it. Part of the problem lies in our schools, part of it is associated with the tertiary sector and part of it rests within the industry training sector. Most efforts to date have tended at any one time to focus on just one of those three components and we have simply failed to adopt a holistic approach to it.
    The problems expressed above are real and they are cumulative and they are relentless. The economic and social costs associated with these failures are almost too disturbing to contemplate. The fact is that there is no low-cost or easy solution to the problem. If the problem is to be properly addressed, then a significant investment will need to be made. Cheap and nasty will not do it. If new money cannot be found then perhaps a redirection of existing funding might be called for. When it comes to measuring the quality of investment we should not be looking at the absolute number of dollars applied but rather the value added from the investment. It is hard to imagine any greater value added than that resulting from investing in addressing this particular problem.
    On the other hand, if that investment is not made, and we continue to stumble from one ad hoc solution to the next, we can be sure of one thing: we will end up paying far more in many other ways.

    Jim Doyle
    Executive Director
    NZ Shipping Federation

  2. Stuart,

    Methinks you have a potential community of interest if you contact the other six (of the seven) seminar participants. It’s not clear from your blog as to whether or not the event was cancelled because of a lack of subscribers but irrespective, there is still merit in asking the seminar convenor to send out an email inviting an asynchronous get together between those who had shown some interest.

    By the way, please don’t overlook what John Benseman (Ed. 1996) and others have described as the ‘fourth sector’ in your sectorial flyover. The adult and community education sector has been seriously curtailed by the current government (as opposed to what goes on in Australia where it remains strongly supported). This is especially tragic because, for the sake of assuring long term economic and societal well-being, the fourth sector needs to be given oxygen; it does not need the slow asphyxiation which it is currently experiencing. Throttling the fourth sector may quell political agitation but all-in-all, this will have deleterious long term consequences, especially for the poor .

    Personally, when I think about your blog, Stuart, I remember the book “Must We Educate” written by former Wisconsin and OISS education warhorse, Carl Berieter (1973). It retains merit.

    Forty years ago (almost) Berieter was bold enough to propose “… to make adolescence truly optional it should… be possible for young people to enjoy their freedom without having to go to school. I suggest unrestricted grants for this purpose, to be repaid through a surtax on income in later years.” (Quote from Chapter One of the original book but also reproduced in Phi Delta Kappan, December 1973, p.235.)

    To me that sounds suspiciously akin to the student loan scheme that we now have. With tongue in cheek, I’d muse that since TEC Minister Joyce wants to extend his tinkering with the ‘sector’ by making apprenticeships open to all, irrespective of age, we should extend the scheme.

    Might there be merit in making student loans available for all so that even retirement-ready-baby-boomers can pursue whatever training and educational whims they may have? Berieter talked of ‘optional adolescence’ but is this also a construct that might belatedly fit our bourgeoning population of elders? It could be if we rename it ‘optional adolescence relived”. And of course, elders who enrol in facets of lifelong learning to relive adolescence by pursuing activities hitherto unavailable to them, can always repay incurred loans they by voluntarily reducing their pensions even if that means spending the next generation’s inheritance.

    Doing this might be one way of actually nudging sectoral divides. But whether or not hat constitutes educational responsiveness that is beneficial for society is, of course, a different matter. As Berieter wistfully noted in Phi Delta Kappan those many years ago: “What education does for the individual is one thing; what it does for society is another. We look to education to solve social problems by changing people. It does not work very well, and in general problems of human behavior are better dealt with by changing the incentives according to which people act…

    …We also look to education to provide a productive work force. What has happened, however, is that educational processing has taken the place of competence. If the emphasis were shifted back to demonstrated ability, with opportunities available for training and testing, the likely result would be a general increase in competence.”

    I’m sure that each of the sectors would applaud such a result but I’m uncertain about where we would slot in the public-private scheme…sigh and sigh again.


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