“…For the loser now will be later to win…”

Just back from Australia and it is interesting how such a visit brings perspective to issues and topics of interest.

I have been feeling for some time now that things are about to change, especially in the Anglo-Saxon countries which for 50 years have by and large got a lot wrong in education.

Three connected themes are emerging:

·         earlier access to quality career and technical education which brings about improvements in educational outcomes;

 ·         the questioning of the absolute dominance of the university-bound “academic” pathway both for its appropriateness for many students and for its insatiable appetite to absorb funding;

 ·         the need for reconsideration of current sector organization models of the education systems which are increasingly seen as a troubling block to lifting achievement.

Each of the Anglo-Saxon educations systems is now seeing an increase in the numbers of students gaining earlier access to career and technical education. The pathways schools in Canada, the university technical colleges in the UK, many academy / charter schools in the USA, initiatives in Australia and, of course, the youth guarantee stable of secondary/tertiary programmes in New Zealand are each examples of how the integration of sound and continuing academic preparation can not only be combined with but is in fact enhanced by a closer focus on postsecondary qualifications in career and technical areas at a younger age.

The Anglo-Saxons simply have to come clean – the experiment of comprehensive high schools proved to be neither comprehensive nor very successful. The result was a set of educational and employment outcomes that were inferior to those achieved by the schools they replaced. I think I want to reject the view that the development of the comprehensive high schools were essentially based on snobbery – Germany had a dual system of both academic and technical tracks, we beat them in the war, so the American Dream was born – college for all, equity of access to top universities and so on. Well it never happened. Schools lost their variety, pathways disappeared and the so-called academic university-bound track became dominant. Good for those it suited and always had, disastrous for the rest.

But it is not simply a return to what used to be offered to students in a diverse set of schooling options – academic, general, technical, commercial and other tracks which defined outcomes at the outset of secondary education. The new and refreshed approach is one of multiple pathways that are both academic and vocational, which have flexibility, which provide a clear direction with different people delivering programmes in different places and with multiple purposes for learning. So talking the old industrial arts facilities and programmes and organisation out of mothballs won’t be sufficient.

This development in no way undervalues the university-bound pathway – this pathway is also both academic and vocational for many. There is though likely to be a competition for resources as the performance of the education system encourages funders to see that a more equitable spread of funding is a good and necessary investment. This emerged a little in Australia last week. In working to “real identifiable work” the schools will be required to find a new level of flexibility.

“Our kids need to know trades and training are first class career options just like university – they shouldn’t be made to feel like they’re playing on the ‘B Team’ “ says Aussie Federal Asst Minister for Education Sussan Ley. She also sees the need for schools to be more flexible in programme delivery allowing for “real work experience” – the challenge as to what constitutes “being at school” and the “school day” are in the wings and yet to come.

That leads to the third issue – the challenges to the sector organization of schooling. The Catholic education system in Australia is getting ready to shift Year 7 (the equivalent of our Year 8) up to secondary schools in order to provide for a transition that comes at a better spot in the students’ pathway, allowing for a more coherent “junior” high school and therefore opening the way for increased flexibility in the “senior” secondary school.

It is still my view that New Zealand should be seriously discussing the benefits and issues of placing the senior high school (i.e. Years 11-13) into the tertiary sector – now there’s a big topic. Such a shift would allow New Zealand to consider the features of education systems that we admire and give to them a New Zealand flavor.

Are the times a’changin’? If they are then lets hope for more than hugs and bean bags this time round.

 

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