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Review of NCEA

Stuart Middleton


31 October 2017

I met a young fellow the other day, he’d drifted out of school last year, realised that he was going nowhere, so he had finally taken himself to the Tertiary High School (THS) at Manukau Institute of Technology. He has this year completed Level 1 NCEA and Level 2 NCEA achieved two certificates and was planning next year to get started on his career pathway and would also complete Level 3 in case he needed it later.

Such stories are relatively common, a speedy transition from failure to success because this is a different programme that takes students unlikely to succeed in a school setting, brings them in to MIT where they get basic skills into place and complete NCEA while simultaneously experiencing applied and technical disciplines before determining which pathway they will head down. The results speak for themselves – extraordinary high NCEA results and employment ready technical qualifications and, for some, a pathway into a degree programme.

None of this would be possible were it not for NCEA.

NCEA has been a liberating and powerful mechanism that has allowed different pathways to emerge. It has also.allowed a common currency of credit to develop making possible secondary / tertiary links that are probably at this moment reaching in excess of 17,000 students throughout New Zealand. Take Trades Academies as an example – MIT has 400+ students from secondary schools coming in for a “trades academy programme”, earning NCEA credits which they carry back to school to put with the credits gained in the rest of the programme.


NCEA has not flourished as it should have in many schools for a set of simple reasons.

Schools persist in equating Level 1 with Year 11, Year 2 with Year 12 and Level 3 with Year 13 for no apparent reason other than this is what they have always done (i.e. Yr11 School C, Year 12 6th Form Cert. and Year 13 Bursary / Schol). The THS at MIT has shown comprehensively that multi-level assessment and award of credits at different levels within a school year is possible, that NCEA is not a time bound qualification but an assessment regime that is flexible.

Vocational Pathways was launched in a slightly raw state – a bit longer in the oven would have helped. Vocational Pathways should be an organising principle for course development and design in the senior secondary school rather than the “academic pokie machines” that they sometimes appear to have become. Schools programmes are completed and the lever pulled down. Ka-ching, Ka-ching  Ka-ching , the barrels tumble then stop, three pineapples appear – wow, primary industries, fancy that! Vocational Pathways should be guiding the development of pathways in schools that link to postsecondary pathways and not just something to pop on the CV.

I was pleased to see that there is wider recognition that Unit Standards and Achievement Standards are NOT the curriculum. The standards can be used to assess a variety of different curriculum contents, organised in a variety of ways across a range of curriculum disciplines and at a number of different levels. The Record of Learning is there for a reason.

The announced Review of NCEA is welcomed provided that its goals and the way it works do not lead to capture by those still harking back to the “good old days” and who reject the powerful opportunities for change that NCEA offers. And dare we hope that review can be brave enough to deal with the promise made when the qualifications were reviewed in the 1990s? “Time served would be dead” we were told. But time served has never looked more secure. Calendar year blocks of education and training punctuated by Christmas Holidays might well be challenged in a review. After all there are only two institutions where time served is critical and in one you get time off for good behaviour!

The NCEA Review must position the secondary system and to some extent the tertiary system to be ready for NZQA when they reach their goal of assessment “anywhere, for anyone, on line and on time.” There is a train a’comin” down the track!

NCEA and the NZQA developments might eventually coalesce to be the only paradigm shift that we are likely to experience in education in our lifetime.


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  1. Once again a timely comment from a very erudite educator and commentator Stuart. Enjoyed your last article on National Standard. I can’t but agree with you that just dumping them is not the answer without a discussion on what to replace them with. Glib statements from the new minister about schools just being required to report on the levels of the 8 curriculum areas in the NZ Curriculum, is in itself not an answer to the problem. They already do that. You are right. all parents have a statutory right to know how their children are performing against the levels in NZ Curriculum. All parents I have spoken to since the announcement are aghast at the prospect of not knowing where their children are at. We will not be abandoning NS as a measure and a tool in our school to report progress, we have always used other tools as well to measure academic progress anyway, we are just very happy the league table aspect will be removed

  2. Brett Brett

    While there are some valid points, there are others which are too general. At three secondary schools I have worked at: NCEA level 1 starts at the end of year 10. When a student has 80 NCEA 1 credits -they were encouraged to undertake level 2; and the cycle repeated in year 12 with level 3.
    Assessments take sooooo long -students are taught less.
    Students obtain Literacy faster -outside of English. This year 2/3 of my year 11s pasted the literacy component outside of English!
    There is no such thing as a meritocracy -as one over-all Excellence endorsement to so different from another, there really is no common bar to reach.
    Most teachers are required to do too much work not related to teaching.

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