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Month: December 2017

The lucky ones who never “left school”

Stuart Middleton


15 December 2017

I went to a prize-giving last Thursday. In itself that is not an uncommon thing to do at this time of the year. But this one had some unique differences.

  • Without exception it was a set of stories about students who had failed in school.
  • But none of the students present would ever “leave school”.
  • Many had studied for NCEA at multiple levels.
  • All had started this journey to success from a dark place.

It was the Prize-Giving for the Manukau Institute of Technology School of Secondary Tertiary Studies (popularly known in wider circles as the MIT Tertiary High School). It is a “school” that accepts students who are facing the wall at school, the ones who are left behind, even discarded. They come to the school and simultaneously study for secondary qualifications and tertiary qualifications.

What was beyond their reach in a secondary school was within their grasp in a programme that focuses on essential skills, on pride and a belief in self and on a burning purpose for learning. The students are motivated to meet expectations placed on them. The journey can only be undertaken with the guidance and teaching from first-rate teachers not only from the ranks of the secondary profession but also from a wide range of tertiary teachers and the support staff that a large post-secondary institution is able to muster. Exceptional leadership is a sine qua non.

Failure was staring them in the face at the age of 14–15-years and seemed inevitable for many. But with the benefit of a wide variety of insights from schools, parents and caregivers, grandparents and those other influencers that young people are exposed to, a different path wass chosen. And there we were, celebrating the progress and success of those on this journey.

So, what was special about this day?

There was a clear focus on high level academic success, NCEA, postsecondary qualifications, further education and training, and employment.

There was never a point when they left school, an act celebrated in conventional settings as an achievement in itself. The students has made the transition from secondary to tertiary in a totally managed way. They came in as early secondary students and leave as qualified tertiary students – there no single point in time at which this happens – it’s called managed transitions.

A number of students were receiving recognition of having achieved two different levels of NCEA in the year. Not for them the tedious progression through the levels, 1 to 2 to 3, not for them the old time- served approach. Their progress was at a pace set by them. Their programme allowed for this by understanding the flexibility of the assessment structure that is NCEA in which credit is awarded across subject and sector boundaries when the requisite skills and understanding and learning was demonstrated.

One of the students, let’s call her Agnes, summed up the potential of the Tertiary High School when she addressed the audience. She spoke honestly about the difficult and dark place she found herself in at age 15-years. Facing no prospect of success or perhaps even of staying in her school, she enquired about the THS, went through the enrolment procedures which involved her school, her caregivers, MIT and , most importantly, herself, agreement all round declared that it was worth a try.

Agnes cut her long story short by modestly glossing over the great efforts she had put in to developing wide skills of learning, achieving the secondary qualifications up to NCEA Level 3 as well as the tertiary qualifications associated with the programme, to the point where she was able to enroll in a degree programme. Almost as an aside she mentioned that in amongst this progress she also became a teen Mum. There was spontaneous and enthusiastic clapping and cheering when she concluded by telling the audience that she had completed her degree programme, was now employed and would start work the next day putting her Bachelor of Applied Sport and Exercise Science to good use.

Agnes is not the first student to gain a degree through the THS, quite a number have over the eight years the programme has existed. Many more have achieved high level technical qualifications across the wide spectrum of courses available at MIT, most have achieved NCEA to Level 2 and 3.

This is not an advertisement for Manukau Institute of Technology. but it is a testimony that there is no need for students to fail. That the education system must never give up on each and every student that it has responsibility for. Students fail because of the intractability of education’s processes, programmes and progression patterns. When different pathways are offered, purpose develops and success is possible. When care is taken to treat each student’s journey individually, solutions and engagement follow.

EdTalkNZ has tracked the issues of truancy, failure, poor educational outcomes, disengagement, and NEETs consistently over the years but seen little movement in the tragic statistics of failure. Yesterday showed that there is hope, there are better ways of working, and that there is success for all students when pathways to it open up for them.

It is not impossibly hard (there are challenges), it is not expensive (certainly no more expensive than conventional schools), and it can happen. But first we have to want success for all students.



A Primary Education without Standards?

Stuart Middleton


13 December 2017

At this time of the year in days gone past students would carry home a school report and parents would read them with great interest in one key thing – was their child going “up” to the next standard. Would that pathway from Standard 1 to Standard 2 and so on up to Standard 6 continue? And great pleasure was expressed when this was the result – usually a grunted “Well done” rather than bestowing of presents which seems now to greet any perceived achievement!

But as we approach Christmas this year, something just doesn’t make sense!

In an act that might be one of bravado or perhaps one of inspiration, the Coalition Government has abolished National Standards for the primary sector without any idea of what can or will replace it.

This has apparently been based on a call from primary teachers and principals to be allowed to “stop all this testing and reporting” so as to be able to “get on with teaching” and on a view that parents didn’t want the information that was being given to them

Let’s look at these positions and remember that this is happening at a time when it is becoming increasingly clear that student achievement is declining as they progress through primary schooling and, without being churlish in mentioning it, when confirmation has been made that on average 76,000 students are not at school on any given day (of course secondary schooling also contributes to this statistic).

If primary in responding to National Standards have indeed been focusing on literacy and numeracy at the expense of other things, it just doesn’t seem to be working nor does it show. And this might be for a very obvious reason.

You cannot simply focus on literacy and numeracy as if they were subjects in their own write. In the panoply of “school subjects”, they do not exist. “Literacy” and “numeracy” are descriptions of the application of skill-sets to learning, to the growth of skills and knowledge, to the increase in social skills and so on. In other words, they are the descriptions of progress in just about everything that primary schools should be doing and would claim to be doing.

You cannot study literacy and numeracy for no obvious reason. You cannot become literate and numerate without demonstrating the application of the skills of literacy and numeracy to learning about other things and developing other skills. You cannot report on literacy and numeracy without having observed all this.

And there is a growing body of evidence to support this view.  At Manukau institute of Technology pathways are made available to students to study, in an applied manner, many different technical areas and, in the case of the MIT Tertiary High School, undertake all their schooling in such a setting.

Typically, many of these students, after 10 years of schooling, have struggled to get the credits they need in literacy and numeracy while in the school programme. But given settings where they are required to practise the skills of literacy and numeracy for real applications and uses, they have little difficulty at all reaching the standards that are sought.

The second issue, do parents want to know what National Standards deliver to them? The TVNZ vox pop. would have you believe that they really aren’t too fussed about it. But that was when asked about National Standards which was criticised and pilloried by the primary teaching community and its leadership from their very introduction until their demise. So, who blames parents for have such views? It could even be a sign that teachers are respected in a way that is not simply rational but more a passionate grasp of the importance to schooling to later life.

It would be tragic if schools and teachers were to abuse that trust. I have never met a parent or caregiver that did not believe in the value of schooling and who did not grasp the critical importance of the work of teachers. I have, however, also met parents who asked the question “What went wrong? We sent [son/daughter] to school and [he/she] has failed.” A recent leader in education was want to say “Parents send their best children to us.”

In abandoning National Standards, the government has made a commitment to parents that increases in student achievement will be follow. In greeting their demise with pleasure, the teaching profession has declared that they can deliver higher and more equitable outcomes with a curriculum free from distortion that will take students along a pathway upwards to great things.

What a Christmas Present to parents and caregivers it would be if both the Government and the teaching profession were able to deliver great improvements and benefits this a result of this announcement and all that it leads to.





Parity of Esteem in Post-Secondary Education.

Stuart Middleton


4 December 2017

Gandhi was once asked what he thought of Western civilisation. He replied that he thought it would be a good idea. What about parity of esteem in post-secondary education? That also would be a good idea.

It has long been the received wisdom of those who come from the universities and those in the community persuaded by their pronouncements that a university qualification trumped all others. Seldom was this backed up by convincing data and those who did know the real data knew that it was simply untrue.

This educational myth was based largely on a lack of parity of esteem that the universities held for most of the other forms for post-secondary education and training which at times bordered on simple arrogance. It was also a reflection of an education system which resulted in a schooling system that valued the academic track to university above all others. This happened from the 1970s on with the slow decline in the industrial arts in secondary schools, some of the curriculum changes (especially the Technology curriculum) and the heavily “sectorised” post-secondary education system.

Thanks now to Josh Williams, CE of the ITF, who commissioned a report from BURL and a well written piece by Liam Dann (Weekend Herald, 2 December 2017, Business Section) a well-regarded economics commentator, we have some good New Zealand data that supports the view that there is little advantage to either side in a comparison of the lifetime earnings of a citizen qualified in the trades and one who has graduated with a university qualification. The difference is small.

I for one celebrate this – a well-educated person (trades and university based) is an excellent investment for a society which relies heavily on the skills of both, getting qualifications across the board is critical to success of communities. With the certain knowledge that people learn and develop skills in different ways, we need a broad sweep of areas for learning, ways of developing and opportunities for contributing. This might sound like a multiple pathways approach!

Internationally, across the English-speaking world, there is a growing realisation that the privileging of a university track to post-secondary education and training had contributed in part to the skills shortage now experienced across those countries, some of the resultant competition for skilled migrant labour and to the growing number of young people who choose neither trades nor university in part because they cannot enter one (the university) and they have succumbed to the view that the other (trades) has been discredited by ill-informed (a polite way of saying uninformed) criticism of those trades as a lesser pathway.

The developments in New Zealand since 2008 (well and often described by EdTalkNZ) have shown many thousands of young people that a trades pathway can be both a track to a lifetime of success and reward and, as other evidence confirms, academic excellence, This is something the universities have claimed as their own but which in truth can be achieved and is being achieved through applied education in the trades.

The BURL report appears to miss a key advantage held by the trades, the ability to start at a relatively early stage, your own business. Many trades people settle into early experiences and quickly develop an independent grasp of the skills, knowledge and ways of doing business in those trades. Their futures are sound, especially for those prepared to work hard and are prepared to meet the demands created by labour shortages.

But the BURL report rightly makes clear that trades people often do not have the burden of debt created by the longer and more expensive university courses. This advantage is not to be underestimated.

A healthy community is one which values the contributions made by all who live in it. University graduates alongside tradespeople are to be valued, afforded parity of esteem, rewarded well, and valued for the contribution they can and do make. It is time for the Trades (Automotive, Electrical, Building and Construction, Infrastructure, Painting and Decorating, Roofing, Technicians and so on) to stand alongside Law, Medicine, Engineering, Business and Economics and the Arts as worthy careers and pathways that can be recommended confidently to young people.