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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.


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  1. Jim Doyle Jim Doyle

    Back in the ’90s I attended a Community Colleges conference in the US attended by about 3,000 delegates. One of the lunches was used to recognise three successful students. One of those was a large white man in his 40s. shaved head, looked like a dangerous bikie.

    He told the audience that he came from North Carolina, basically a hillbilly. He left school at 12 and worked in a timber mill next to a pub. He shared his time between the mill and pub. By his late 20s he had spent a lot of time in prison on various alcohol-related offenses. Long story short, he was persuaded to attempt a course in a Community College. He tried it for a week, found it way beyond him and returned the books. As he walked out, the guy in the Registry called him back and suggested that he might have tried the wrong course and perhaps he might try a foundation course and give it a go for two weeks. He agreed.

    LLoyd stood on that stage at that lunch in front of 3,000 people and announced that he had just been offered a place on a masters programme at the State university and had been appointed as the head of drug and alcohol abuse programme throughout the State’s prison system. He pronounced himself as an expert in the subject.

    The point is that this guy’s life was changed because two people along the way gave him a chance and persuaded him to help himself. Even though Lloyd had written himself off, they hadn’t.

    • Rose Rose

      The crucial ‘catcher’ position of Guidance Counsellor/ing @ College (& any social services in school system) is telling with – rate of ‘conversion/transfer’ to further/tertiary studies > career development & -internal- review of (ever evolving) content…
      Am ever hopeful of the improvements in our society – with evidence that this has improved – and, conscious of the (still) low rates of conversion in our Maori…
      Nga Mihi,
      Ta Stewart

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