5 March 2018
The hasty and ideological call for a review of NCEA was certain to achieve one thing – all the tired old arguments carefully assembled to stop NCEA being introduced 15 years ago and trotted out for an airing each December when the media feasts on stories related to the NCEA examinations and again in January when students receive results, would be certain to be dusted off.
The first shot at this is the report coming from the NZ Initiative which on its release was given wide coverage by the weekend newspapers. One story begins with the assertion that “We have been deluded ourselves into thinking that we are doing well, the NZ Initiative report argues.” No-one would refute this, New Zealand has for some decades and long-before NCEA came on the scene dined out on the belief that we had the best education system in the world.
But some educators knew otherwise as the system continued to fail to deliver equitable results for all students – the university-bound were doing well and this was in fact the only group that was. The other 70% were either simply not succeeding in the conventional school curriculum to an acceptable standard or were receiving a diet of teaching and learning that was disconnected from their life and devoid of any clear connection to the world of work.
It took a government official who was leading a major education agency, in an Emperor’s New Clothes moment, to declare that just as the new clothes were invisible so too was the notion that the education system was meeting the needs of all students.
Indeed the coverage of the NZ Initiative notes the improvements for NCEA completion among Maori and Pasifika and the increase in the proportion of those groups getting University Entrance. Something’s working. But the reported aspersion cast on that performance by the dark suggestion that the improvement might have been based on “learning that is of dubious value” reveals another set of beliefs about the curriculum. The value of learning is invested with value by the purposes for which it is both intended and applied. Clearly the learning required of those intent on becoming doctors of medicine is different from those wanting to work in building and construction and the anatomy of a motor vehicle is very different from that of a human being.
The remains a belief that the curriculum required for entry into university sets the standard to which should aspire.
“Harder” is not a very valuable description of learning – and even a cursory reading of the descriptors of learning on the NZ Qualifications Framework would reveal a carefully crafted set of outcome statements that progressively require a high level of performance by students as they travel through Levels 1-3 in the secondary school, then through certificates, diplomas and first degrees (levels 4-7) and, if their pathway requires it, postgraduate work up to Level 10. Now 5 is higher than 2 and 10 higher than both of them. It is the level that describes the extent to which learning is “harder” to use the vernacular and as students progress through the levels they are being prepared for the level of work required of them at each step.
The call for a core curriculum is puzzling. A look at the NZ Curriculum document would ease people’s minds. New Zealand has always had a core curriculum and continues to have a core curriculum. It is hard not to think that what people are seeking is to ask for that core curriculum to be extended well into the senior secondary school. That is an entirely different discussion. Prolonging a student’s exposure to a set of curriculum areas that they have engaged with for 10, 11, or 12 years is unlikely to achieve much. Raising the school leaving age has a poor reputation internationally as a means of raising performance and, indeed, the notion of a school leaving age is in tatters as 20% of students have disappeared from the school system by the age of 16 years.
What is greatly to be desired is a curriculum in the senior secondary school that will engage students and take then on to pathways that excite them, offer them a sight of the future and start the process of equipping them for employment. In short, the differentiated senior school curriculum rather than a diet of the stuff you need for university study will be the way forward.
Indeed, many secondary schools are doing this and the growth of secondary / tertiary programmes (which is another story) has been made possible by a system of credit that is flexible in terms of both subjects to be studied and the site where that is done. NCEA has been a central instrument in allow this to happen.
I look now to read at leisure the NZ Initiative Report rather than the press treatments of it. With the impending review of NCEA starting, there will be much to engage our minds in the near future.