Skip to content

Painting out the graffitti – TS Review and NZQA

Stuart Middleton


17 December 2018

The report dwells on the fact that teachers/kaiako and educators have expressed concern that NCEA achievement standards have effectively become the curriculum for most senior students in Aotearoa New Zealand. Teachers in New Zealand secondary schools have largely never moved away from longstanding predilection for teaching to the examinations and these same habits continued with the introduction of NCEA which simply altered the target for their teaching.

NCEA has never been, nor will ever be, a curriculum for teaching (for that pick up the MOE publication The NZ Curriculum).

The practice of teaching to the assessments was always the blight of the examination system that was replaced by NCEA (and I say this as a former Examiner for NZ School Certificate English, Chief Examiner for NZ Bursary English, and a moderator for several senior secondary school examinations in the South Pacific.) The senior secondary school system never fully adopted the changed pedagogical practices demanded by NCEA in which an enriching and progressive curriculum leads to programmes that engagestudents and in turn takes them to productive pathways. Those programmes arethen assessed by a set of standards that describe the skills, knowledge andattributes demonstrated by the work completed. Credit is then generated bythose standards. It was and remains an excellent, flexible, fair and equitableassessment procedure.

One of the more worrying suggestions in the report of the group reviewing Tomorrow’s Schools is the suggestion that NZQA should be abolished. There are somebproblems with this. For a start, NZQA was not an outcome of the creation of Tomorrow’s Schools, it was one of the key recommendations of the Learning for Life  reports that resulted from the work so ably and scholarly led by Professor Gary Hawke in the early 1980’s. Secondly, it seems not to flow smoothly out of the submissions. Thirdly it is not the answer to the issue that the Tomorrow’s Schools Review group think can be solved by this retrograde step.

The scale of the misunderstanding about NCEA is illustrated by the current call for a “project” worth forty credits at Level 1 that runs the risk of seeming attractive to that review group. There is absolutely no impediment to this happening immediately without a single change to NCEA. It would be, in fact, an example of innovative teaching, probably by a team, probably across a number of curriculum subjects (it would be too much to also want to see teaching across NCEA levels!) and I know of some instances of this approach. Those teachers are the enlightened ones – others remain trapped in their misconceptions.

Just as the failure to teach to thecurriculum was the blight of the examination system it has become a seriously disabling condition that leads to less than optimal conditions for NCEA to show its potential and to bring to students a true reflection of their learning, of what they know and can do and understand.

You don’t spray an ailing crop with Round-Up to hasten its improvement. You don’t adjust the carburettor to improve a vehicle’s suspension. You have to think carefully about causes and apply appropriate remedies. Abolishing NZQA will in no way address the so-called negative effect of the assessment system on what is taught in classrooms and how it is subsequently assessed. And this is urgent, as the Report also suggests that the blight has spread to junior secondary school students as they are“prepared for NCEA” (sic) what ever that means.

The report rightly notes that the Ministry of Education is responsible for both the New Zealand Curriculum and NCEA Standards. A simple question might be to ask why and how (if this is the case)the Ministry escapes responsibility for this situation developing? One issue might be that ERO, which assesses the extent to which school programmes meet the requirement that the NZ Curriculum is taught, is failing in its duty for,if the report is accurate in its descriptions of teacher behaviour, it seems that schools continue to not be teaching the NZ Curriculum? Or it could be that the review report is simply wrong and has exaggerated the extent to which this is happening? While this is convenient for supporting the conclusion that NZQA should be abolished, it is hardly fair on teachers.

That different organisations have different responsibilities for parts of the sytem is not the problem. It is important that those organisations exist to bring specialist knowledge to the evaluation of education in this very small country which is about the size of a school district in the USA. The MOE has the curriculm and the standards that are used – that is logical. And all that operates within a framework that is the responsibility of NZQA. Affirmation that NZ schools are teaching the NZ Curriculum is ultimately a role for ERO.

But the report troubles me for another reason. Quality Assurance is at different levels the responsibility of everybody involved in education. But the critical overall assurance is the rigour applied to the development and delivery of qualifications. Programmes that are low in quality lead to low outcomes – it is as simple as that. But qualifications are a generalisation of competence in a field of knowledge and skill and they are themselves assured by the existence of the New Zealand Qualifications Framework, supervised and maintained by an organisation that can act with independence and authority to maintain quality by managing the assessments, approving programmes and rigorously examining the quality of the wide range of different organisations that deliver qualifications that exist on that framework. The same body is the arbiter both vertically, i.e.what level a programme and its assessments can be said to be at and horizontally, i.e. what quantum of time should be spent in the pursuit of that qualification, what are the graduate profiles,  is consistency being achieved through moderation, overall does the EER scrutiny of institutions reflect a picture of their credibility and quality? This is a robust system of QA that is applied at the tertiary level.

I have on a number of occasions in Australia, Canada and the USA heard the NZ qualifications framework provision and procedures praised and in some places copied. A comprehensive qualifications framework is what creates a national system of education – something that has been put at risk by Tomorrow’s Schools and the culture of division it encouraged in our schooling system.

Published inUncategorized


  1. John John

    “The senior secondary school system never fully adopted the changed pedagogical practices demanded by NCEA in which an enriching and progressive curriculum leads to programmes that engage students and in turn takes them to productive pathways.” Having witnessed tertiary, NCEA secondary and primary up close – this is the nub. But who will fund the thousands of hours to develop such ‘rich’ programmes of study? How much duplication of effort would continue? How will these programmes of study be quality assured and comparable and equitable? Unrealistic. We need a much simpler core curriculum, much more use of centralised (expert) programme development and of course all or most of this needs to be digitalised. Duplication of effort and waste – NZ Education in a nutshell.

    • Stuart Middleton Stuart Middleton

      Thanks for your comments. Of course this is the nub of the issue. Your suggestions would help and as for where does the money come from? It can always come from re-directed expenditure spent on things that don’t add to positive outcomes for learners.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *