Archive for May 2020

Looking over the Shoulder for Those Being Left Behind

It isn’t perhaps generally understood that the development in the late-2000s of Secondary Tertiary programmes – the Tertiary High School Model, Trades Academies, Youth Guarantee places and so on – were essentially developed in response to the growth of disengagement in the secondary schools. On the one hand the fall-out / rate was running collectively at about 15% – 20% for a students under the school leaving age of 16-years. The growth of NEETs numbers seemed to be resistant to any intervention and continued to grow inexorably.

I wonder if it is known that there are about 6,000 young benefit-dependent people in South Auckland at a lifetime costs of $239K per person and the cumulative cost of unemployment is $1.4 billion. 50% of Māori and Pasifika school leavers choose not to pursue a formal tertiary qualification.

I spent a lot of time in the USA on a Fulbright award working with a team of scholars on the issue of equity, access and success in further and higher education. I concluded that the issue was shared both between further and higher education (in terms of completion rates) and the secondary schools.

Along the way I started to understand the process of “disengagement”, a more accurate description of a process than the Americans’ use of the inaccurate term “drop-out”. Disengagement was a process over time and not an event in time. In short, it ought to be possible to construct an intervention that provided for those in danger of being left behind to have a pathway to success.

The proposal I placed before the Ministry of Education was for a secondary tertiary high school. It would specially target Year 10 students who were either on the point of or even through the process of disengagement. The principles were clear: students would be not taken out school they would be in school but not at school; the transitions into tertiary, NCEA, and higher TVET qualifications were to be seamless, there would be early exposure to TVET post-secondary qualifications; and a clear focus on employment as an outcome.

The NZ Education Act made significant changes to the law which enabled this to be developed and started in 2010.

Currently there is a timeliness of reminding ourselves and others of the role for secondary programmes in supporting students in danger in disengagement and who find a prolonged absence from school almost impossible to overcome. If the seeds of disengagement were sprouting or even about to prior to Covit, the Covit-19 Lockdowns will in many cases have an unintended consequence of directing onto a pathway that does not include a return to school – disengaging students seldom recover an appetite for conventional secondary schooling – this is in part an explanation of the failure of well-intentioned attempts to re-direct students ssuch as truants, back into the very same education structures and approaches that they have rejected. Pathway that are a U-turn back into school is for a disengaging students no pathway at all.

The secondary-tertiary approaches – tertiary high school, trades academies, Youth Guarantee – are proven successes and offer hope to those being left behind.

These opportunities must be offered to what is a significant group of students to see them safely through this trying time and facing a solid future.

The Perverse Divide

I don’t think I hold a grudge, it happened a long time ago. It was 1958 and my brother and I were due to go to high school from intermediate school and had been enrolled at Hamilton Technical College – the sort of high school that ITPs replaced. My mother had been there in 1928, our brothers had been students in the 1950s. There was no reason why our going to “Tech” was not the obvious pathway.

That was until the Intermediate School Principal intervened and asked to meet with our mother. We were perplexed. But the meeting took place and she was told that “the boys shouldn’t be going to Tech.” When asked why he replied “Because they are academic.?”

We had no idea what that meant and the Principal was asked “Well what school should they be going to?” He answered “Hamilton Boys High School.” “They are not going there, they are too little!” was the reply.

So we went to a new secondary school which had all the courses and discovered that being academic meant that you got to do feast of French and Latin. Our results were poor largely because we were out of our depth, had few academic skills and were quite new to the idea that one “studied”. But we survived by the skin of our teeth.

The classic mistake had been made. The teacher knew best. Trade courses were not for us  for we were “better” than that.

The perverse divide still continues. Academics being directed one way and the rest take the other way remains an almost automatic response. I am thinking about these things largely because we have been having a new kitchen installed leading to a stream of qualified trades people through the place. They each have exhibited high level skills, followed complex plans and navigated current routes for water pipes and electrical cords. These Hi-Vis-clad experts each had wonderful person skills, a sense of humour and a capability that was obvious  and, of course, rewarded well.

Charge out rates for these experts were very high indeed. No wonder that a New Zealand survey a little while ago showed that five years after graduation the top earners were graduates of MIT above all other tertiary institutions including universities. I did not begrudge the tradies one little bit when I considered the assets that they dealt with. All of this added up to my seeing them as applied activity academics. That survey result  would have been comprised of qualified academic trade graduates along with other academics who brought skills in business, digital technology, nursing, and probably with a smattering of chefs, professional engineers and others.

It is a good thing that so many will benefit from the Government’s policy of fees free to learn a trade. The timing is right, the targeted nature of the policy is right and many people will go on to work well and to earn well.

All of this no surprise. When it comes to learning, if the hands are involved the head really gets going. And it works not only for the younger ones in the trades academies but also for the graduate level student. It is sad that too many learners fail for no reason other than that half the skills they have are unable to be utilised as they are march across what is for them a barren academic landscape. The track that we took through school did us no harm thankfully. And I confess that the study of Latin was not wasted : In rivo imperfectum manet dum confectum erit as I often say.

Did you hear the one about…

Did you hear the one about the lighthouse keeper, the NZ Diplomat abroad, and the remote sheep station owner?

No, this is not the opening to a music hall joke some time in the last century or indeed any time right through to today. This unlikely trio would have been seeing their children receive a sound education for one of New Zealand’s education’s educational jewels – the New Zealand Correspondence School still working 90 years later to provide educational services for learners without a school nearby.

Of course, for much of its history the children were characterised by living in a remote setting – at a distance that defeated any easy reach of a school and a teacher. But over the decades the Correspondence School was required to fill gaps developed by changes in the widening of gaps and the  bnreadth of the student cohort  which was required to go to school or, and this was a major area of growth, those who in this atmosphere of universal education were not able to go the school.

The tyranny of physical distance was over time supplemented by the various “distances” between young people and the schooling system that left behind increasing numbers of young people. Those groups included for example those who were excluded / stood down from school, those with conditions which made conventional school settings difficult in a number of ways, those who had talents that placed them at elite levels where flexibility in use of time was critical (typically these are young people with extraordinary skills in music, theatre, sport etc). In addition to these groups the school was required to fill in the gaps caused by shortages of teachers both generally and in specialist subjects.

Physical distance is still a category of enrolment of students but it now lines up with over 20 further categories that entitle students to enrol in Te Aho o te Kura Pounamu (the name of The NZ Correspondence School these days). And delivery, once centralised in Wellington is now delivered from all parts of the country by a regional system of teacher groups and an innovative mix of face-to-face and on-line delivery. It still has a paper-based capability but this is minor compared to its on-line activity and the nation-wide system of “advisories” which gives students access to teachers who are based through out the regions. Te Kura is inarguably New Zealand largest school in outreach and numbers of students. Another key element marks it as a (the?) leading school in its innovative online presence.

This school would be the only place in New Zealand that can deliver the total school curriculum – early childhood education, primary schooling and secondary education – online covering Years 1 -13 curricula with stunning resources and with full assessment capability and proctoring.

Just as well this is so for when Covid-19 arrived the Ministry of Education was able to take the entire output of the Te Kura on-line developments and put them to use in generating an on-line capability for schools.

Nearly 100 years of working in an innovative way saw Te Kura emerge not only to support those left behind but to also take a part in helping New Zealand’s schools move ahead.

Stuart Middleton declares his interest in Te Kura as a member of the board for 7 years which has enabled him to develop an understanding of and delight in the progressive work the school undertakes especially as a provider of supported online programmes for all New Zealand students. It has been a grandstand seat for witnessing wonderful transformational developments.

Swapping Bad Habits for Good

There is little doubt that much of what we do is habitual – a string of habits whose origins have been lost in a murky and distant past and for which justifications have a hollow ring to them. If there is good to be had in the current Covid-19 crisis it might be in the consideration of  some of those habitual elements in our lives.

Winston Churchill is credited with saying “You never let a serious crisis go to waste!”  And Charles Duhigg in a most engaging book entitled The Power of Habit (1) has this to say:

During turmoil, organisational habits become malleable enough to both assign responsibility and create a more equitable balance of power. Crises are so valuable, in fact, it’s worth stirring up a sense of looming catastrophe rather than letting it die down sometimes.”

I hasten to add that he makes this comment largely in relation to a serious medical crisis. But our habits generally are ones confined to a much more constrained physical setting and with outcomes that can be serious enough but usually not on the scale of a pandemic. Nevertheless, there are learnings (as we say these days rather than lessons) to be had from Convid-19. Charles Duhigg states in referring to a comparable medical crisis in Rhode Island that once the crisis gripped, everyone became more open to change. Such could be the case with NZ Education at this time.

Working from home. Now here is something that has struggled in time of normality to develop a wholly positive reputation. There was an element of nudge, nudge, wink, wink about it. But now, by fiat, everyone is potentially able to “work from home” largely because the argument on who shall have the ability, the right, and the levels of ethical and responsible behaviour have been side-lined to be replaced by a discussion  on questions such as how it is best achieved and a consideration of which activities can be delivered with quality in this way.

Technology has stepped up in a big way and TEAMs and ZOOMs and Skype for Business whichare all delivering invitations for getting together to meet on a whole variety of purposes. Institutions at all levels have replaced lip-service with action and found ways to wrap students of all ages into the Education bubble.  On-line learning is another example. Yes, there are issues. The provision of equitable access to the online materials through appropriate devices is challenging.  The pattern of pairs of parents committed to be out at work rather than at home, some out of necessity, some out of choice, creates a set of issues that caregivers need to solve. The skills learners need to “work at home” is not necessarily embedded in learners used to having their time managed by others and their work in large measure orchestrated by the mysteries of the curriculum and the experience of the teacher.

Attendance is another. Does authentic learning require attendance in a place called a school? Does ever learner from 2-years-old to 18-years need to be at school all day every day. The levels of observing the requirements of attendance that is ostensibly compulsory suggests that the habit for many is anything but!(roughly 20% of 16-year-old students are no longer at school, about 76,000 students are absent each day, and around 50% of school leavers in some areas do not have a pathway to further education). So what’s the lesson in this? It is that attendance is not a measure of the value to each student of an education, the critical measure is what students actually learn and can do. Perhaps students are learning more by being engaged in learning at home rather than being at school? Or benefit from a blend of the two?

Being at school to learn, being in a room for a meeting, being there every day might simply be habits based on assumptions. If they are habits, then habits can be changed. But we do have another habit in education – knowing what needs to be done but failing to act on it. Talking about the need for change but not changing. As Charles Payne says: “So much reform, so little change.”

For that would show only that we have learned little from the experience and that would be a very high price to pay. School students have tasted on-line learning, working with parents, flexibility in where and when learning tasks are engaged and having varying degrees of shared responsibility for their learning. Adults in education have learnt to engage with each other in a different way that is more economical in terms of meetings and especially time spent travelling. And have learnt perhaps to trust others, parents for example as authentic partners in their children’s learning and when their gaze cannot reach the student!

The challenge of coming out of lockdowns must not be to make up for lost time. Rather it should be to ensure that the return to a normal is not a return to the same practices that prevailed pre-Covid-19.


[1] Random House (2012), New York