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What would Peter, Paul and Mary say…?

There is quite properly a strong focus being directed on to the challenges that New Zealand will face as it copes with the growing numbers of new unemployed who have lost their jobs as business shrinks in face of the pandemic. It has happened suddenly and rightly has produced a response from the government through support for businesses. As time goes on the impact of this support in stemming the flow of unemployment will become more explicit.

But we need to recognise that this group, newly unemployed, could mask the continuing issue of those who live in a state of enduring inactivity and unemployment – the NEETs. These citizens of New Zealand are typically a group of 15 to 24-year old students at some point, often around Year 10 at 14 – 15 years old, who disengage from school – the US simply says “drop-out” of school. This group includes a wide cross-section of all ethnicities, from a wide range of backgrounds, who all end up sharing a lifestyle of inactivity. The couch is more attractive than most initiatives that set out to address the issues.

But all is not lost, there is clear evidence that the development of secondary-tertiary programmes is able to create pathways that lead through skill development to a wide range of employment opportunities. These disengaging students respond positive to such programmes

And such programmes are becoming more favoured. They take the form of programmes located outside the conventional secondary school structures and offerings to varying extents. Some totally engage the student in a mix of learning opportunities heavily focussed around vocational and technical activity (such as the MIT Tertiary High School and the Unitec Pathways College) while the growth of trades academies provides for students to learn in a tertiary polytechnic setting for one or two or three days a week with students moving along a seamless pathway with a line of sight to employment.

The differences between school and the secondary-tertiary options are clear. The programmes focus on the things that matter: strong personal skills, a curriculum that is based on real world outcomes such as employment and activities that require students to demonstrate skills.

There are also pedagogical differences:

  • mandated engagement – doing the work is not optional but a clear requirement;
  • attendance is critical;
  • basic skills are taught in an applied manner and setting;
  • students with gaps in their learning have remediation that accelerates their progress rather than putting them into a holding pattern;
  • students work at multiple levels of qualifications and move at a speed through the levels rather than being in a lock-step group doing one level each year – time served is dead in these programmes!

Turning groups of students around through these programmes is the cheap option. Doing nothing is to take the easy and expensive route. Who knows what the real underlying costs of school failure and unemployment are. We do know that issues such as the 6,000+ young benefit-dependent people in South Auckland incur a lifetime cost of $239K per person, the cumulative costs of unemployment in South Auckland ($1.4 billion) and the 50% school leavers who choose not to pursue a formal tertiary qualification constitute a picture of that is simply undesirable and unacceptable. What about the many “South Aucklands” located through New Zealand? And what about school disengagement in the resrt of the community?

Currently there are levels of concern developing over an increase of students not returning to school after lock-downs. This will exacerbate the NEETs issue. Add the Covid-19 impact on employment and the situation looks grim.

It won’t just be the flowers that are gone!

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