Archive for September 2020

How NCEA changed a nation

I remember the torrential rain one morning at breakfast in the Cook Islands as we discussed a proposal that I thought would appeal to the Cook Island education officials. I suggested that Manukau Institute of Technology (MIT) would develop a Certificate of Technical Skills based on the New Zealand Qualifications Framework which the Cook Islands as a realm country shared.

On the one hand it would be based at Levels 1-2 and on the other would build into a programme the key characteristics of the secondary / tertiaryprogrammes that were showing good promise with asset of key principles:

  • Giving students options to experience technical grades at an earlier age;
  • Accelerating students who had weaknesses in learning skills through the completion more quickly – a key factor in successful remediation;
  • Having a strong element of mandated engagement;
  • Developing a clear line of site to a vocational pathway;
  • Using trades as the pathway of increased engagement in schooling generally;
  • Ensuring that basic skills were cemented well and truly as a sound basis.

At this time, the New Zealand Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade (MFAT) were developing a proposal for Partnership Programmes –providers across a range of business activities showing interest in such a way of working. MIT knew that it had a good proposal based on taking the trades to the secondary schools of the Pacific and was subsequently successful in its application. Meanwhile, for such applications take some time to reach a conclusion – MIT had continued to work with the Pacific Nations.

Finally, an agreement was in place, between MIT and MFAT and MIT was in a position we were in a to take the proposal out to the Pacific with Tonga absolutely keen to start straight away rather than wait and so started a remarkable story of the power of applied education to engage the disengagers and the possibilities that flow from teaching trades in an island nation.

Tonga has been totally positive and over the past few years the programme has been introduced into 14 schools. Students are introduced to four trades over two years and are awarded with Level 1 and Level 2 Certificates in Vocational and Technical Students. Since the NZ and Tongan Qualification Frameworks are aligned, students are potentially able to come into a programme at a New Zealand provider. But that has not proved to be the strongest pathway. As a result of the CVTS, enrolments of school leavers at the Tonga Institute of Science and Technology have grown as large numbers of the successful graduates of the CVTS (350 students graduate each year) enrol at their local tertiary provider – enrolments have doubled year on year.

MIT had supported TIST with significant staff development, equipment and generally with the delivery of this most important programme, now in its ninth year with MFAT support. NCEA and programmes flexibly based on it have been the fundamental basis of this Pacific success story. Lives are changed as young people overcome the difficulty of studying in a harsh environment. It is not too large a claim to say that in this instance, NCEA has changed a nation swell certainly it has had an impact!

Well done Minister! You’ve done it again!

Those struggling to conclude the review of NCEA have been shown the way by Minister Hipkins who has an practical and student oriented understanding of the way NCEA works and the value that it brings in its current shape to many students.

For too long, New Zealand education and especially the senior secondary school, has been bedevilled by the anxiety felt by University administrators in having little confidence in the NCEA system to select the stream of students who were worthy to tread the path to academia. Well, that has been solved with Auckland University declaring that students can enter the 2021 academic year without a complete NCEA Level 3 set of results characterised by a number of the requisite Excellence awards.

We have always known that NCEA was not the kind of qualification that related well or even closely to the requirements of a university programme. The last 20 years have been largely wasted discussion being distracted by the insistence of the universities, supported by a small group of schools (they know who they are), that their needs must be met first and the rest of the school system could trail along.

It was hard for the universities to grasp standards-based approaches to assessment and the fact that at the beginning levels of learning, a body of knowledge could be presented as a set of standards that expressed a curriculum in ways that students could work to achieve those standards and in doing so develop an expertise at various levels.

In the 1990s I attended a number of meetings where there was a palpable tension around such matters. One famous meeting at which the Vice-Chancellors spread themselves across the front row so as to have maximum impact on Prime Minister and Minister of Education, Rt.Hon. David Lange. After hearing NCEA being described as “intellectual finger food’ and a range of other barbs the PM assured the Vice Chancellors that he wasn’t afraid of them – ‘you’re just a gang of bikies in suits” he bellowed. Neither side contributed very helpfully on that occasion! And one of the University team declared it to be the rudest meeting he had attended in his life!

Those who would wish to argue for complicated mechanisms for the conduct of the NCEA assessment system need to understand some simple truths. No-one will operate on a human being to correct a brain injury or even tackle open heart surgery solely on the basis of having attained NCEA (with Merit).

NCEA is what provides those first steps that will place students onto a pathway, it starts early (NZ leaves it a bit late in my view) and by taking a series of small but connected steps, the student discovers their potential to head towards a destination that is worthwhile. The accumulation of credits contributes to a package of knowledge that has credibility. Think about the driver’s licence as an example of standards based assessment. Many aspiring drivers present themselves for assessment of a wide range of skills which collective add up to being a proficient driver – the skills are in themselves of different importance and the decision to grant a license is made on the basis of an overall assessment of the driver/driving overall – not on the basis of one skill.

Sometimes a student realises that the direction they are taking is not one they wish to pursue. As a result, a horizontal shift is required across to a different direction. Level 1 and Level 2 serve a useful role in the development of a young person’s progress. That is why are usefully flexible and have a range of credits that can be transferred. Level 3 is where decisions become more serious and that is the point for electing to take a clear vocational pathway. It’s where students not headed to university should be on a clear vocational track.

The success Trades Academies and other secondary tertiary programmes show a clear appetite for STP students to transfer in L3 vocational programmes rather than the  general school programmes at Level 3.

The Minister in his decision to keep students moving forward through the system and trusting the judgement of the instructors and teacher through the award of additional credits. The balance of the overall programme is retained and common-sense greatly benefits the student. Well done Minister!

(Next week:  How NZ’s NCEA has changed a nation.)

Oops! An Unintended Reform

I have been sorting papers to accommodate the move from the luxury of an office to the cosy reality of the open-space work room. When clearing out, you stop from time to time to reacquaint yourself with this paper or that book! That is how I came across a paper that has influenced me for the past 15 years – a book review that dealt with reform versus evolution in education. In these CoVIT-Panacademic times there has been some positive promotion and commendation of online learning and the weight of support seems to be swinging a little more in its acceptance. About time I hear you say!

I was reminded by this of the 1997 book which was the subject of the review, Tinkering Towards Utopia (Tyack and Cuban, 1997),  a time when reform seemed to consistently fail much to the inevitable despair of educators. Would the much vaunted reforms ever see result? The reform movement was huge, truckloads of resources were being thrown into wholesale reform  that had little impact – “So much reform: So little change” was Charles Payne’s summary. And especially in the area of online learning the future was slow in coming.

The book reviewer commented on the tension between change and reform and the mechanisms schools practised to resist change and left me with a feeling that perhaps the battle was swinging away from the traditional classroom. In some areas it seems quite clear and online learning was one area. This was largely because “…….the school exerts less influence on what children do with home computers, and as the number of these reaches significant levels, we are beginning to observe changes in the relationship between teachers and students brought about not by a reform, but by the fact that the students have acquired a new kind of sophistication but about ways to learn and methods of research.”

Come forward to the current swirl and add to it the imperative of the pandemic lock-downs. To to use an appropriate (some might say inappropriate) figure of speech, it could be that the DNA of schools as institutions is strong enough to rebuff the challenge of an attack on conventional practice but retain an immunity to change. The pressure to work differently during these times is overpowering. Seemingly there are no vaccines against attacks on the status quo in education and places called schools were quick to reclaim their children back into the places called a school, being there at times when schooling was prescribed, and re-establishing rituals of delivery.  Parents and their children who had perhaps discovered a new and different connection with learning, saw the whole palaver of the less relevant institutional mores such as assemblies, homilies from form-teachers, the wearing of a common uniform, bell ringing, and all that jazz – return into their lives much to the despair of some and the delight of others.

But to get back to on-line learning in educational institutions – will the new normal, which will never be the old normal, allow it to emerge and grow stronger in its new level of penetration into schooling and to bring with it a different balance of power between students, parents and schools or will it succumb to a pressure to return to the well-established, trusted ways-of-working with their mixed bag of outcomes.

As the reviewer said: when a school sets out to change its approaches, in the end the school changes the reform [and goes on to say that] one may at first blush see a tautology in using this proposition to explain failures of reform. But to say that School changes the reform is very different from simply saying that School resists or rejects the reform. It resists the reform in a particular way – by appropriating or assimilating it to its own structures. By doing so, it defuses the reformers and sometimes manages to take in something of what they are proposing.” So, will bits of our lessons from the pandemic shine through or will it be “back to business as usual?” And I am frustrated by having lost the name of this reviewer!