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.)

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