Archive for October 2020

Groans and Moans about the Zones

The system of “enrolment schemes” is rather more scheming than simply enrolments! More commonly known as “school zones” which serve as the golden key to the coveted entrance for out-of-zone students. They carry the power of Grand Arbiter to a Better School in the minds to parents and caregivers who dismiss the local school as “not up to scratch” (this does not require any evidence) and applications usually paint a picture of “you would be lucky to have XYZ here” which is much the same as what the school is thinking.

As a Justice of the Peace I assist the gathering of evidence required by schools that stops short only at a blood test. Breaking the school zone barrier is certainly not a high trust exercise as a fistful of certified papers and evidence is amassed to get the required result. About 20% of New Zealand’s school-aged citizens have gone and will go, through this process successfully.

There are consequences to all this. In Auckland it is marked most annoyingly by the increase in vehicles (often humping great SUVs, but sometimes a bus) from the fleet that carts students to the schools of choice (well their parents choice to be honest and quite a number in addition to the zone-hoppers are seriously pursuing a faith choice). All Auckland knows when the school holidays are on simply by the quieter roads between 8.15 am and 9.30 am.

A review has been suggested. But if this simply concerns the mechanics of the process and suggests a role for central authorities and perhaps more automated clerical procedures, an opportunity will have been lost to consider the extent to which school zones serve the students and the country to best advantage. Is it time we took a serious look at the Scandinavian education systems?

Now granted, New Zealand is not Scandanavia which has on the whole rather less demarcated social differences than New Zealand. But Pasi Sahlberg, known to New Zealand, has constantly argued that Finland does so well because of a single factor and that is equality. Each classroom will have a balance of students from across social backgrounds. This is a constant theme in research on effectiveness of school systems.

There are other lessons to be learnt from Finland: teachers are more central in the schools, teachers and teaching are highly valued, they are a bit more traditional than NZ teachers. But there are no national tests. But, and this might be the key, no child is left behind – students underperforming have access to resources and especially to increased teacher time.

Has New Zealand dropped the ball on the development of a society characterised by equity and access? Perhaps the haves and have-not social clusters become embedded and while governments talk about addressing rich and poor it is really only talk and not action. I suggest that we have given up, it is just too hard it seems.

So how will fiddling around with school zoning make differences that matter? New Zealand has for a long time had a bi-polar schooling system that at the top of school success is as good as anywhere in the world, but at other end and with different students, is as bad as it gets. Our education statistics stubbornly refuse to show improvement and numbers of students deserting the system continue to grow.

We need a serious consideration of equity in and access to quality schooling and to pathways for success in life as social beings and contributors which reflects the rich and diverse society that could be New Zealand but is too often hidden by ways of proceeding that have failed.

Tinkering with rather than thinking about NCEA

The NCEA Review tells us (again and again) that “we are making improvements.” But they cannot explain why a qualification that is working well for a wide range of students needs to be changed. Usually the students who will suffer are again the ones that were left behind by previous systems of assessment.

If NCEA needs seriously new forms of calibration and content then why does the growth of evidence seem to show that NCEA has features that commend it over the old tired methods of assessment. NCEA is a qualification that does not have, nor does it need, the complex and mysterious machinations that were unintelligible to parents and caregivers. The key stakeholders – parents, caregivers and students –  were shut out of understanding previous systems of awarding success and how success was rationed. Why do so many back-room educators strive to return to those days? If these people were to get out among the students they would learn that NCEA works largely because the students know what they need to do to succeed.

Recently released statistics for trades academies which are based entirely on NCEA, showed Manukau Institute of Technology, which has been offering trades academies for as long as they have existed, had success rates in 2019 for students gaining 80% of the credits they entered that were pleasing:  Pakeha 93.1%, Pacific 81.4% and Maori 78.2%. The Trades Academies at MIT are mature and well-tuned to maximising the advantages of NCEA.

Research shows that students in trade academies will say, slightly over-egging the situation, that NCEA is better because you always know what you are supposed to do, and you get credit when you successfully show that you can do it. On the other hand they characterise their schooling, in fairness not quite doing justice to the programme, that in school they seldom know what to do and why they are doing it, they do it because they are told to.

But there is more to this. Students through the applied learning use of NCEA develop early a sense of purpose and along the seamless pathway can get a line of sight to employment.

Why cannot the review deal with the real issues that resulted from the difficult birth that NCEA had?

  • There is no need to have multiple levels of pass in standards- based system. The mantra of Achieved, Merit, and Excellence drafting gates were a sop to conservative opinion of some members of the Principals Lead Group in the early 1990s. It greased the path to introducing a new award that replaced the old.
  • Why must students waste time and lose traction by only doing NCEA Level 1 in Year 11, NCEA Level 2 in Year 12, and NCEA Level 3 in Year 13? Students can easily work at their own pace and under-takework across sevealr levels simultaneously. There are isolated instances of this in some institutions.
  • Why must changes be made to Level 3 which are not based on the needs of most students who exit after Level 3? The University of Auckland will this year it is reported, not base entrance to university on NCEA to the extent that it has in the past. They might find that their own methods of assessing students’ academic preparation better and more appropriate!
  • What is the rationale behind considering a move to separate Literacy and Numeracy from the subject oriented credits? Literacy and Numeracy require real substance-based around real intellectual activity. Literacy and Numeracy are terms that describe fluency in clusters of cognitive activity that happen to be called language and mathematics. Experience tells us that students who are steeped in cognitive activity across a wide range of subjects have no difficulty in reaching NCEA literacy and numeracy targets.

Now, there are four issues that a review might grapple with and in doing so actually improve NCEA.