Archive for March 2021

Changing the Kingdom: Where there is a will and a way

It was a hot sultry day in February 2014 when I and my colleague met with a group of school leaders in the beautiful Kingdom of Tonga. Brought together by Rev. Feleti Atiola, Leader of the Wesleyan Church School System, they had asked us to meet to discuss what could be done from a curriculum perspective to increase the successful outcomes of many of their students, the ones that the Rev. Feleti called “those who had been left behind”.

Disengagement was the issue with many alienated from the curriculum offer to them. What could be done?

Winding the film back to 2013: the NZ Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade (MFAT) was keen to offer support to NZ agencies that would cooperate with them to offer appropriate support with aid programmes in Pacific countries. MIT was keen as MIT already a presence of a general nature in the South Pacific countries and this seemed to be an opportunity for the progress MIT had made with secondary/tertiary programmes. Was there a role for such a programme in the Pacific?

The short answer was a resounding interest from the Education leaders in Tonga. We had previously conducted seminars about that success in MIT and there seemed to an appetite to explore a development of some sort. The MFAT Partner Project was an opportunity to bid for resources to engage our Pacific colleagues in a secondary/tertiary style programme.

The issues were that too many students were not completing their schooling (early school leavers), many were not proceeding to any training after their schooling but instead were headed towards a NEETs-style of inactivity and perhaps a little mischief,

The bones of a proposal were put to the group. We would assist them to introduce a new programme based around the trades, offering to students the opportunity in Year 12 and 13 to undertake a practical subject or two that had application to the setting in Tonga.

The goal would be that the students would then:  

               emerge as prospective students for the Tonga Institute of Science and Technology (TIST), an             excellent trade training institution in Tonga but one that lacked the pathways from schools;

               return to school re-engaged and ready to complete their secondary schooling – this is aby-   product of secondary/tertiary programmes;

               return to or stay at their village but has skills that would be useful – or skills that would be             very useful in helping those in such communities that look after building and so on.

MFAT accepted the proposal and funded a substantial project for three years. The programme started with curriculum trial MIT put forward in 2014 and in successive years increasing numbers of students opted for the Trades programmes. A Level 2 certificate was developed and placed on the Tonga Qualifications Framework – the Certificate in Technical and Vocational Skills. This is the equivalent of the NZ Level 2 qualifications.

Of course, there were numerous questions to be asked and solutions to be found. Schools equipped themselves in the trades using ingenuity, cleaning up former workshops for their new use and so on. Local communities came forward, tools were sourced from many directions with MIT also contributing. Organisation such as ex-Student Associations, community service groups, and churches were keen to support the programmes.

Now some other pointers to success:

The enrolment at TIST has more than doubled their previous rolls and the tertiary provider has started to establish programmes in some of the schools.

The engagement of students in these school CITVS programmes has grown exponentially.

From the initial enrolment in 2014 of 3 schools and 45 students the Certificate programme has grown, in 2021, to 17 secondary schools on four islands[1] supported by all school-types[2] involving 895 students.  Overall, 3,720 unique students have undertaken the programme and up to and including 2020 1,356 students formally and proudly graduated with the Certificate.

In 2017 MIT maintained the programme while a new 4- year proposal was developed in collaboration with MFAT. The involvement of MFAT is scheduled to finish at the end of 2021.

What learnings can we take out of this project?

That the best projects (and this is one of them) are collaborative and based on need as identified by those who will have to deliver them and buy those who will benefit from them.

That quick hit and run projects are pointless – activity matured over time is activity that is lasting.

The competence of those delivering a project cannot be left to chance – MIT has provided professional development to those who are at the front line.

When distance is involved between the Project Team (Auckland) and the site of delivery (Tonga) you need the very best on-site management. MIT has been blessed by having a top Pacific Trades Training expert who has worked tirelessly over 8 years.

Various overseas aid specialists describe the project as being exceptional in its conception and execution.

Each year there is a graduation for the 303+ (approximately) students graduating. The largest pavilion is bedecked with tapa and vegetation and huge crowds support those graduating. The crowds stop the traffic. The radio station broadcasts the event, television is there to capture to capture it all in a repeated evening screening (and at other odd times over the next week or so. – it is a huge national event.

Each time we return we have a strong feeling of malo au’pito


[1] Tongatapu, ‘Eua, Vava’u, Ha’apai

[2] In the Tongan education system there are seven types of secondary school generally

based around religious groups and the Government. The key groups are: Wesleyan, Catholic, LDS, FCT, Anglican, Seventh Day Adventist, and the Government.

Blind Alleys or Fruitful Pathways

I am greatly perplexed whenever I note that students at the MIT Tertiary High School can work flexibly though the NCEA requirements while seemingly schools mostly work to a choreographed set of lockstep moves. This sees Years being equated with Levels and Credits equated with the right to progress up those years.

The great promise in the early days of NZQA was that a standards-based system would ensure that “time served would be dead.” Well, it is not, and most students are required to take three years to complete in a relatively strict sequence the requirements of the NCEA award requirements imposed not by the nature of the award but the reluctance that is inherent in the school system to abandon the notion of groups moving through in sequence, a feature inherited from the previous discredited examination system. In a standards-based setting the accumulation of credits by a student should be an indication that a pathway is being shaped. If this is not the case, then there is a degree of help in the system.

Vocational Pathways are excellent in theory but perhaps have not perform to the extent they promised in practice. A superficial glance at the suggests that they are not often enough used in planning programmes thus leaving to chance the likelihood of a student finishing up with a robust set of credits that has integrity. In others, he or she will have a set of credits acceptable to the trade and significantly meeting the needs of the first year of employment.

Vocational Pathways have had a fair go and I fear that my belief that Vocational Pathways should ve been put into the oven again – the concept and its implementation was undercooked.

The figures speak for themselves: Pakeha – 21%, Maori – 15%, Pasifika – 15%, Asian – 16%. This was an overall 19% of the students eligible to be awarded a Vocational Pathway.

Take that small percentage of students and allocate the awards that were made: Creative Industries – 39% (down from 62% the year before!), Service Industries – 41%, Manufacturing and Technology– 10.1%, Construction and Infrastructure – 7.7%, Primary Industries – 6.4%, and Social and Community Services – 4.4%. The last four of these results are woeful considering the needs of the country.

I have long thought that the key issue was that the Vocational Pathways were being used in an a posteriori manner rather than being used in a powerful a priori manner essentially as a pathway planning tool. It matters what credits students attempt if they aspire to careers and they ought to be at that stage of their lives. It is as if Vocational Pathways have become a sort of pokie machine, pull the level at the end of the year, watch the tumblers and, Gee Whizz, three pineapples and an award for Primary Industries. We could be doing better at seeing that student’s do not make choices that are based either on random or chance. The most important transition in the education system deserves more and closer attention.

It’s tough for everyone being in school

Fifteen years ago Education Counts published a comprehensive study[i] of student retention (and therefore also of disengagement) very much focussed on the views of Principals and including students and what is described as “a series of in-depth interviews with principals, teachers, guidance counsellors, key personnel in the education sectors, early, and the parents/caregivers of early school leavers.”  There is therefore likely that the picture presented is quite accurate in terms of 2006.

One thing that stood out 15 years ago includes the following. “Most students who are at risk of leaving school before the age of 16 are identifiable.” Three quarters of principals believed this and the rather larger number of principals (91%) believed that there are warning signs from which they can spot the likely disengagers. They can also list the warning signs – disengagement, low achievement, dysfunctional family, lack of family support, lack of social skills, disengaged attitudes, disruptive, lack of family support, and negative out-of-school behaviours.

All these signs are signs of disengagement. And the question which is begged is this. If the situation is clear to those managing the school system and that is what it seems back then, why has the school system not been able or supported to meet the challenge that all this raises?

Perhaps the answer is that the situation has got a lot better, or the issues have largely gone away, or schools are doing their best, or all of these and more. The latest report (1918)[ii] on “staying at school” might provide the answer. The average daily attendance now stands at 88.6%. Absences when categorised as either justified or unjustified show sickness as being the bulk of the justified absences but half of the unjustified absences either truancies or an unknown puzzle. Students who can claim regular attendance (i.e. fewer than 5 days absence) are at 58% and at this rather stringent measure, the report tells us that “around 40% of all students did not attend 90% or more of their available class time.”

The closing sentence is not encouraging for prospects of improvement with the news that “regular attendance has declined across all demographics…… the largest declines have been seen across levels 1-8 and among priority learners.”

One must conclude that disengagement is rife in New Zealand schools and has been for some time. That this continues is New Zealand’s little secret. You only have to look at the continued growth of NEETs in New Zealand, or the daily rate of truants or the collapse of the New Zealand Youth Labour Market to believe that a lot of young ones are forsaking the opportunity to learn and progress to a productive future on the strength of that learning.

I believe that this continues because we have a misconception as to the nature of disengagement, seeing it as an event rather than a process.  And we accept the one-bang notion of the dropout.

I believe that disengagement is a complex and painful process endured by students over time which can be categorised as being of three kinds. There is Physical Disengagement – the final decision to leave from the school – a culmination of that suffering even though the school is often surprised. The second is Virtual Disengagement – students are obliging, pleasant to teach, quite like school, but the process of learning is not occurring and the student faces failure and poor outcomes as a result. These are the students who are left behind. Finally, Unintended Disengagementoccurs when a student might have studied honestly and has achieved somewhat pleasing results but when wishing to progress finds that the bundle of achievements lacks substance and integrity. Consequently, the student faces a blind alley rather than a pathway. Each of these states is obvious when a close analysis takes place of the steps that the student takes and opportunities to provide interventions which could have been developed to counter each of them.

The rather alarming fact that the largest declines of students occur in the primary school. It seems inevitable that students arriving at secondary school are a rather skewed group.

Is it no wonder that the largest group of school leavers are those who are completely disengaging from further education and training they are heading to the couch they might simply be finishing off a slide downwards that started in an earlier life in education. Is this the time for a wake-up call?


[i] Ministry of Education (2006) “Staying at school consultation report,” Education Counts, Wellington.

[ii] Ministry of Education (2018) “Staying at school report”. Education Counts, Wellington

It all adds up!

A parent made an interesting comment to me recently concerning the availability of information for parents about progress with basic core subjects suggesting that its is a little patchy.

He suggested that as parents they were getting a lot of information about Language, Literacy and Social Skills but they faced a troubling dearth of information about Maths. It seemed to them that Maths was as least as important as those other subjects but the relative silence about Maths simply continues.

Some years ago, when changes occurred to the way Maths was taught, there may have been some willingness to sheet the blame (but no justification) that parents took the blame for this as a pedagogy new to them had replaced, it seemed, the ways of former days. But that is wearing thin after so many years of the current Maths pedagogy – indeed many millennial parents had been taught New Maths in much the same way as their little ones. Perhaps the once held view that because of the changes made to the curriculum parents were in a disadvantaged position to provide support for homework and had seemingly resulted in little homework in Maths coming home with the lunch box – but this did not seem to be the case with Language and Literacy which came home in abundance.

As the focus of experts swings towards addressing the issues of this important core subject and of arresting the decline in standards of Maths achievement in international comparisons there could be some answers in the ways in which primary students engage with Maths and the levels of excitement (or otherwise) of their early learning. I hear too often the complaint for students such as “I am not very good at Maths, I don’t like it!” And just as often I have been told by parents: “I was never any good at Maths!” as if the parents should be handing down being adept at Maths in the package of Maths with the inheritance of good looks and boistrous energy.

So clearly there is some work for The Experts Group to get on with.

I offer the following guidance for the experts:

  • Develop ways of engaging parents and caregivers in their roles in giving Maths a life-out-of-school.
  • Address the preparedness of teachers in pre-service to teach Maths and supplement this with regular nourishment in their own engagement as professional Maths teachers.
  • Give Mathematics a new image which sees it as a central life skill rather then for those who are “bright” and have a carefully considered modulation to approaches into the teaching of Maths for different careers.
  • To achieve the above, engage with top leaders in business and industry and commerce to develop an understanding of what Maths skills are required by which careers and when.
  • Create an enthusiasm for Maths that takes it out of the protected species spot that it currently inhabits.

This last suggestion could be the most important one. There is clear evidence that when the penny drops about the importance for learning Maths to one’s future, engagement and learning are triggered. For the second and last time I note that students have no appetite for learning Mathematics for no obvious reason. This should not be seen as a criticism of the high-level academic curriculum nor the disciplines of Maths which are theoretical, for all of which there is a time and place.