Let’s be honest! The School Bus is pointed in the wrong direction!

There has been much eloquence as a succession of school leaders sought to explain the grotesque level of absenteeism in the schooling sector. But it is hard to explain the inexplicable to parents and taxpayers and those who employ young people.

It beggars belief that these levels of wilful disobedience and disregard for the law have grown to such proportions. I can only conclude that the answer lies in what happens at school.

If students found school to be engaging, if they engaged with the programmes rather than disengaging, if they saw pathways opening up to future careers, if they could respect their parents…. And so on….. but there is a crying need for things to be different.

Over the past 50 or so years, some bad decisions have been made. In the 1990s there was a high escalation in the numbers of students staying in the secondary school. From having about 12.5% of the cohort staying in secondary school for 5 years, the number in a decade exploded to 65.0%. But the development of appropriate programmes lagged. Staying longer in school did not promote better results! More is more, not better.

From about the same time, secondary schools progressively turned their backs on Vocational and Technical subjects to concentrate on the academic pathway which was good for some and disastrous for many. Consider the success of trades academies where secondary students step outside the school to engage in vocational and technical education. The programmes speak for themselves – when the hands are brought into use the brain engages to great effect. But it goes deeper than this. 

Research tells a rather sad story. Now, in my view, the students who are finding success in the trade’s academies are probably a little over-enthusiastic about that experience in the tertiary environment and a little understated in their reflections when comparing their school experience. Students tell me that in the trades academy they always know why they are learning that skill or grappling with this piece of knowledge. By contrast and for many, schooling is one for no obvious reason. 

Students want to have reassurance about the pathways that they are encountering – they know that the line of sight to a career and a job matters. But the Vocational Pathways tool which promised much seems to have been somewhat side-lined.

New Zealand was slow to engage with the issues of NEETs – those in the 15-24 years old who are not in education, employment or training crept up and were well and truly established before the phenomenon demanded a response (which came in 2007). They have proved to be remarkably resistant to a lasting solution.

And this is largely the same reason that truancy initiatives have largely failed, why disengagement still haunts the statistics of student outcomes, and why 13 years of schooling seems to be insufficient for too many.

Granted that change in schools is damnably difficult. Given that Charles Payne was right to conclude that when it comes to education it is a sad and sorry picture of “So much reform: So little change.”

Must making a difference be beyond us? 

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