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Month: November 2021

A Nice Clear Educational Approach

NCEA this week started its external examinations in a collaborative spirit that has been something of a hallmark over the past two years. Students have had various concessions that acknowledge that once again this has been an unusual year – additional credits, extensions to some of the deadlines, adjustment to the external examination timetable and so on. 

It has always been the case that those in charge of the end-of-year students assessment experiences will do in a humane manner – which simply treat the students fairly both in the previous examination system (still practised by a few) and the newer NCEA standards based assessment. There have always been processes and procedures to see that when something goes wrong, students are treated fairly and are not punished especially when the blame for something is not their fault – and things do happen! In the days of external examinations for UE and for Bursary I was called on in my role as Chief Examiner to arbitrate when some event or action would have resulted in a student being treated unfairly. Such interventions usually involved the school, the NZQA people and the Examiners.

It is a little disappointing for some of the reports of this year’s arrangements to be tainted a little in a couple of media stories to imply that the ability to choose the higher mark between that achieved by the student in work completed under unusual Covid conditions and that achieved by sitting an external examination is somehow dodgy. This approach is greatly acceptable in my understanding of standards-based assessment, the goal is to assess whether the student can demonstrate their understanding of requirements of a standard and allowing for multiple attempts to do just that is totally proper.

It mirrors the assessments for a NZ Drivers Licence with its multiple permissible attempts to reach the requisite standard. As a Justice of the Peace, I sit a test that accredits me as a Justice of the Peace that is an “Accredited Justice”. In fact, that test has built into it a process for re-sitting any parts which were not met in the original test. This is good assessment process. 

The finer adjustment made for NCEA, further awarding a level marks performance as passes with “Achieved,” “Merit,”or “Excellence” raises an issue and that is while the names of the levels are clear, the point at which a pass moves, for instance, from “achieved” to “Merit” or from “Merit to “Excellence” difficult to pinpoint. Lets call this the NAME sequence.

The same issue in a different context: A Rugby referee is required to control three movements in order to get a scrum going – bending down, getting grip on the row ahead, and finally, full tilt engagement with the opposing side.  A decade or so ago the mantra for getting a scrum under way was changed “Crouch” “Touch” (pause) “En-gage”. But this still led to scappy scrums especially with scum getting into their business too early. I contend that the root cause was the two-syllable word “en-gage” which was hopeless and sloppy as a command. They changed the commands to “Crouch!” “Bind” and “Set” with its sharp crack of a word to finally get the scrum under way (which seemed to work well for the Irish and the French). The difference between “engage” and “set” is clear.

It is a wonderful truth that in the English Language words are supple and they don’t occupy a sharp point but rather share a continuum with other words – “Not Achieved” moves into “Achieved” moves into “Merit” moves into “Excellence” which completes the cycle. Each word commands a space in meaning which rubs up against and even on to some of the space fits neighbours, above and below. 

There is never going to be pin-point precision with the NAME sequence. Language doesn’t work like that. The solution is perhaps to have a “Not Achieved / “Achieved” rubric – the AA sequence.  “Engage” was inappropriate for scrums – it was change it to “Set”. The NAME sequence is similarly unfit for purpose – change it to Not Achieved/Achieved. This would meet the requirements of the a standards-based assessment regime.

The use of the NAME sequence was introduced to get NCEA accepted by examinations that had 100 points in the sequence and exams were produced that could differentiate between each of the 100 points – I think not!

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Covid – It’s not just us

It was a small In Memoriam notice tucked away in the Family Notices section of the NZ Herald  on the morning of 12 November this year that caught my eye….


Choi-Mei (nee Lum)

Of Newmarket

Passed  away on  12 November

1918 of Spanish influenza. Born

1888 in Canton, beloved wife etc…….

……and so continued a tribute from a family to a clearly loved Mother.

My Grand-Father also passed away in 1918, another victim of the Spanish Influenza. Herbert (Bert) Samuel Cameron was 62 years of age and was a Railway Guard who worked at Helensville and Frankton Junction. My mother, his only daughter, would talk lovingly and at some length about her father. He was a talented man who painted quite passable pictures in oil, he wrote long letters to family and friends in rhyming verse in the style of the Australian verse tradition. His death left a family of a widow, two sons and a daughter.

Mum also spoke of the horror of his passing, the steady loss of ability for him to take food and the reliance on a piece of hose pipe to quench a thirst. Of course, this was around the end of World War One, people were coping with more than just an epidemic. 100.000 men had been sent overseas and 16,700 were killed in the war. The epidemic took a further 5,516. But as one commentator described “Mortality in war and epidemic fostered a caring side of NZ Society. The country respected hard work, upheld law and order and practised the tenet charity began at home and believed that kindness matter.

There was also another story that was related to us on many occasions. A young nurse, Hilda Ross, was a regular visitor to the Cameron house to administer aid to the epidemic ill. She would bring quantities of food to help the family in addition to the medical duties she attended to. Until the day  my mother died she spoke of the humane and heroic patience that Hilda Ross displayed. She was destined to later stand for parliament and was the first women Minister in the first National Cabinet.

The cures then seem primitive by our standards now with vaccinations, and hospital care. Being lined up in the street to have a disinfectant sprayed into your mouth and down your throat.

Some questions. Who will emerge from the community as heroes in this epidemic? When snapshot descriptions of the values and qualities shown are crafted what will those questions and values be? How will sectors stand up and be measured? And will charity be seen to have started at home and did kindness matter?

I was reminded that a world epidemic, Canton or Frankton – it’s grief across the globe.

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Mr Moleskine and Me

I had been in Samoa in 2008 and, business finished, we were waiting at the Market in Savai’i for the ferry to take us back to Upolo when my phone rang. It was a one of the private secretaries for Rt Hon Helen Clark. He advised me that in a week’s time she would be announcing that the government was making a grant of $1,000,000 for the development of the Tertiary High School. 

“OK” I thought, it looks as if it is all going ahead for an exciting development. I had better start keeping good notes. I resolved that I would buy a Moleskine Notebook when I got back home. Well, 27 Moleskine notebooks and 23 years later I cleaned out the cupboard and lined them up in order. Of course, you start thumbing through them and being distracted from the reason I had gone to the cupboard in the first place.

The first entry that in the first notebook was a set of notes for what looks like at talk to be given to a 3UA meeting on the state of technical education. I started by claiming, and remember this was 2008, that we had lost a quarter of a century of opportunity and the futures of young people had been hit hard by the lost sense of responsibility that business once had for their involvement in the training and education of young people into the trades. Yes, some of it had been informal – “Yes lad, go and sit over there with TED and he will show you the ropes!” But the inducting of young people was often taken more seriously and was an effective transition into more formal education and training. Night school was also key component in this but as polytechnics opened the schools tended to drop industrial arts and night schools became recreational – important as that was the impact of technical education migrating to the daylight meant that quite a number especially of young people and older people looking to change jobs were denied the opportunity to both earn and learn.

It all comes back to me now as I write, this was a talk to the Remuera Branch of the University of the Third Age. I recall that I was into a riff on unintended consequences. By the mid-seventies the David Lange’s government was dismantling the government institutions that happened to contribute strongly to technical and vocational areas – NZ Railways, the Post Office, the Ministry of Works, the Power Boards, – at that point in the meeting, Hon. Bob Tizard interrupted me to claim that 80% of the apprenticeships were lost in that political process. And he reminded me that the Māori Trades Training which had been so successful was also had been disappearing.

Back in the 1980’s I was teaching trainees to teach and part of my responsibility was to teach 30 woodwork teachers and 30 metalwork teachers – yes, it seems that engagement with learners at a lower level had a demand still in the schools and I can vouch that the polytechnics were teaching general courses. I taught an AAVA a compulsory course in which everyone has to produces a report on the “rip-snorter saw”. Streams of secondary students heading into technical and vocational pathways had got a great start to their apprenticeship! 

These were halcyon for entry into trades. I taught at Papatoetoe near the Otahuhu Railway Workshops. In the 1970’s they would each year be recruiting 60 apprentices from the two local secondary schools.

Now another new future is about to emerge as Pukenga picks up the reigns of responsibility for Technical and Vocational Training in a coordinated national framework, in a spirit of collaboration rather than competition, in harmony with the industries that polytechnic education serves and the communities it owes its living to. If this doesn’t come to pass, the back-up for change is the deadline for providers to improve outcomes for Māori and Pasifika – ten years and, I must say, it is a jolly generous timeframe. Go Now and Go Hard, I wish I could remember who it was that said this!

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Getting back to school: But also to a different place

There are mixed emotions for students around generating the enthusiasm that they need to return to school. On the one hand lessons at home have lost some of the gloss. It is hard for teachers to generate yet another and another wave of exciting distance activities and for parents and caregivers to exude the energy that teachers daily show. On the other hand, students I come across express a wide range of willingness and eagerness to get back to school – to see friends and familiar teachers.

There is also an overlay of concern coming from parents and caregivers, worries about their younger ones “missing their learning”.  I can understand that at a general level, but it is a little harder to know what they mean when you drill down. Is it specific to learning maths and numeracy? Or is it a feeling that school is where the young ones should be, and they aren’t there!

It is ironic that if it is this latter sentiment when you see the slide that attendance data has taken steadily downwards for quite a few years now. I saw some data recently that painted a clear picture of a decline in attendance across the board – all deciles shifting around with some lift in the higher decile schools (although still a long way from levels that would satisfy a highly performing schooling system) to a continuation of the slow but steady decline in attendance in the lower decile schools.

This is very troubling because it is this very lower-level slice of the population that arguably needs the most help in providing students with the tools that will see them performing well in their lives. It is in lifting performance in the lower decile schools that the entire education system will gradually pull itself up to the level of the education systems we are envious of.

But education seems to shy away from realising the need to lift performance – I am indeed pleased that doctors, dentists, and motor- mechanics can adopt attitudes that are based on sentiments such as “Hey, this isn’t good! Let’s do what we need to do and can do to sort it out!” There are several things that that can be done easily.

  • School lunches for everyone in lower decile schools is a no brainer as they say. Good nutrition leads to so many other good outcomes. 
  • The curriculum needs to be trimmed back to the essential skills that lead to high skills – this does not have to be a morbid procession of dullness. And the critical skills will make learning (and teaching) more enjoyable. Education should be a time of discovery and the thrills that come with achievement rather than glimpses of the mystery envelope.
  • Parents and caregivers must be included in the mix – there are things that can be done to help those who look after the young ones – we need learning communities that utilise the skills in those communities and harness the elements in the community to be involved – the churches, the marae, the community centres, older students helping younger ones, and everyone utilising the skills and knowledge that they carry with them.

It is going to take some effort for schools when they are asked to get the students back and into gear. This will require unenviable effort. But it will be worth it – the last thing we want to see is to have even more students opt out of what is not only the only road to a future but is in fact, a requirement under law.

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