Archive for Education


New Zealand education has a cute capacity for explaining some ugly features. The latest is to blame COVID/OMICRON for the failure of students to return to school after the lockdowns and disruption of the past several years. It sounds convincing but face facts – declining school attendance has been a feature for quite some time. It’s not new! We have known this but declined to accept it.

In the first decade of this millennium, I used to make speeches that included warning that students were dropping out of secondary school at rates approaching 20% of each cohort and over time this had become a stubborn statistic. It was a growing feature of secondary schools but was not unknown in primary levels – it appears now to hav seeped well across the whole system and 20% has increased to 40% – the compulsory sector has become optional!

By the 2020’s, levels of absenteeism were increasing at all levels with schools and the government were challenged to find ways of arresting this. Recent reports showed that regular student attendance declined to 58%, down 6 percentage points following a brief period of stability in 2018 (64%). This means that around 40% of all students did not attend more than 90% of their available class time.

A lack of attention to managing transitions across levels was resulting in gaps in academic preparation and training. It was becoming more and more problematic as increasing numbers of students were presenting themselves ill-prepared and well behind in their academic development, They were ill-prepared for successive transitions. This was a recurring issue for students starting at both secondary school and when starting a post-secondary qualification.

The number of NEETs (Not in Education, Employment or Training) continued to creep up on educators. A new realisation was dawning that the growth of NEETs was an outcome of the performance of the schooling systems and their increasing inability to teach the full range of students. To be fair, some of this was exacerbated by social factors added to the load for schools.

Secondary students were staying longer at school. The old Turn-16-and-Celebrate-by-Getting-a-Job was no longer the custom. This was despite the evidence that extending the length of compulsory schooling and encouraging students to stay longer in conventional schools, repeatedly failed to have impact on outcomes.

The culmination of these factors – absenteeism, failure to manage transitions, the growth of NEETs, staying at school longer regardless of outcomes – has created a significant problem triggered to an inescapable level by a pandemic. But this mix of factors has seen a pattern of an increase in the number of dropouts which might have become hard-wired into the educational and skill landscape.

Analysis of school leavers’ destinations in Auckland, just before the pandemic, showed that “going nowhere” constituted the largest group of secondary school leavers. It could be that schools will have somewhat radically altered the way they work as it might not be that case that returning to school is unpalatable. Rather, what galls students faced with going back to school might be the programmes that they had faced, the ways learning was structured, and the general culture of NZ high schools. The gap and its enforced time out of school might just have been enough to encourage the reported trend among some students to not return but to seek employment.

This might not be only the encouragement of parent but a signal that they feel ready prepared to make this move. The system might be wise to consider this and their response to it. It could be that significant numbers of learners are sending the message that they are having to stay at school past the point where school seems useful and perhaps even bearable.

Now, the issues of primary school absenteeism is a different kettle of fish entirely.

Finally the penny has dropped – lit’racy has gong to the drogs

It is a simple truth that you learn to read by reading. It is also a truth that you learn to write by reading. For decades both have been ignored in school to the extent that this most useful subject, most important skill, and most important mark of a good education has been unable to exert itself into the school curriculum in an adequate manner
In the 1970’s and into the 1980’s adults who should have known better preferred to waste tine that rightly belonged to learners with the Phonics v. Ready-to-Read Debates. We have always known that both were essential. Students who simply bark at the print are denied the fact that learners get meaning from print by bringing meaning to print etc. Rich experiences in the home and the school are the fuel that feeds these fires. Stand back and think about that and you will also catch a glimpse of why some learners learn more easily than others.
And the material which is put in front of learners need not always be flash and ghee whiz! I have a modest collection of School Journals, going well back, and believe me – some of the material put in front of students in all decades was very ordinary. But there was also fiction and non-fiction of high quality, written by New Zealand’s most respected writers that provided a diet that was requiring all kinds of genre, all levels of difficulty and so readers were able to built a set of gears that they could harness and bring into use for reading a healthy range of reading using the different gear that have been developed.
Like everyone else, I was fed a series of readers at school (dutifully carried home in our little reading folders) which in our house were read numerous times. Some of those readers were an English version called Janet and John, it was a copy from an American series called Alice and Jerry.
School Readers were sometimes the cause for debate and hot demands for action from the officials. One such was the Washday at the Pa controversy. A special edition reader was a photographic booklet by Ans Westra, one of our best photographers, that focused on life among the communities of the East Cape. The book was launched on the morning of a conference in Wellington and immediately drew fierce complaints from the conference delegates. Children should not see such stuff. Stuff which honestly was a sensitive portrayal of the realities of real life in those communities. All copies were burnt overnight. The reaction was more measured on another occasion when a Ready-to-Read journal had a story about a Pakeha family who had trooped out to the airport to wave Daddy goodbye as he headed to Wellington in the Viscount Aircraft to attend a meeting – oh so middle class! New Zealand had a tendency to ban material as Alister Taylor discovered when the The Little Red Schoolbook appeared in schools!!
My mother took the view that “The stuff the boys read. Well, what we understood would do us no hard and the stuff we didn’t understand would also do us no harm.” This was a pretty safe bet in a Presbyterian home!
Thank goodness reading and writing (and mathematics) is at long last to be centre stage. Many learners will have withstood the absence for too long through the drought of instruction in those critical skill areas.

New Curriculum : The Road Ahead

Back in the halcyon days of schooling in the 50’s and the sixties what the History we had was driven by the Second World War and such events as rationing, the Spanish ‘Flu (Grandad died) and our proud success in converting grass to food.
Then, in intermediate school and the high school, we never got past the central North Island with the blow-by-blow accounts of the development of the set of power stations on the Waikato River, a feat shadowed only by the main line railway which died somewhere in the King Country when the social studies teachers ran out of steam.
What is a significant and long awaited development in New Zealand Education is the recent launch of the New Zealand Aotearoa Curriculum Refresh – full of better than good expectation with its hint of change and not the usual confidence and patter that perhaps promised difference in what will be developed.
The promise is that this next four years will take us to a place that, frankly, we should have reached long ago. T S Eliot got it right:

“What we call the beginning is often the end
And to make and end is to make a beginning.
The end is where we start from…
And the end of our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.”

(Little Gidding)

The goals are clear:
(1) Honouring our mutual obligations to and through Te Tiriti o Waitangi.
(2) Creating a curriculum which is inclusive so that all ākonga see themselves and succeed in their learning.
(3) Making sure “The New Zealand Curriculum” is clear about the learning that matters.
(4) Making sure The New Zealand Curriculum is easy to use for teachers.)

I guess these four things need to be said but they are simply no-brainers. The first must address the shameful gaps of the past while the second is a faint hope if the picture they are asked to see themselves in lacks a strong frame. The clarity in expressing the learning students need to learn (something which has for too long escaped the complexity of educational process) is the key question. Ease of usability for teacher. I have doubts about this last one – if it means clarity, OK, if it means accessibility for Parents and caregivers, OK, if it means that students will learn, OK.
But if it means diluted curriculum then the scrutiny of who does the refresh must be rigorous? The collective educational community has brought the system to where it is now. What “refreshment” will be required for them before they start and as they go though the development process. How will teacher and all involved not only be refreshed but also be capable of refreshing their thinking and recognising the elements of the refreshed curriculum as it emerges.

That will be the tough part of all this. That is why Charles M. Payne persists with his mantra – So Much Reform – So Little Change!

One of Philanthropy’s Best Kept Secrets

There is in Auckland a wonderful opportunity for students who are about to leave school to apply for a scholarship that will provide a grant of $25,000 dollars towards the costs of their initial years of study at a university.
The unique feature is that the students who benefit from this great assistance will benefit from the grant with few strings attached other than an expectation that the student will apply themselves to succeed. They will have already proved that success is the given outcome through their demonstration throughout their school years. They will have achieved through over coming adversity, been outstanding scholars and shown superb leadership at their school and in the wider community.
The grant is not compromised by the institutions which often make what is styled as significant sums of money creating gasps from the students at prize giving but which are in effect grants through money in kind – accommodation, course costs, and so on.
The Sir George Elliot Charitable Trust was founded in 1956, the year of the death of Sir George Elliot who was a businessman with a stellar career in different parts of the country including several long stints as Chair of the Reserve Bank in Wellington. He was also the President of the Auckland Exhibition, a most successful event in 1913 thanks to his guiding hand.
The link with education had always been there. He was a stalwart supporter of St Kentigern and St Cuthbert’s donating substantial sums of to both schools and indeed the donation to St Kentigern, which was made anonymously, allowed the school to proceed with its establishment.
The Sir George Elliot Trust in 2000 set up the scholarship, $25,000 for three students who met the criteria – achievement through adversity, exemplary academic standards, and clear leadership in both their school and their community. Twenty-two years later the trust can be proud of the 70 students that have passed through the programme. Many are now in mid-career, and all are fulfilling the confidence that that the Trust members have in each of the successful awardees, confident in the quality of the scholars.
Seventy scholars have either been through or are still in the programme. As those who start the journey when school leavers build on the qualities recognised by the award and continue to demonstrate the capability to give effect to their early promise.
A rather nice touch is brought to the programme each year since its inception by the involvement of the Governor General of the day in sponsoring a function at Government House, Auckland. They are joined by the awardee’s Principals who receive a grant of $500 for the library to mark the contribution made to the awardees earlier education which brought them to the threshold of a Sir George Elliot Tertiary Scholarship and the opportunities that go with it.
Giving does not need to be surrounded by brash publicity.

Let’s Hear it for the Educators

Sometimes teachers are asked to bring an unruly child into line and this usually means dealing with a degree totally unreasonable behaviour, mixed with recalcitrance topped off with a generous dollop of a degree of total self-centred behaviour. None of it is usually reasonable nor is there any understanding that you simply cannot run a school with this kind of unruliness. I used to give such rare displays of temper and indolence a bit of rope and when I came to see that such behaviour is also irrational and the umpteenth aggressive challenge of “Why should I…….? do whatever is being requested would be met from me with “Well it is really a simple case that I am the principal, and you are in Year 8.”

But I am going to have to re-consider my strategy after the exhibition of the gathered people in the grounds of Parliament Buildings. Clearly the behaviours that we would once have called childish, arrogant and selfish are OK. Stopping the good students from working with the teacher and seemingly they would rather work against them, instead of with them.

Overall students are more reasonable that that. Schools that work alongside their students enjoy an atmosphere that is collegial by and large. Many a school has built a structure that involves the students who respond in a reasonable manner adding the value of their ideas and enthusiasms. And during the various iterations of Covit school students have demonstrated impeccable behaviour. This has been supported by teacher displaying a commitment to their profession at a time when it would have been easy to give up.

In the previous endemics that education has had to deal with, teachers have stood out with keeping the programmes moving along. That tradition has for the most part been maintained. And that applies to all sector – early childhood, primary, secondary and tertiary.

We would do well to pause and consider the great good fortune that teachers and educators, and those working to keep the education system going. bring with them each day of the year.

Yes, changes have been necessary – new ways of programme delivery for instance, the places where instruction takes place, the role of parents, and so on. It is hoped that the system considers these and build on the best of them.

The Honour that keeps on Giving

I was astounded when the letter arrived from Parliament Building advising that I was to be promoted from the rank of Officer of the New Zealand Order of Merit to the next rank – Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit. Once is a big thrill, twice is unimaginable.
But I don’t want to talk about all that. I want to spend a few moments to reflect on the congratulatory comments and thanks. Of course, the honour is focused on a single person but that must not be allowed to hide the fact that the thrill is a great personal one but the it resounds across many many people.
At one point I shared the firmly held belief that I have talked about for many years. That is the conviction that we can not achieve anything on our own and that the best of our work is when we allow things to see the things achieved through collaboration. At the school level the best teachers work collaborative with other teacher, with students, across the wide compass of activity. I used to point out, often on the last assembly of the year when I was in full verbal flight, how important students doing great things are rewarded with what leads to schools claiming being able to claim greatness.
I have had the pleasure of ideas catching the wind and moving faster than I could and further than I could have imagined. One very special example of this was the idea, cooked up on the leafy lawns of the University of California at Berkeley to be served up as soon as I was back home. It was the simple belief that all students could succeed if we caught then early enough and excited them enough and opened their eyes to the offerings that are waiting for them. Now this was a big bite to take and swallow.
Over the course of 2009 the numbers who gathered around the idea. The then Secretary for Education, Dame Karen Sewell, put several of the top MOE officers to see how far the ideas would stretch and gradually the ground shifted from What! to How? Teachers, school trustees, parents, Members of Parliament, Cabinet Ministers and students all started to think collaboratively and collectively – realising that opportunities that appear only exist when actions follow! New Zealand education had something of a reputation once summed this up in the witticism that “The road to Hell was paved with wisdom and failed education programmes.”
There are many times in my career that I have experienced the joy of collaborative action but fewer opportunities to adequately embrace the educators who saw wisdom in getting on board and build the future – I would like to think that all those messages that I received were written in the spirit of collaborative action.

EDTalkNZ’s Greatest Hits

The Beatles did it so it seemed like a good idea, at the start of the year, to reflect on the blogs that have been the most read, having the greatest number of visitors. EdTalkNZ has posted 186 blogs after picking up the role when APN Educational Media ceased to publish the New Zealand Education Review which carried the The Last Page column for a number of years (around 225 columns). So here we go the 10 most popular blogs from EdTalkNZ in 2021.

You can click the links or log on to to access the library.

EdTalkNZ’s Greatest Hits 2021

1. NCEA must not be Distorted

Published: 14/06/2019

So NCEA is to undergo a major review and guess what, the end point of all this fuss will look more like the past than the future! For instance, there is to be a renewed focus on subjects…

2. It was the heading that caught my Eye

Published 30/09/2021

It was inevitable that the urgency to get people vaccinated would reach the schools. This is no new step, schools have a long, honourable, and successful relationship with vaccinations…

3. We’ve got the Apples but not the Teachers

Published 26/07/2021

The Government’s solution to the apparent teacher shortage is to increase their engagement in Covid-Roulette by opening the borders to 300 teachers from overseas…

4. Ten Years: Opportunity of Sentence

Published: 18/20/2021

Ten years is a very long time. Calculate the numbers of Māori and Pasifika students who face the provision of programmes that have been declared as failing in terms of equity and therefore access to a sound tertiary programme…

5. Happy New Year!

Published: 21/01/2021

As thousands of school students, school leavers and tertiary students face the challenges of a new start to new places and new levels of learning it is an anxious time…

6. Well done Minister! You’ve done it again!

Published: 14/11/2020

Those struggling to conclude the review of NCEA have been shown the way by Minister Hipkins who has a practical and student-oriented understanding of the way NCEA works and the value that it brings in its current shape to many students…

7. At Last NZ’s Dirty Big Secret is out

Published: 09/07/2021

At last, the dirty secret that education has by and large brushed over is to be brought into the open with a serious review of absenteeism in the school system. All power to their arm…

8. Covid or Coffee ; The Lowdown on Lockdown

Published: 06/09/2021

Where did this mania for drinking coffee come from! It seems to be to the middle classes and the rich what Kentucky Fried is to the great unwashed. It’s nuts. Well. Quite literally…

(NOTE: The Greatest Hits were compiled using the data on number of reads – the No. 1 is a Golden Oldie from 2019 with in excess of 9,000 “hits” technically speaking. The lowest level in the list scored 500 hits!)

For Auld Lang Syne, Bits of Coal and lots of Blarney

We were brought up, my brothers and I, to believe that we were Scottish to the extent that we would practise the ritual of first footing. Armed with liquor (the only time of the year please note), the family would procesh with small gifts and pieces of coal to visit neighbours and friends to first foot by leaving a gift and a piece of coal.

We could all do Scottish Country dances and what a thrill it was to dance with my Mum when she was at an advanced age. My father was a piper in New Zealand’s best Pipe Band – the Hamilton Caledonian Pipe Band. In both 1946 and 1947 they were the “A Grade Champions of New Zealand and well into the 1950’s we would go into a respectful silence when on the Sunday Request Session on 1ZH when the request for the Hamilton Caledonian Pipe Band performance in the quickstep march competition was completed to absolute perfection – 100 yards completed in 120 steps to the exact inch.A commentary accompanied this and rose in pitch and volume as the march was completed – imagine the end of a F1 Race, or the All Blacks scoring.

Well, in fact, we were only half-Scottish, the rest was Irish. That side of the family came from a young man who lived in a village called Ballingarry in County Limerick, Ireland, to be followed by two years later by a young woman who lived in the village of County Tipperary. They never knew each other in Ireland but married in New Zealand and they became prominent is local government and the hotel trade in the South Island.

Looking back I can see tinges of some tense opinions that the Scots in the North Island had of those from the orange sunset! Values and principles are set at a pretty young age. Secure in a set of beliefs and prominent among the values and behaviours of service and respect of others are paramount.

On Another Note

MIT started a project in Tonga in 2013 introducing the Certificate in Technical and Vocational Skills. Essentially this was a version of the Secondary/Tertiary Programme pioneered by the early trades academy programmes. The statistics are impressive. In 2021, 17 high schools delivered the programmes to a total of 767 students. 259 students graduated with the full programme while a number passed sufficient curriculum parts to qualify for entry to the Tonga Institute of Science and Technology. This programme, supported by NZ MFAT, has led to a doubling of the numbers of young students entering tertiary technical and vocational education.

Have a respectful Christmas and a Happy New Year.

The Detritus of Colonialism

I was in a meeting in Wellington thoroughly enjoying the harangue directed at the collected Vice- Chancellors of NZ by the Prime Minister David Lange – it was the famous occasion on which the VC’s, spread across the front row and collectively attempted to demolish Lange’s plans for reforms only to be beaten down by the Prime Minister who boomed out “I’m not afraid of you, you’re just a gang of bikies in suits!”

I remember this because just after that an official from the Department (I think it was just before Tomorrow’s Schools elevated education to a Ministry), awkwardly shuffled up the row I was seated in to say he needed to talk with me, right now. I had no idea what it was about or who he was.

It turned out that he was an official from Education who was responsible for liaison with Foreign Affairs and his request was an off to me to take up a contract to go up to the Solomon Islands as the New Zealand English Consultant – three weeks that were to introduce me to the Solomons and start a six-year period of my life that saw me up there two or three times each year. “What were the expectations as to outcomes?” I ask.  “See what seems useful once you are there – they haven’t a consultant for a few years and we have some money, enough for two visits this year,” I am told.

The key event of the visit was a weeklong meeting of all the English teachers in the Solomons held in the middle week of the three-week period to give the government time to collect them all from the outlying islands and deliver them back for the next term – a vast undertaking for a fleet of rather small boats. When they gathered and I was able to meet them, they turned out to be a group of keen and dedicated teachers – native teachers, ex-patriots, young and pld, a group of teachers of wide dispositions. Some were missionaries, some were highly trained citizens, some were very young indeed – most had been working with few resources and with not much guidance. It was a privilege to undertake this assignment.

The islands of Malaita and Guadalcanal had both been hit seriously by Cyclone Namu some months earlier. Damage was severe, especially the coastal roads that ran alongside the ocean and therefore were positioned close to the water’s edge. The officials wished to have me see as much as possible and that led to a request that I make a visit to Malaita to be a special guest at a Prizegiving that Namu had made impossible to hold earlier. This was to be somewhat difficult logistically and involved a flight – leaving Henderson Field (a famous airfield in the Pacific War) at one end, and at the other landing on a small strip that went from one beach across the island to a beach across the island to the other side. There then followed a fifteen-hour canoe trip in a fibre glass boat/canoe driven by a teacher who went on to be a significant academic in New Zealand, Professor Kabini Sanga. I was nervous about this especially when Kabini slowed the open boats down to throughfully tell me that “We usually see sharks around about here.”

Over years when I was engaged with the Solomons, I enjoyed opportunity and excitement. 

It pains me greatly to see the suffering that they must now endure and wonder why for the second time in their recent past that they have felt the need to take extreme measures to reconcile the disparate factions and views of people who are drawn into a country mostly by the pen of some British diplomat who had decided that this long straggling chain of islands would be one country! 

O returning to my day job in New Zealand (training English teachers exhorted the students who were heading to teach English to consider not  teaching the book that was A Pattern of Islands, Arthur Grimble’s story of his time in the Gilbert and Ellis Islands. These islands are now called Kiribati and Tuvalu. And did you know that the movie South Pacific (1958) was based on the Rodgers and Hammerstein (1949) musical which in turn was loosely based around James A. Michener (1947) short story collection Tales of the South Pacific. As T.S.Eliot said – “Human Kind cannot bear very much reality.”

I can’t help thinking that different ethnicities need to be left to work in their own ways, a visit from a consultant doesn’t really solve it.

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!