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Category: Pathways

Trying to keep the baby in the bathwater having thrown out the bath!

A friend was cleaning out the cupboard the other day and came across a little publication from the Department of Education in Auckland dated 1967.  It was a school by school listing of the courses that they offered.  Apparently in those old days it was considered to be in the interests of parents and their children to have this information impartial and undiluted by the “marketing madness” that would get its grip on such a publication now.

It highlighted several things.

By and large secondary school back then offered far more choice to students than they do now (albeit that this is changing in some schools).  A reason for this was that students could chose from Year 11 to focus their schooling and they could even match this with a selection of options that got them onto the pathway.

Now, before people take to twitter to point out to me that this was in the BAD old days when students were STREAMED!  Well, let’s use the more neutral term “tracked”, no, let’s get right up to date and call them pathways, for that is what they were.  Students could see a pathway to skills, to employment (for there were jobs for all), to a family sustaining wage and if the schooling system was to do its work it should have been able to do so in the 10 years students spend up to the age of 15 (then) or 16 years.

We then faced the death of choice as the system became more and more devoted to the notion of the comprehensive high school.  This was a bizarre way of coping with difference by having all students do the same programme.  Another Department of Education publication puts it like this:

“The secondary schools, no longer selective, must now cater for students of widely differing skills, abilities and interests. The range is little narrower than in the adolescent population as a whole.  Much remains to be done before it can be said that the schools have completely adjusted their curricula and methods to the facts of this situation.”

This extract is from the Thomas Report, the work of the Committee established by the Minister of Education in 1942.  The style changes but not the basic issues.  The Thomas Report went on to reshape School Certificate that, in tune with the time internationally, was believed would be the school leaving qualification for most.

What strikes me is that the approved list of optional subjects for School Certificate included such subjects as:

Animal Husbandry

Applied Mechanics


Commercial Practice


Engineering shop work

Field Husbandry

Heat engines


Shorthand Typewriting

Technical Drawing

Technical Electricity


In short there was then, and it persisted into the late sixties and early seventies, a wide selection of what can be described as “vocational education and training.” 

The committee actually noted that it was “not exalting ‘general’ education at the expense of ‘vocational’ education and that it is now recognized that the antithesis is largely a false one.” 63 years ago they saw it but still the split between “academic” and “vocational” persists.

Percy Nunn got it right when he said….

To train someone in the tradition of these ancient occupations is to ensure … that they will throw themselves into their work with spirit, and with a zeal for mastery that teachers usually look for in the elect….a student’s whole intellectual vitality may be heightened, their sense of spiritual values quickened. In short, the vocational training may become in the strictest sense liberal.

He goes on to say….

To ignore this truth, to overlook the desire of the healthy adolescent to get to grips with reality, would be fatal. Indeed, the ‘general’ education of many students would have much greater significance to them if it was brought into a closer relationship with their strictly “vocational” studies.

The liberalisation of the school curriculum through multiple pathways, trades academies, options for vocational education and training at age 16 years and suchlike activity has a long history. The tragedy has been that it has taken close to seventy years for us to substantiate it.

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Sauce for the goose but not for the gander

It was clear in the fall-out from the reduction in the numbers of students gaining university entrance in the recent round of NCEA results that the changes to the rules were driven by several principles that are of themselves quite worthy.

The first is that students should study a narrower range of subjects in order to know more. Or put another way, knowledge is gained vertically rather than horizontally. It is clear that the universities have believed this right from the very introduction of a standards-based assessment system when the move towards credits was described as the process by which knowledge had been turned into intellectual finger food!

That was not entirely true but there may have been a whiff of truth in it. Certainly depth of knowledge was thought to be in danger when students were given the opportunity to study subjects that are outside of the standard academic canon.

The second principle is that there should be a set of approved subjects that would be acceptable in making up the university entrance qualification. The existence of such an academic canon was the result of hundreds of years of development of universities as places of privilege and so certain subjects were also privileged. Such a list of privileged subjects was promulgated by the University Grants Committee and indeed even School Certificate maintained that privilege by on the one hand pretending to be norm-referenced while on the other using a procedure called “group mean referencing” whereby subjects undertaken by “brighter” students were scaled to a produce a higher set of results.

Now the education system has, some time ago, debated what real subjects were. “Twilight Golf” never made the cut, meditation had no observable actions that could be assessed, and language CDs handed out in cafes were thought to have had too few demands on the students. No complaint about all that.

But the firm grip that such views have enjoyed has seen a distortion on what was valued in terms of pathways to an education and to later success. Gradually only the track to university was valued in the school system and the capability and capacity of schools to provide programmes in areas that would grab the attention of young students was allowed to atrophy. The bog standard “academic” diet was going to nourish all the students.

When now there is a call for students to have the opportunity to study subjects based on applied learning and to specialize in technical areas that require skill and knowledge in greater depth in order to pursue fulfilling and useful lives in the community, that the argument is put forward that what students need is a broad and general education.

Is there a contradiction here?


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Starting with the end in mind

The central most important question used be called the $64 question – it was the last question in the 1950s show Take It or Leave It. It was  the largest prize. Of course the term has inflated due to the ignorance of folk top its origin and now the most important question is typically said to be the $64,000 question.

Today we might well be asking one question and it really is attached to the number 64,000.

This year 64,000 students will start school and the question is “Where will they be in 13 years time – in 2028?” It is the finishing point rather than the starting point that is important.

We know that unless there are changes to the system, 13,440 of these starters will have dropped out of the race before they are sixteen years old, forget reaching Year 13. Perhaps 10-15% of those left are unlikely to have a platform from which they can head securely towards a great future. That’s another 5k – 7.5k. And so the story continues.

If the little ones joining the system today face an unchanged system that keeps on delivering the same then they will simply get the same results.

And they are not the only ones starting – many are starting secondary school for the first time –   that is a challenge. Many others are looking at NCEA results and wondering about whether they are going well, doing the right subjects, heading on a career path that they understand and want?

Where each single student ends up ought to be a consideration from the beginning of each and every year. Doing well at each end point is simply a sound basis for doing better at the next.

What better inspiration at the start of the year than to recall T S Eliot’s lines:

What we call the beginning is often the end

And to make an end is to make a beginning.

The end is where we start from.

A good school education is the largest prize!


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Being patient and getting results!

David Hargreaves once wrote a paper in which he compared education and medicine and expressed the view that education could learn quite a lot from that other discipline and the profession that practices it.

For the past six weeks I have been able to observe doctors and nurses going about their daily work in a number of settings in two hospitals as a Family Member embarked on a journey through a series of complications ranging from the serious to the not-so-serious as a sequel to a major operation. This has included such settings as specialist wards, general wards and two different intensive care units. So on the basis of this extensive “research and observation” I offer the following reflections.

It is clear that medicine is much more research driven than education. They bring the results of research into their decision-making, the tools they use and the procedures they apply. I saw no evidence of leeches being applied, blood being let for the sake of it or of poultices being randomly applied. Yet in education we continue to use practices that don’t work well past the time when evidence has made us aware of that.

Medicine bases what they do on careful and scientific observation (aided by incredible technologies it must be said). When they make assessments it is on the basis of evidence, what they see and know. Of course there is a role for experience, judgment and intuition. But all these attributes are applied in a controlled and measured manner.

And on that matter of technology – it is apparent at every level of the practice of medicine and it is clearly a wonderful tool that assists professionals to do their job. Do we have this orientation in education? Or do we too often think that the technology will do some or all of the job by itself. I forget who said that the teacher who thinks that technology can replace the teacher deserves to be. I saw technology being used to allow the skills of professionals to flourish.

Team work. I observed specialists from different disciplines working as multidisciplinary teams and wondered why this still challenges us in education. How often do we daily bring to bear the different skills-sets of different educational practitioners to bear on the issues of achieving positive results? Yes, occasionally but certainly not enough. In the intensive care units single nurses have high levels of personal responsibility for a patient but in close proximity are other nurses with similar responsibility for their patient. And when one needs help from the other it is easily and willingly there.

Instead we place teachers into settings where they are physically as well as professionally isolated. It is a difficult undertaking rather than an easy norm to achieve this level of team work balanced with individual responsibility in many education settings – in one it is the patient that benefits and in the other the student who must be patient!

Another area that impressed me was the relationship between the close family of the Family Member and the professionals. Even in the most troubling of moments those who cared greatly were made to feel welcome and even brought into the innermost sanctums of the workings of the hospital. Information was forthcoming, briefings given patiently and in terms we could understand. The well-being of not just the Family Member but the small group around him were a clear concern.

Why then must the educative processes be practiced at a relatively remote distance from the families and caregivers? It seems almost verboten for family members to get into classrooms or even past the front office. The orchestrated “report evenings” are offered as a morsel of consultation and attendance reported as something of a meaningful thing yet ongoing involvement of the closest group of the student is often denied. It seems neither good practice nor conducive of the best environment for learning that sees connections between home and school.

Finally – and this was a great joy of the past six weeks – the application of knowledge and training to the real world was apparent at every point. I work in an institution that trains nurses and they undertake clinical practice in the same hospitals that I visited so often. The trainees were identified by their logo on their trainees uniform and I have had many conversations with them. They expressed not only the pleasure their experiences were bringing to them and the helpfulness of them to their development but also an affirmation that they had made the right choice. They “loved it” and “really wanted to be a nurse” and were “really excited” that they were heading towards such a worthwhile job.

Gently questioning identified those who had trained and were now flying solo. Nurses of different experience including those out of training relatively recently were given real responsibilities and supported and supervised but real responsibilities nevertheless. We see this in young teachers. But do we have a joyful workforce? Are people in education the cheerleaders for education?

And the good news? Family Member is going home this week. There is a commonly held belief that when the chips are down the state health system is second to none. Can we say the same about our state education system?



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Renewed energy for the journey

The MIT Centre for Studies in Multiple Pathways in partnership with Ako Aotearoa has just finished its fourth annual National Symposium in Wellington. Over 200 educators gathered to continue their journey along Te Ara Whakamana, considering possible pathways, transitions and bridges from secondary education into tertiary education.

Flashback to Manukau Institute of Technology (MIT) in 2011 when the first gathering was held at MIT and 120 people got together to ask tentative questions related to the “new” policy setting of the “Youth Guarantee”, the approach to the new proposals for a more orderly view of NCEA credit that the Industry Training Federation had developed and called “Vocational Pathways”. The first secondary / tertiary programme in New Zealand, the MIT Tertiary High School, was up and running into its second year, and various academy programmes had started up.

MIT has established the Centre for Studies in Multiple Pathways to be a centre of excellence for discussion, development and advocacy of the ideas that would allow students to find new and different ways of moving seamlessly through secondary and on into tertiary education and training.

In particular, the initiatives were aimed at addressing the dysfunctional approaches to senior secondary schooling that saw too many students fail to achieve educational outcomes of which we could be proud and, to not put too fine a point on it, which were acceptable to a high-performing economy. And this in addition to the numbers of students that were dropping out of school prior to approaching the threshold for secondary education.

So the 2014 Symposium was a very different affair. Policy is in place, there was very little discussion and grizzling (as there had been back in 2011) about funding other than its lack of flexibility and reports were made on a wide range of successful new ways of working that were bringing success to some of those who had previously failed or perhaps more correctly, been failed.

An inspirational session came at the end of the second day when a team from Christchurch reported on developments that have arisen from the disruption and damage of the earthquakes. Working differently had become not only possible but also necessary – the old approaches would no longer be adequate nor would they have the urgency that was now needed. Key messages I took out of the session were: 

  •          It is possible to do something about what seem to be intractable problems. They took the dirty statistic of NEETs in Canterbury and by elimination reduced the numbers to produce a list of names. “From numbers to names to action” has been a call for action by Minister Hekia Parata for some time. The Key benefit of such an approach is that it gets the scale of an issue out into the light and able to be tackled.
  •          They showed that you manage transitions by doing something about them. Organizing the employment sector (manufacturing in this case) was a first step and then connecting that sector to those coming out of training programmes plugged the gaps.
  •          There is a high level of connected activity, one party addresses the issue of another party by adjusting the way they work. It is collaboration in practice.
  •          An idea that intrigued was the development of a Destinations passport that gave students a mechanism for systematically noting the ways in which they had developed the so-called soft skills that employers sought. No need to wait for schools to act, allow the students to use their real lives!
  •          There is a strong focus on evidence-based activity.

Trevor McIntyre leads much of this work and he issued a challenge to those present. What is your earthquake? Certainly there are many things that need a good shake up.

Steve Jobs always claimed that “the journey is the reward.” There is a group of educators in New Zealand that grows larger steadily that is on a journey to a place where students have access to equitable outcomes. Dr. Peter Coolbear, director of Ako Aotearoa, invited the symposium to consider the impact of the changes that were being discussed. In the four years since the symposium started, 14,000 students have engaged in a pathway that is different from a conventional track through the conventional school. 

I noted, in bringing the deliberations to a close, that a wide-spread adoption of a “multiple pathways” approach (“linked learning” it is being called in the US) could well be the means by which we address the issues of the bipolar education system and see equity matching achievement in our school system’s performance. 

Momentum is building.



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“…For the loser now will be later to win…”

Just back from Australia and it is interesting how such a visit brings perspective to issues and topics of interest.

I have been feeling for some time now that things are about to change, especially in the Anglo-Saxon countries which for 50 years have by and large got a lot wrong in education.

Three connected themes are emerging:

·         earlier access to quality career and technical education which brings about improvements in educational outcomes;

 ·         the questioning of the absolute dominance of the university-bound “academic” pathway both for its appropriateness for many students and for its insatiable appetite to absorb funding;

 ·         the need for reconsideration of current sector organization models of the education systems which are increasingly seen as a troubling block to lifting achievement.

Each of the Anglo-Saxon educations systems is now seeing an increase in the numbers of students gaining earlier access to career and technical education. The pathways schools in Canada, the university technical colleges in the UK, many academy / charter schools in the USA, initiatives in Australia and, of course, the youth guarantee stable of secondary/tertiary programmes in New Zealand are each examples of how the integration of sound and continuing academic preparation can not only be combined with but is in fact enhanced by a closer focus on postsecondary qualifications in career and technical areas at a younger age.

The Anglo-Saxons simply have to come clean – the experiment of comprehensive high schools proved to be neither comprehensive nor very successful. The result was a set of educational and employment outcomes that were inferior to those achieved by the schools they replaced. I think I want to reject the view that the development of the comprehensive high schools were essentially based on snobbery – Germany had a dual system of both academic and technical tracks, we beat them in the war, so the American Dream was born – college for all, equity of access to top universities and so on. Well it never happened. Schools lost their variety, pathways disappeared and the so-called academic university-bound track became dominant. Good for those it suited and always had, disastrous for the rest.

But it is not simply a return to what used to be offered to students in a diverse set of schooling options – academic, general, technical, commercial and other tracks which defined outcomes at the outset of secondary education. The new and refreshed approach is one of multiple pathways that are both academic and vocational, which have flexibility, which provide a clear direction with different people delivering programmes in different places and with multiple purposes for learning. So talking the old industrial arts facilities and programmes and organisation out of mothballs won’t be sufficient.

This development in no way undervalues the university-bound pathway – this pathway is also both academic and vocational for many. There is though likely to be a competition for resources as the performance of the education system encourages funders to see that a more equitable spread of funding is a good and necessary investment. This emerged a little in Australia last week. In working to “real identifiable work” the schools will be required to find a new level of flexibility.

“Our kids need to know trades and training are first class career options just like university – they shouldn’t be made to feel like they’re playing on the ‘B Team’ “ says Aussie Federal Asst Minister for Education Sussan Ley. She also sees the need for schools to be more flexible in programme delivery allowing for “real work experience” – the challenge as to what constitutes “being at school” and the “school day” are in the wings and yet to come.

That leads to the third issue – the challenges to the sector organization of schooling. The Catholic education system in Australia is getting ready to shift Year 7 (the equivalent of our Year 8) up to secondary schools in order to provide for a transition that comes at a better spot in the students’ pathway, allowing for a more coherent “junior” high school and therefore opening the way for increased flexibility in the “senior” secondary school.

It is still my view that New Zealand should be seriously discussing the benefits and issues of placing the senior high school (i.e. Years 11-13) into the tertiary sector – now there’s a big topic. Such a shift would allow New Zealand to consider the features of education systems that we admire and give to them a New Zealand flavor.

Are the times a’changin’? If they are then lets hope for more than hugs and bean bags this time round.


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There’s more than one way to reach the stars!

Rather than let off a few sky rockets on yet another silly day we remember, hard on the heels of that even sillier day called Halloween, I thought I would throw a few ideas up in the air as we head towards the end of the year. These are called game-changers. They would lift educational performance in New Zealand. We have known most of these for a long time but other things get in the way. On Thursday I will give a complementary list of show-stoppers.

Principals of secondary schools are welcome to use these lists as they put the final touches to their prize-giving addresses.

The “Game Changers” List

1. Access to early childhood education

It astounds me that in this rich country we still have uneven distribution of opportunity for early childhood education. I do not need to repeat the evidence, it is over whelming. And the lack of equity in the area is hidden by two factors – quirky gatherings of information about actual participation (likely to be lower than reported) and the evening out of statistics into regional and national figures.

A stark statistic: In the Tamaki suburb in Auckland there are 7,000 youngsters under the age of five and there are 2,000early childhood education places.

A quick but excellent fix: In areas of low participation, add an early childhood facility to each primary school – same Board, same management, shared outdoor facilities, great savings. Best of all, it would be goodbye to the entangling bureaucracy that surrounds the development of conventional centres.

2 Greater attention to basic skills in primary schools

I might be naïve but it is bizarre that in the country that led the world not only in reading performance but also in the teaching of reading that so many children fail to reach a safe standard in the eight years of primary schooling. The same can be said of mathematics (sometimes called numeracy). Add to the list the development of knowledge, social skills, preparedness for further education, and exposure to arts and practical skills all in a context of new technologies and you would have not only an interesting programme but one which didn’t place so many students on a trajectory of failure.

A stark fact: Students show a decline in learning in key areas between Year 4 and Year 8.

A quick but excellent fix: Demand that primary schools do less but that they do it to higher standards. The foundation skills are taught in primary schools. Isn’t it ironic that the term “foundation skills” has been transferred to the first several years of post-secondary education and training for those who have failed to accrue such skills and this is clearly too late.

3. See a clear distinction between junior and senior secondary schools.

Education systems that we admire and would wish to emulate invariably have a clear distinction between what is in New Zealand Year 10 and Year 11. The first two years of high school are years of finishing off the processes started in primary school and the preparation for discipline focussed study that is in a context of future employment. Years 11 and 13 in these overseas systems are clearly differentiated with the availability of clear vocational technical opportunities emerging to complement the university track (which is working well in New Zealand). In other words, young students have choices about their futures.

Another shared feature is that at that age students are credited with much greater maturity but also supported to a much greater degree. The style and organisation of schooling is more akin to a tertiary institution than to the primary schools from which the secondary schools evolved.

A stark statistic: By age 16 years 21% of 16 year olds have dropped out of New Zealand schooling system.

A quick but excellent fix:  Sorry folks, but there isn’t one. This area is where the most comprehensive reforms are needed. Put simply, apart from the track to university, the New Zealand senior secondary school is broken. That style of education no longer suits too many of our young people. Don’t despair – we share this with our sibling systems in Australia, the United States, the UK and most of Canada. WE need to look elsewhere for evidence of what works and then craft our own responses for our particular circumstances.

4 Cement the output of graduates from tertiary education to employment.

There needs to be a clear line of sight between tertiary programmes and employment. I know that the universities resist any such notion – I have been told by those who know that such a connection is not helpful – “We do not train people, we educate them.” Just think of it, all those untrained doctors, ophthalmologists, engineers, lawyers – what rubbish such a claim is.  And in light of the unrelenting marketing of universities as the place to secure a future, to get high earning powered positions it is simply not sense.

Tertiary education is expensive both for the taxpayer and for the students who are the sons and daughters of taxpayers. They have a right to know that their investment in education at a tertiary level be it at a university, an ITP, a PTE a Wananga or wherever will lead to a job. If a degree in business has prepared you to look after the valet parking desk at the airport (as was a case I came across recently) then it can only be concluded that the programme offered little in the way of access.

A stark statistic:  About one half of those who start a post-secondary qualification actually complete it.

A quick but excellent fix:  it seems as if we are drifting towards a situation where tertiary providers are to be held accountable for the progress into employment of their graduates. If this were applied to all levels and types of tertiary education it might well be a good thing. Of course it would have to be first accepted that a key purpose of post-secondary education and training is to get the appropriate job. This might also require a better connection between demand and supply in the labour market. Consideration of these a matters need to be sped up.

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There might be more than meets the eye!


I have been criticized plenty of times for suggesting that a key purpose of an education is to get a job. I have plenty of times put up with arguments about the higher purposes of schooling. I have even been told, with great seriousness, by the VC of a prestigious university that “We don’t train people, we educate them!”

Then dark clouds rolled in – we had a skills shortage, we had a mismatch between the labour market and the supply line from education providers. We had a growing sense of unease at the indicators that pointed to something of a perfect storm where Salt’s demographic faultline rumbled at the same time as the GFC (i.e. a recession for those not into TLAs) took hold.

There then developed a set of sideshows that risked turning education into something akin to a vaudeville show. Student / teacher ratios led the charge, then there was Novopay, then there was push back in Christchurch at offers of support to look at working in other ways that some other parts of the country might have welcomed (without, of course, the earthquakes that provoked them).

Meanwhile, without a fuss, the world had started to change. New programmes appeared that were more closely aligned to employment. Students started to move into these programmes at a younger age. No longer was a 15-19 year old faced with a single choice – stay in school – but was able to consider pathways through different kinds of institutions and face having not just what used to be thought of as a school leaving qualification (NCEA) but with a set of qualifications, NCEA and a technical qualification, employment ready at about the time the rest were heading off to university to start the journey.

In short, we are at a time when the education scene is changing for 15 – 19 year olds and the conventional senior secondary school is slowly being moved sideways to take its place alongside other pathways. Some of the developments are highly visible (the Tertiary High school, Youth Guarantee fees free places) while others are less obvious retaining a little of the look of school (trades academies for instance).

I am told that by 2015, there will be about 17,500 young people (15-19 year olds) who will be pursuing their education in a place other than a school – ITPs, wananga, PTEs would account for most of them I imagine. This is something of a silent revolution. Imagine the size of a group of 17,000 students would look like in the one place! It is quite a few empty classrooms.

That this is happening is not an argument against schools, it is simply affirmation that some young people have their life chances enhanced by continuing their schooling somethere other than a school. Don’t you love the US habit of referring to “school” for pretty well all levels? One fellow said to me recently I am going back to school next semester – that was to Harvard to do a Masters degree!

So imagine my surprise when on Labour Day (consider the irony of this) I heard two news reports on the radio both urging the authorities to see that education institutions be measured by their success in getting people into employment. And they both were teacher organisations, one here in New Zealand and the other in Australia.

We have just had the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment issue a RFP calling for proposals that bring together community connection and involvement, quality trades training, involvement of ITOs in the process of moving the student through to employment, the provision of tools – this all sounds like a commitment to seamlessness, it sounds like a carefully constructed pathway. And it is interesting that the TEC and MBIE are involved with each contributing what they do best.

Is there enough happening to claim that a paradigm shift is under way? Possibly, the signs are there that we are moving away from a set of practices that have been fairly constant for thirty years. Next will come the uncertainty and then the emergence of a new way of working.

But let me put this forward as an idea. Education was pretty constant in the way it worked for a hundred years until the late 1960s and 1970s when much change happened. Tracking / streaming was bad – out it went. Industrial arts were a reflection of an age now gone – out they went. The government employed 80% of the apprentices but they sold off the industrial and service agencies that employed them – out they went. Polytechnics were invented and training shifted both in the institutions and into daylight – out went learning on the job.

It could be that the big paradigm shift really started back then, went through a time of great uncertainty (the 1990s and the 2000s) and what is happening now is the emergence of a new way of working. Now that would be exciting.


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There’s no “moocing” about here!

I have become a student again. Yes, I am now a student of the University of Edinburgh. This would have brought great pleasure to my Scots grandmother I am sure.

Yes, I have started my first MOOC (Massive Open Online Course). It is called “Philosophy for Everybody”, lasts for seven weeks, will require me to study for 1-2 hours a week and has a book that goes with the course.

How did this come about? Well I had, some time ago, wandered through the various web sites of the major providers – Coursera, NovoEd and so on – and must have left my email address somewhere that indicated I would be interested. They got in touch recently with a range of courses that I might be interested in. Easy, minimum fuss from my point of view, getting back to me impressed me – all behaviours that face-to-face providers might strive to copy.

I needed something that would not have time demands that were too heavy, that was focussed, had good, helpful resources and related to my interests and past learning. This fitted the bill nicely.

At 1-2 hours a week I could see myself managing this. The trouble with so much conventional learning is that it is dolloped out in such large chunks, like the ladles of mashed potato thrown onto your plate in the army mess-hall. I wanted finger food.

The focus was clear and the explanations of it attractive – a short introduction to some of the current approaches to philosophy, thinking and ideas. The resources were clear – seven staff members at the University of Edinburgh each wrote a chapter related to their unit in the course, they were put together into a book and that was it. I got mine from Amazon and put it into my Kindle – I have the resources for the course with me in convenient form.

I am interested in philosophy having undertaken Philosophy 1 in my BA degree many years ago. That course was strong on logic (Students sit in lecture halls. This is a lecture hall. Therefore I must be a student) and some selected philosophers – Bergson and Plato I think.

But the impressive thing to this point has been the total ease with which I have been enrolled -not only the ease, but also the style and approach. I was on first name terms with the University of Edinburgh and the philosophy team instantly. “Hello Stuart, Welcome to the University of Edinburgh.” I was enrolled, welcomed and knew what I needed to know in the space of the time it takes to search and make the thirteen clicks required by conventional tertiary websites.

Of course the course despite attracting the description “massive”, is very small and narrow. What is massive became apparent on Monday when the course started. I signed the “Honor Code” which was a simple set of requirements related to ethical and sensible behaviour in my conduct – these people trusted me! I didn’t have to show my passport, three invoices with my address on them, proof that I had the entry requirements, no standing in a queue, no being interviewed by strangers who would decide whether or not they wanted me in the course. I received detailed advice and guidance about how the course would be conducted, a detailed “syllabus” and invitations to join the discussion group,

The course had actually been open for 12 hours when I got to it on Tuesday morning and already there were several hundred people logged on to the discussion room and they came from all over the world. It was like walking into a common room full of the buzz of friendly conversation with no-one staring. Immediately I was taken by the massive reach of this course geographically, across ages and experience. Being shy by nature I didn’t sign in – I shall do that this weekend.

Now I know that it is easy to be enthusiastic at the beginning. A whopping 93% of those who start a MOOC are not there at the end. I am determined to be there. At that point, if I have “completed” the course (I know exactly what that entails and will require), I shall receive my “Certificate”. This will not be one that produces credit (you need to have your credit card handy when enrolling in those ones) but rather a simple acknowledgement of course participation and completion. That’s all I need at my stage. That might be all that a huge number of people are looking for. I suspect that MOOCs have wide appeal as a kind of Online University of the Third Age.

I promise not to bore you with a blow-by-blow account of my toe-dipping experience with this course and style of learning but will report back to you later in the year when I have completed the course (or, perhaps, have dropped out, or perhaps have failed to pass!).


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Talk-ED: In Praise of level 1 and level 2

One of the real strengths of the current Better Public Service Goals is that the target for 18 Year olds is expressed with some flexibility. To pin the target at “NCEA Level 2 or equivalent qualification” is both sensible and essential for a variety of reasons.

It will be a very long time before all 18 year olds will be achieving this target through the conventional approaches of the secondary school. NCEA Level 2 does not function as an effective school leaving target for all simply because the secondary school-based pathway is not one that is attractive to or effective for all students.

This is recognised in other school systems. In the United States the High School Diploma is the standard “school leaving qualification”.  But many do not achieve this so an option is offered through the community college system in two ways. Study for other awards at the level of the diploma is recognised in the associate degree qualification or, where that study has been in general education subjects, often remediation courses, the qualification awarded is a General Education Diploma. This is “an equivalent qualification”.

When a student has not found success in the pathway through a school the appropriate response will neither be in a school nor will the appropriate qualification be one that is seen as a “school” qualification. A multiple pathways response will see the foundation level study wrapped onto other postsecondary programmes and the student who finds renewed interest and energy in different pathways will subsequently be successful not because of the Better Public Service Goal but because they have a line of sight to other postsecondary qualifications and the employment that goes with them. Achieving the Level 2 goal will merely be a station their train passes through on that journey.

Our education system has been dogged by two things in its history – the lack of connection between school and what comes after for a significant group of students and the fixation with a school-based qualification that has little connection with the qualification required beyond the gates.

The Qualifications Framework was a mechanism that would allow equivalence to be struck between different programmes and qualifications. “Equivalence” is not “sameness” and judgment is required in striking equivalence between dissimilar programmes and qualifications at the same level. Trying to bundle everything at Level 1 or Level 2 into a package is at best pointless and might even be counterproductive.

The Tertiary Education Commission insists only that programmes “offered through Youth Guarantee must be linked to level 1-3 qualifications on the New Zealand Qualifications Framework”  and notes that “achieving level 2 qualifications should be the starting point for the learner, with tertiary education organisations encouraging and supporting Youth Guarantee learners to progress to higher levels of education” (see  This reinforces the principles of difference and equivalence. It also importantly reflects the importance of the Minister’s recent announcement that Youth Guarantee would apply to 19 year olds allowing level 3 programmes to become a realistic goal within a Youth Guarantee supported pathway.

Level 3 is important in that at that level entry into other industry-recognised qualifications becomes more realistic and suggests that level 2 is an important stage – essential but not sufficient for a secure future. And that is an important point.

The Ministry of Education ( notes that “foundation education at levels 1 and 2 on the New Zealand Qualifications Framework provides people of all ages who left school school without qualifications opportunities to learn foundation skills needed to progress to higher-level study and skilled employment.”

Current moves to wrap foundation education into continuous pathways that take young people to a higher and better place are to be welcomed but if they result in re-introducing the disconnection between foundation work and the real qualifications they follow then many of the gains made by Youth Guarantee might be lost and that would be a great pity.

If issues such as disengagement, NEETs, teen Mums and Dads, Maori and Pasifika achievement and so on are to be seriously addressed then level 1 and 2 must not become programmes based on new turf in its own right but a level of learning that is a genuine foundation on which the superstructure of higher skills can be placed. The two parts of this process are one and indivisible.

Effective delivery of levels 1 and 2 in a seamless and connected manner will be a key to success not only of programmes but also for learners – both those things are also the same thing!



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