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Category: Qualifications

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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Not Recommended Without Qualification

I have just emerged from Graduation Week – 4,500 certificates, diplomas and degrees awarded in person or in absentia through a number of ceremonies. They are marked by great excitement on the part of the graduates and even greater excitement from families and the wider community. And the whole lot brings great pleasure to all the staff – those who teach and those who support.

Such a week drives home the importance of qualifications. They are the currency of learning, the passe-partout for the journey from education and training into the next journey into employment and advancement. It is all very well for those who teach to speak in lofty terms of “learning” and “self-improvement” and other such aims and goals of education. But to the students, at that moment, it is about the parchment.

The quality of the course is neither immaterial nor to be treated in any way other than one that results in high quality in all respects. But the old saying “never mind the quality, feel the warmth” has no place in our work.

Students know the importance of the track that takes them to that moment of triumph when they walk across the stage. As Steve Jobs insisted – “The journey is the reward”; the experience is what leads to learning which leads to a qualification. But the qualification is the exclamation mark that states to the wider audience that the holder has learnt, the holder has skills, the holder is ready to proceed.

It was there with some irony when during that same week I had one of my qualifications taken away from me. A check was being made on my qualifications and a University in New Zealand from which I had three qualifications advised those making the enquiry that I had not fulfilled the course requirements and therefore did not have one of the qualifications claimed. The irony lies in the fact that I was in possession of a lovely signed and sealed Diploma issued to me in 1979 that stated clearly and in beautiful calligraphed script a simple fact – I had fulfilled the requirements.

I knew immediately that this was the result of error. But I was a little surprised at the indignation I felt at it being denied and the level of that is in direct relation to the feeling of delight that those graduates experienced.

This was not the first time that qualifications have caused me momentary anxiety. When I was in Form 4 the school I was at decided to introduce a Form 4 Certificate so that “most students” would get a qualification before they left school. In those days a clear majority of students left without sitting School Certificate on or soon after their 15th birthday. Well a special assembly was called and the certificates were to be presented. The names were read out alphabetically and as they approached the “m’s” excitement mounted – not everyone was getting them.  The names proceeded, “Marks, Andrew; Meddling, Patricia; Middleton, Ewen;…” He was my twin brother so I would be next. But the names continued….”Mitchellson, Clarossa; Mousey, Thomas; Mustique, Francoise; …” I had missed out.

Mixed emotions flooded through my mind, mostly around the tricky question of how I would break this news to my parents.

Fortunately an alert teacher had spotted the error and before day’s end the matter was put to rights. Getting the piece of paper mattered.

And so we take great care with graduations and the result is just and fair recognition of people for having “graduated”, not for having enrolled, not for having passed a paper, but for getting the qualification. And families share in this – the pain of the journey ios one that is shared with them, the rewards quite properly are also shared with them.

And when students leave the stage holding their proof of hard work, of progress along the journey of life, the world seems a better place because of their efforts.


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The middle as a worthy goal

It used to be the practice when starting a career that entry was at the bottom and you learnt the business by working your way up. This was thought to be good for young people and gave them the practical knowledge that infused real life into what it was that they had learnt in school and in postsecondary places such as universities.

This seems no longer to be as popular as the notion that a degree will take you, if not to the top, then certainly to the other side of those lesser tasks that keep the business actually running. This ambition has further fed the growing view that a worthy goal is to see everyone with a degree level qualification.  And the middle classes hanging on to preserve what status they have insist on nothing less for the next generation while those clamouring to join them see it as a ticket to ride.

It doesn’t stop there either. Governments in the western world have made an art form out of generating goals for the proportions of the population that should be degree qualified. The USA gamely wants everyone to have a degree, the UK and Australia link arms at the 40% mark. All three might be better devoting energy to seeing that all young people successfully complete secondary school!

The real issue is that such “stop only at the summit” approaches ignore the realities of how business and enterprise is organised. There are people working at the top of every organisation but there is also a larger group working at different levels below that. There will in some businesses even be a place for the unskilled provided that they are at least employable.

But the real gap is in the middle. If education systems are focussed on turning our degree level students in two groups (those who succeed and those who don’t) and with the encouragement of governments have persuaded the community that this is the favoured route to the top, fewer young people see the middle qualifications and skill levels as being worthy of the effort and attention. This leads to a shortage of the technically skilled and western economies turn to immigration to address the shortage.

Not only is such a situation bad for business, it doesn’t serve the needs of young people well at all. Giving to young people the opportunity to engage in applied and technical education earlier is emerging as a key strategy in retaining them in education and training and in developing those literacy, numeracy and digital skills that underpin all employment now. Evidence is that when engaging in technical and applied programmes at around 14-16 years, young people can not only discover a confidence in themselves as learners but also are inspired by a line of sight to a future job. In turn that job could turn into a career. Instead too many are being lured into a degree/university track and become the failure fodder for those that succeed.

Why, it should be asked, are western countries all madly addressing the issue of skills shortages and at the same time pumping increasing numbers into educational tracks that can never address those same shortages? The long term damage could be considerable to both economies and to individuals. We need to seriously address the image of the middle – no longer is it a middle earth populated by grease-covered grunting types who are “good with their hands” and answer to the orders of others. The modern middle requires a wide skill set, has a wide range of work situations many of which show the impact of technology on activity now. Leadership skills, team skills, and all that bundle of attributes that are sometimes called the “soft skills” are of the highest order in the middle. These are also the markers of the educational programmes that lead to CTE certificates and diplomas and associate degrees. By the age of 18 or 19 years those who have been taught well will have started on their journey.

The good news is that if they really have been taught well then they will be back because the middle is a good place at which to start a career. Not just good for them but also good for us.


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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: Simple Things That Work


Written by Marilyn Gwilliam, Principal, Papatoetoe Central School


We all know about keeping it simple (stupid) and in these somewhat complex times, it feels like a good way to go.

For those of us working in schools, we often reflect on what is working and what needs to change.  The simple solutions often  feel like the right solutions.

In the early years of schooling, we know that effective early childhood education usually ensures a positive transition to the more formal learning of the school classroom.  We know how an early intervention especially in year 1 and 2 can support students who struggle with their early learning.

We know that if this is an individual programme, or a programme involving just a small group of children, there is often a lot of  additional progress made as the teaching can be tailored to the specific learning needs of the children concerned. 

It can be as simple as that and I can’t think of any primary school principals who wouldn’t welcome the funding to employ teachers to implement a range of individual and small group instructional programmes in their schools.  We know that they work.

Recently on “Campbell Live” there was a refreshing story located in Auckland about a group of impressive young men from St Peter’s College in Epsom.  In their discretionary time, they assist young students with their reading at St Therese School in Three Kings. 

The teacher who coordinates this support programme commented that the regular individual assistance really helps to improve the children’s reading capabilities. The young men described their pride and satisfaction in contributing to the programme.   It struck me how simple and effective the programme is with no cost involved at all.

At our school, a group of granny helpers have supported one of our teachers for 16 years.  These women come to our school weekly and work with individual students throughout the year.  Like at St Therese School, we see exciting improvements in reading achievement.  The helpers work with the same young students regularly over the year, they get to know them really well and together, they ultimately share the buzz of success.

I know that programmes like these operate in many many schools up and down the country.  The young children involved enjoy success very early in their schooling.  Once their basic reading and maths skills in particular are established, we see this success building on yet even more success.  In each of these examples of a simple programme, there is no cost involved and there is plenty of evidence that they work. 

Imagine the outcomes if our schools were resourced in our MOE assured staffing that enabled us to employ additional staffing for specific learning support in the early years.  Wouldn’t it be great if we could ensure that each and every student who needed a personalised early learning intervention was assured of this?  And wouldn’t it be great if the intervention could be sustained, if required?

One of this government’s Better Public Services programme targets is 85% of 18 year olds achieving NCEA level 2 or an equivalent qualification in 2017.  Maybe the government would be better placed to achieve this if schools were given additional resourcing to implement early intervention programmes for the students that required them?

It doesn’t seem stupid to keep it simple.


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Talk-ED: The Aspirations of a Three-year Old


Chatting to a friend over the weekend she was telling us about her grandson.  I will call him Taylor for that is his name; he is three years old, lively and normal.  In response to a question about what he was going to do in the future he told his Nana that when he was five he would go to school and after that he would go to university.  “Why will you do that?” his Nana asked. Quick as a shot the answer cane back – “To get a job!”

And that is the middle class advantage, growing up with a possibility that develops into an expectation and becomes an aspiration.  I would be certain that Taylor doesn’t really understand at this point just what it means.  He will know about school because they walk past the local school often enough.  He will know about jobs because Mum and Dad both have them.  But already the connections between schooling, postsecondary education and training and jobs are starting to grow in his mind.

Middle class children get all this with their cornflakes. It’s part of the chatter that goes on in those homes and it becomes a powerful factor in sustaining young people such as Taylor through the 16 or so years that come between his simple plan and the future.

So starting the talk about jobs as an outcome of education is very important.  But it often is hidden behind a number of myths.

Myth 1.                                                                                                                                         

Most of the young people we are teaching will end up in jobs that have not yet been invented.

This is patently untrue.  Most young people in education now will go into jobs that exist now and many will work in jobs that have been around for a long time.  Those who do go into the cutting edge of employment, into the jobs that are really new are not these novice workers starting out but the experienced, highly skilled and workers.  The jobs the children in classrooms now will need to be skilled and prepared for are the jobs that are out there now.

Myth 2.

We have to prepare young people for a future in which they will have seven careers.

“Career” is a very funny word. Can you set out to have a “career” or does one simply emerge from the set of activities and experiences that are accumulated over time? Is a “career” something you look back on, a useful term that means all the bits and pieces I have done?  Is there a difference between changing your job quite a bit and a career that is usually applied to substantial experience in the same vocational area?  And that’s the point – we have changes in our jobs bit not necessarily a change of jobs.  I have had one job all my working life but I have had six positions.  I am an educator – I guess that is my career – but I have added skills as different positions have demanded them.

Preparing young people to get into the workforce – to make a start in a career by getting a job – is a key outcome for schooling and tertiary education and training.

Myth 3.

There aren’t any jobs out there.

Try telling that to employers desperate for skilled workers.  There are jobs for those adequately prepared.  The sad truth about youth unemployment is not that young people are unemployed, although that in itself is not to be desired, but that so many young people are unemployable.  You hear quite a lot of talk about university graduates who are clearly under-employed,  that is to say that they are working in jobs that require skills and knowledge at a much lower level than their qualification demands.  That is not a good thing at all.  But with young people who are perhaps early school leavers, the skills of employment are a balance of practical skills as well as what is called the “soft skills” demanded by employers.

These so-called soft skills are attributes such as a strong work ethic, a positive attitude good communication skills, time management abilities, problem-solving skills, acting as a team player, self-confidence, ability to accept and learn from criticism, flexibility/adaptability, and working well under pressure.  How would our students score if those were the heading on their report card?  And could we point with confidence to our programmes and show that each of these is explicit in them?

Add to this that employment also requires knowing other things as well – language, mathematics, science of one kind or another and so on.

Yes, Taylor has got quite a lot to do before he gets that job!


Announcing the Bridging the Divides Conference

For more information, please contact the Manukau Insitute of Technology Centre for Studies in Multiple Pathways, Colleen Young:

E:  [email protected]  or P:  09 968 7631.


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Pathways-ED: The Tangled Web we Weave!


There is less than meets the eye with the series the NZ Herald has published this week on NCEA Schools under a claim that it tells us how well our schools are performing.

The results cannot be taken at face value for a number of reasons.

First, the figures presented are simply percentages of those who participated in NCEA at the level deemed appropriate for that year. They do not include those who drop out of school, those who are not entered by the schools, those who do not finish the year and so on.

The only true measure of success for education organisations is the percentage of the cohort who succeed. So the figures that we need for school success in 2011 are the percentages of the respective cohorts (2007, 2008, 2009) who succeeded. But even these figures are distorted by those who do accumulate enough credit to claim success at a level over two or three years. And further distorted by the transience that is a feature of schools. The cohort Year 13 will have quite a proportion of students who were not in the 2007 cohort.

So a national measure might be the way to get a true picture of our schools performance as a system. These are the figures:

These are the 2010 figures that are the actual performance of the cohort (i.e. for the group that started secondary school in 2006) in NCEA.

At the end of Year 13 NZ students with NCEA Level 2:

  •        NZ European                             68%             
  •        Asian                                          74% 
  •        Maori                                          43%
  •        Pacific                                        58%

 At the end of Year 13 NZ students with NCEA Level 3: 

  •        NZ European                             42%             
  •        Asian                                          54% 
  •        Maori                                          17%
  •        Pacific                                        24%

And these statistics raise the second issue. The success and/ failure in NCEA is no reflection of equity in our community. Our schools are not bringing students through to meet levels where they have a basis for going forward with education and training. The Herald tables don’t tell us this.

Nor do the league tables tell us about the gaps that exist. For instance, in one area of Auckland the school figures look pretty good with a wide range of results mostly above 65% and liberally sprinkled with 70+ and even 80+ percentages. Well done, I say. But as was always the case with the old School Certificate system, success masked failure.

But a measure of the same area shows that at age 15 there are, in round figures, 1,500 learners in the area. At Age 17 this group is reduced to around 700 and at Age 19 there are only 400 left. This level of disengagement from education and training will always be hidden in the league tables as they have been presented.

The third fallacy that the tables perpetrate is the view that NCEA in itself represents an achievement. NCEA is simply on the way to something else and it is that something else, the post-secondary qualification, that becomes the basis of success in employment and in most respects, life and how are we going in this.

I did a little exercise in 2010 that took 100 babies born in 2010 and applied all the success profiles that we have for the different ethnic groups in the baby cohort and asked “How many will have a post-secondary qualification in 2033 – a generous timeframe. I concluded that 29% was the answer. Now this was not an elegant statistical exercise but some who knew much better concluded that the result “looked about right”.

And so to the fourth fallacy. There are quite a few students, just how many is not fully understood but it could be quite a large group, who get the equivalent of NCEA Level 2 through other pathways – foundation and bridging programmes in tertiary education, courses and qualifications from private providers and so on. Getting a more accurate picture of performance is going to be critical.

Because the Better Public Service Goal of the Government is a brave target – 85% of all 18 year olds having NCEA Level 2 (or its equivalent) by 2017. And this is a target to be interpreted in a way that does not allow for the poor performance of some groups of learners to be obscured by the excellent performance of others.

But the NZ Herald and I imagine quite a few in the community and I also imagine some schools will have either been tickled pink or turned green with envy at the whole rather meaningless exercise.

Alexander Pope had the measure of all this:

“Oh, what a tangled web we weave 
 When first we practice to deceive!”



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Pathways-ED: Is "most" good enough?


Auckland as a city has an ambition to be the world’s most liveable city, it’s something of an organising principle for aligning the efforts, goals and direction of this newly created entity.

One of the outward signs of this is the publication of a “Scorecard” that rates progress on a number of measures. In education the measure is the number of students in schools that attain NCEA Level 1 Literacy and Numeracy.

There are a number of issues with this.

First, it takes no account of those who are not in the NCEA net. We know that 21% of 16 year olds have already left school and are most likely not to have even attempted NCEA. The failure to take account of cohort measures continues to mislead us in our assessment of progress. That is why I presume the Government settled on “all 18 year olds” as the group that would be measured for the Better Public Service Goals.

Secondly, the performance is very unevenly reflected in the various ways that results can be diced. Along ethnic lines there are still worrying differences between Pakeha students and those who are from Maori and Pacific Island communities. Auckland carries a responsibility for a very significant number of young Maori and Pacific students, a greater proportion than other cities and global measures do not reflect progress when it occurs when they are reported as one measure. That is why I presume the Government settled on the principle with its Better Public Service Goal –  85% of all 18 years old having NCEA Level 2 (or its equivalent) – and stating clearly that the target would apply to each and every group, Maori, Pacific, Special Needs, Migrant, Pakeha, Rural, City and so on.

Thirdly, the Scorecard is not bound by target or time; it simply reflects what is called progress. But progress to where and in what timeframe? How will we know when the education system is performing well and contributing what is expected of it to the world’s most liveable city goal? Knowing simply that we are “getting better” by small increments” has a feel good factor but in reality might be lagging behind the pace of improvement needed. That is why I presume the Government settled on establishing 2017 as the point at which the Better Public Service Goal should be met.

Now the explanation given in the Scorecard is that NCEA Level 1 Literacy and Numeracy is “the equivalent of School Certificate”. Well, it is certainly not. Whether you use the old SC (200/400 in your best four subjects including English) or the later version (single subject passes), NCEA Level 1 Literacy or Numeracy nowhere near equates to neither. No one is going to burst onto the world of work or into a career with that as their qualification.

The irony of all this is that the Auckland Council somewhat led the way in settling on NCEA Level 2 as a sensible goal. That is because it reflects what can be considered as a satisfactory measure of a level of success at school. But even NCEA Level 2 is meaningful only to the extent that it is used as a foundation on which a post-secondary school qualification is gained. Auckland Council “joined the dots” in its Auckland Plan and in its Economic Development Policy ahead of the Government settling on its Better Public Service Goals. And both were right to do so.

I have long promoted the notion of “joining the dots” – access to early childhood education, NCEA Level 2 and a postsecondary qualification. All here are essential markers on the pathway to a secure future. Hon Nick Smith, then Minister of Local Government, in the last days of his tenure of this position, criticised the Auckland Plan for having such goals. Soon after we were to see the Government similarly “join the dots” in the Better Public Service Goals.

A seamless progression along the pathways of education at the pace that sees all students hitting the NCEA Level 2 (or its equivalent) marker by about the age of 18 years will lead to an educated and knowledgeable city. And a city that is educated and knowledgeable is likely to become a very liveable city because it will have opportunities for employment, quality democratic processes, vibrant art and culture features with participation, leisure and sport opportunities. Above all it will have a performing economy with growth that will sustain now over a third of the population of New Zealand.

Where you place the target tends to be about where the arrow goes. Let’s stick to worthy targets.



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Pathways-ED: Degrees of difference: Money or the BAg!


Oh dear, what a little fluster we got ourselves into when the newspapers came out with the news that our degrees don’t lead to much financial advantage for the students who slave to get them. And let’s not take anything away from that achievement.


First, degrees are worth a lot. As pointed out by AUT’s Derek McCormack, degrees provide advantage in the employment stakes and those with jobs tend to have financial advantage over those who don’t!  Some degrees are in high demand and do provide not only better starting remuneration but also greater rapidity in a rising career trajectory – Auckland University VC Stuart McCutcheon pointed this out.


Bob Jones of course had his contribution to make with his well-known view that degrees weren’t important unless they were in the thinking subjects such as history. He requires prospective employees to be readers, the mark of the thinking person. He has a strong point here. The parchment is not the endpoint of a degree but a lifetime of access to ideas is.


It is sad when a discussion about higher education settles down to the level of a whinge about pay but the newspaper in an indignant editorial did raise that old argument about whether education, especially Higher education was a private gain or a public good. It is a silly argument because it is and always has been both.


Of course it is a private good, a student who gets a degree (the mark of what is taken to be an education at that point) is privileged through a likelihood that they will be employed, be less likely to be in jail, more likely to have better health and housing. Importantly, their families are more likely to follow in their educational footsteps and even exceed the success they have had. Money? Well there is also advantage there but not as much as in some other countries. Relative to remuneration levels those differences might not be as great as they are portrayed.


Public good?  Of course there is a level of public good. While some of the rising credentialism that has occurred over the past fifty years has had an irrational element to it, degrees are an important entry qualification into many professions. The legal profession and the medical profession have always required bachelor degree level qualification for entry into those professions. Now a host of others also require degrees – teaching, nursing, accountancy and town-planning. This is more the result of the push to increase the numbers of degrees offered and the clear increased focus on being vocational that came out of the feral 1990s when the tertiary institutions battled it out for market share.

The private gain / public good argument received its big push in the Treasury briefing papers of 1987 which was responsible for the education system taking a swing to the right in what did become something of a fees rocky horror show for many students. The private good argument won back then and ever since every taxpayer funds degree programmes to all starters. It will be looked at again one day when questions are raised about the sense of this wholesale money laundering scheme that leaves too many young people in debt.


But what was not highlighted in the discussion was that while degrees are important they are not the only qualifications that are both needed and highly valued. New Zealand probably does not need increased numbers of graduates with degrees. What we do need are those with quality intermediate qualifications – the technicians, the supervisors working at the applied practical end of successful business, industry and commerce – the ones that keep the wheels oiled and turning. That is the “skill shortage” and, now it seems, that is the group that we are losing to overseas opportunities.  This is not an argument that dimishes the value of a degree but one which simply draws attention to a fact.


Of course we need degrees but even the Tertiary Education Commission joined the feverish chorus in a recent youth transitions paper by emphasising the importance of “higher qualifications (particularly degree level)”. Australia, the US and the UK have all set targets for the proportion of people who should have a degree that they have not a chance of meeting. It is much more intelligent to have targets such as those set by the Better Public Service Goals (85% of 18 year olds with NCEA Level 2 by 2017 and 55% of 25-34 year olds with a Level 4+ qualifications by 2017) – they are achievable and are key markers of both the school system and the tertiary system getting our young people onto a success trajectory.


Nor are university degrees the only degrees that are valued. The MOE published a useful little report in 2009, Does it really matter where you study, which compared the relative benefits of a bachelors degree gained from a university with those gained from a polytechnic. Its findings are not complex and are that:


  •           the labour market in New Zealand “appears not to discriminate” against polytechnic degrees;
  •           the starting pay is “roughly the same” regardless of the provider;
  •           after five years those with a university degree do edge ahead with a “relatively small advantage at the upper end”;
  •           in fields of speciality for the polytechnics  such as IT, commerce, engineering and architecture there is “little difference” and in some cases in these areas, the polytechnic graduates are earning more.
  •           the study was unable to find evidence that provider quality leads to a gap in earnings over time.

As with all qualifications a degree is merely a stepping stone to further education, to employment, to enhanced life choices and chances and to the likelihood of increased opportunity for your children.


If you can’t take pleasure from all that and want to have a grumble about money, seek solace in the fact that you are doing for your child rather than yourself.



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