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Size is not the issue. Impact is.

Stuart Middleton


26 November 2018

The nations of the Pacific are getting more and different attention at the moment. Phrases such as “spheres of interest” and the “battles of the trade wars” and “military activity” are associated with the Pacific more often than they used to be.

Part of this might simply be a transfer of the old rhetoric into a new region. Part of it is the impact of an interest from a huge economy that has new interest in waters closer to us. Part of it is the belief that New Zealand should be playing a big hitting game. But it is usually about the role of those heavy hitters and we are not part of that group, nor perhaps should we aspire to be.

Many who have not had contact in a meaningful way with the Pacific (i.e. outside the resorts) are a little off the mark in their concern. New Zealand has worked very closely over a long period of time to address issues such as solar energy, the contribution of agriculture and primary industries to the economy, the role of women in the domestic economy, and more recently, education at the sharp end.

Since 2013 Manukau Institute of Technology has worked with the education systems of the Kingdom of Tonga to strengthen options and pathways for students in the secondary system at Years 11 and 12.

The key vehicle for this is a Certificate in Vocational and Technical Skills. This two-year programme introduces Tongan students into four trades areas from a set of seven options. The results have been astounding.

First some background. Being an “early school leaver”, the Pacific term for disengagement and absence, is as serious an issue in Tonga as it is in New Zealand. This initiative is aimed at retaining students in education and training; putting them on pathways to further education and training; and should they return to the village at a younger age, they would return with a set of useful basic skills.

This programme has been delivered under the NZMFAT Partnership Programme through two projects which in international terms involved relatively small amounts of money. It did require large amounts of human skill and willingness both available in abundance here at MIT and in Tonga among the educators, the politicians, and increasingly industry, business and commerce. This latter group is a key focus for the second phase of the project.

This is not a case of New Zealand imposing a New Zealand qualification in a New Zealand way. The qualification has been accredited by the Tonga National Qualifications and Assessment Board and registered on the local Tongan Qualifications Framework at Level 2 and has equivalence with a New Zealand Level 2.

The uptake has been fast and impressive. In 2018 there were approximately 700 total students in 11 schools on three islands and of the students completing the second year 320 graduated. In 2019 there will be 13 schools on four islands. The programme is monitored rigorously to high standards by technical educators of the highest professional standards that would be welcomed into any education system. The qualification is “owned” by the Tonga Institute of Science and Technology, the tertiary trades and skills provider in Tonga which has doubled their student intake since the introduction of the programme.

The retention rate in the programme is 94.6% – a level that New Zealand and Australian institutions would envy.

After Cyclone Gita hit in February there were many badly damaged houses. One such house was the home of a 16 year old girl and her grandparents. They had no way of getting their house restored, skilled people were in much demand. But the granddaughter, a 16 year old graduate of the Certificate in Vocational and Technical Skills, gathered a group of her friends together and they rebuilt the roof again, restored the walls and fixed up the plumbing and electricity.

We do not need to be Australian, American or Chinese to make a difference. New Zealand’s impact will continue to be our people helping people to achieve things that make a difference, in ways that increase the capabilities of the citizens of the small nations of the South Pacific and leaves them with genuine ownership of whatever is developed, rather than increased liabilities.

New Zealand’s effort is strongly supported by MFAT here in New Zealand and by strong representatives in our High Commissions.

There is an old saying across the Pacific:  “Aid, aids who?” “Aids Large Donours!.”

A Great Story: Sokopeti Akauola’s Story

It was a grim day, that day in February 2018 when Cyclone Gita struck the island of Tongatapu in the Kingdom of Tonga. Sokopeti Akauola and her grandparents were huddled in their house with the rain lashing the island with torrential rain and fierce winds.Then first the roof and then some walls were ripped off the house.

Sokopeti, 16 years of age, has been raised by her grandparents and she was deeply attached to them.

“My grandfather raised me ever since I was a little baby and being the youngest of the family, I followed my grandfather everywhere he goes and do everything he does. That is how I first developed my love for Carpentry, Engineering and Arts. Knowing that Liahona offered these classes, I always look forward to enter Liahona High School so I can learn more about it.”

In February 2018 after Cyclone Gita, part of our house had been destroyed, especially the roof. During that time, only my grandparents and I were at home, the rest of the siblings are overseas. The very next day after the cyclone, my grandparents were having a hard time trying to figure out who could come and fix our house before it rained again. I tried to be strong for my family and decided to do all I could.” 

“Taking TVET is one of the best decisions I have made in my life and I have no regrets up to this day. The skills that I have developed the last two years have helped in so many ways. As we all know today that labor is very expensive to pay someone to come and fix anything that is needed to be fixed. My poor family saves a lot of money, stress and hardship only because I was able to do all these so they don’t have to pay someone to do it.”

At Liahono High School, Sokopeti had undertaken the Certificate in Vocational and Technical Skills (CITVS that Manukau Institute of Technology had introduced into Tonga in 2013).

“I was able to fix the roof and the interior all by myself with some of my friends from school. It was hard for some of my family to believe that I was the one that fixed our roof with the little skills I have learned inside the classroom.”

 Gathering together a group of her friends Sokopeti had replaced the roof and mended the walls. The Certificate, now taken each year by 700 students, has three objectives. First students would be kept in school and training (they have been), second they might work towards a trades career (the enrolment at the Tonga Institute of Science and Technology (TIST) has doubled in the five years of the programme to date) and finally, the third objective was that should a student leave school early, they would return to their village with skills.

Do we need better proof of this programme than that provided by Sokopeti?

She has the last word.

“The TVET classes have helped me in many ways at home. I built my grandfather’s own pig fence for his pigs. I fixed our own vehicle when it’s wasn’t working. I can fix anything in the house when it is broken.”

“Keep in mind that I am the only child at home most of the time so my grandparents rely on me for almost everything.”

Sokopeti is a remarkable student who continues her study at TIST. One day she hopes to study at MIT.

Setbacks and Success

It might seem somewhat melodramatic to headline a newspaper story with “students who are expelled die earlier!” But Simon Collins (NZ Herald, 12 -14 November) in his excellent series in which he details the consequences for students who not receive the kind of attention they they need in conventional schools backs this claim up with much sound evidence. It’s real and it’s serious. The consequences of exclusion should be seriously troubling for a community that would like to think that it has a schooling system based on equity and an even-handed approach to meeting student needs.

The act of expelling of a student from a school is seldom a clear-cut issue and generally the school thinks long and hard about both the school and the student in making such a decision. The BOT knows in their hearts that expulsion can be the start of a journey that ends on the cold couch of the NEETs.

But there are pathways for students who incur the wrath of a Board of Trustees. Since 2010 the Manukau Institute of Technology (MIT) has been offering students facing the wall of failure in school a chance to head down a different pathway. It is the MIT Tertiary High School.

Students in Year 10 who are struggling or are unhappy in a school environment and quite oftenthose facing exclusion from their school are offerered a chance to enter a unique and special programme.. They are not being taken out of school, they will be in school but not at school because the entire programme is taught at the tertiary provider.

The students attend to strengthening their basic skills, the essential social, literacy, numeracy and digital skills. They are taught with a purpose and within an environment that is starting to be called “mandated engagement”. The requirements placed on the students are not simply optional extras – they are the essential sine qua non of being in the programme. Being involved, meeting requirements, and demonstrating the soft skills of punctuality, attendance, courtesy, and suchlike are expectatoins that are the foundations for future success.

Finding the pathway that will take them to higher qualifications is helped as they undertake four substantial short courses in different trades areas before they decide the trade or area that they will following. This develops a clear understanding that learning skills and developing knowledge in a specific area is purposeful and has a sense of direction. It also unleashes some of the power to learn that has been dampened by their experiences to date.

The MIT Tertiary High School set out to address issues of disengagement and with its focus on pathways and managed ransitions it creates a seamless progression NCEA and through professional and technical qualifications and into employment. The creation of a pathways that enables learners to have early asccess to applied vocational and technical learning provides hope to learners who once might have thought that they had reached the end of the road.

Lord Baker of Dorking is Dead


Stuart Middleton


8 November 2018

 In 1982-1983 I had the joy of working at the University of London Institute of Education and met a lot of the influential folk who were trying to save the education system from its myopic view of what a country with a rapidly changing demographic needed if it was to have a well-educated, skillful and thoughtful community.

Margaret Thatcher was in charge of the country and the Secretary for Education was Kenneth Baker after Sir Keith Joseph had occupied that role. Kenneth Baker had a distinguished political career and this was rewarded by his becoming Lord Baker of Dorking. He did not drift quietly into the background but maintained a fervent interest in education and in changing a system in which too many young people were failing.

Lord Baker of Dorking died recently and English education is more than a little the worse for that. Because Lord Baker used his considerable presence and reputation in arguing for a revised structure for education and, having argued, he set about implementing a response.

He had a clear view that education had three phases: 5–9 (primary), 9–14(middle) and 14–18 (secondary). It was his view that primary should focus on the essentials while the middle schools were the place for introducing students to specialist teaching and subject disciplines. What came next was spelt out without doubt or hesitancy.

The solution is surely clear; a single phase of 14 – 18 education in which young people study a variety of subjects to a greater or lesser degree of depth, over a span of four years, and adapted to their individual talents and preferred learning styles.[1]

He didn’t just make speeches about, but developed a plan for what he called University Technical Schools that would provide pathways for students aged 14 – 18 years. He defended the 14 year age starting point:

“I am convinced that most young people are ready to choose between styles and types of learning by the time 14.”[2]

He set out to establish four pathways in the University Technical Schools (which it must be said had a focus on the high achievers) which were a technical pathway, a liberal arts pathway, a sports and creative arts pathway, and a career pathway.

He had a clear view on why vocational education had become a less valuable pathway in the eyes of many but vigorously dismissed arguments such as:

  • that there is no evidence that vocational education prior to age 16 led to improvements in general attainment – there is much evidence and sound research which he could detail from multiple sources;
  • that lengthening compulsory education [3] does extend childhood and dependency – this does not mean that we should assume that young people do not know what they are good at, what they like and what they want to do after 9 years of required school attendance then the quality of that education has to be questioned!”


He quipped once when asked why 14 – 18 had become his interest, he replied that “15 would be too late and 17 would be to early”. Reflection on this statement suggests that he brought considerable knowledge and wisdom about education to his thinking. We have come to understand why many students have dropped out of school by age 15 years and it takes until about 18 years of age for education institutions to make an impact in preparing a student for the workforce in a substantial manner which would include work experience.

Lord Barker backed his 14–18 years sub-sector advocacy on three clear areas where he felt that education was not adding value to the lives of young people by failing to enhance their general lives, by not promoting effective connections with employment opportunities and by giving a coherence and integrity to the shape of an “inchoate” education system.

I had an email exchange with him 18 months ago which was concluded by his senior staff member who relayed a message: “I would very much like to visit New Zealand before I die.”

It never happened and I am a little saddened by that.

[1] Baker, Kenneth (2013) 14 – 18 A New Vision for Secondary Education, Bloomsbury, London. p.19

[2] Baker, Kenneth (2013) op.cit. p.20


A Modest Proposal to Solve the Teacher Shortage

Stuart Middleton


1 November 2018

There is a shortage of teachers in New Zealand – no argument with its existence, some disagreement with its scale.

I propose that we tackle the teacher shortage not by solely relying on producing more teachers either by migration or increasing the capacity of programmes that train teachers but by clearing the decks of all the stuff that teachers do which require various degrees of skill but not the skills of a teacher. I used to think it was a shame that the best teachers could get up the ladder mostly by increasingly leaving the activities requiring the skills of a great teacher and picking up on the skills of the manager / administrator. But I now believe that there is much that can be done in a school by people other than a skilled and excellent teacher.

Here is a list of just such activities (in no order of importance):

  • Checking attendance;
  • Supervision of children in the playground during breaks;
  • Organisation and coaching of sports activities;
  • Helping students to develop their music skills;
  • General administrative activity;
  • Managing the availability of teaching equipment (i.e. see that they were available when teachers requied them.);
  • Acting as teacher aides in schools;
  • Working in the school gardens with teams of students;
  • Supervising and genberally helping with supplementary instruction;
  • Looking after the predestrian crossing in the morning and afternoon (a) la Aussie);
  • Preparing and supervising school meals (see last post);
  • Helping with communications to parents and caregivers;
  • Helping planning of school trips

There is a host of tasks that allied staff thus employed (perhaps on a casual / part-time basis) would be able to do if only there was funding. There would need to be some training available and those checks that that are made on people working with young children. Most of the list above is made up of a mix of the large and time-consuming and the small but very important.

I am not suggesting that teachers be replaced by such community help. I am suggesting that the school would  benefit from the infusion of community people who would be grateful for the work and the remuneration that went with it. Schools would need additional different management capacity and capability to have such a programme.

Teachers would be more able then to focus on their “real job” which is to lead learning in their classrooms, to add value to the lives of young people, keep them on track, and along the way develop the requisite sets of literacy, numeracy, digital and social skills. I hear teachers complain frequently that it is the duties such as those above that tear them away from teaching.

A couple of other points. As the community ages there is developing a group of older people who are fit, of sound mind, and have abilities and skills which are much more use to school students than simply being the grandparents that pick the children up. New Zealand might be first to develop the set of educational, second “micro-careers” that could underpin these suggestions.

There is so much more we could be doing other than complaining about the non-teaching demands placed on teachers, an issue which cannot be solved simply by providing more teachers. Innovative ideas that tackle the kernel of the complaints that teachers have must be allowed to surface in the discussion.

Mais oui, c’est trop simple!

Stuart Middleton


29 October 2018


Reflecting that a decade ago the book titled French Women Don’t Get Fat was a best-seller, Gavin Mortimer of The Spectator (20 October 2018, p10) decides that it is time for a sequel:  Why French Kids Don’t Get Fat.

“Vending machines are banned in French schools and, as of last month, so are phones. Recreation is about running, jumping and letting off steam, not gaming and texting. Schools don’t permit packed lunches except in cases of severe allergies. Pupils eat lunch in the cafeteria and get a well balanced diet with fresh, nutritious ingredients. My daughter’s school’s website has a ‘menu’ tab and last week she could choose between pâté or green salad with Grùyere for a starter, fish or veal with vegetables for the main course, and Mimolette cheese or natural yoghurt for dessert. There may also be croissants and brioche for breakfast, a crepe or cake for gouter tea.”

Ironically I pick up the NZ Herald (29 October 2018, pA7) and read a story in which a woman here in Auckland who has shed 50kg for the sake of her health. She gives her views on the health implications of obesity. She has certainly earned that right and her main targets are the fatty-food outlets that are killing children. In some pooer areas “there are takeaway joints everywere you look,”she says.

She tells of being appalled to learn that a catalogue of illnesses and diseases which kill are brought on and/or certainly aggravated by the poor dietary habits that this situation encourages. Obesity, alcohol and tobacco are identified as the three men of the Apocalypse. There used to be four horsemen but one died of drug abuse and sugar overload.

But the issue goes more deeply into the community. Is New Zealand prepared to make the hard calls that will protect young people from the ravages of the fast food industry, the sugar drink industry, the tobacco industry? And is the community prepared to show a bit of spine in demanding a better deal for its children.

Schools are a key site for not only banning the danger foods but also for educating young people about health and about the simple understanding that what we put into our mouths will either sustain us or damage us. Schools face the dilemma of the healthy tuck shop under pressure to give in to pastry, sugar and processed foods and if they don’t stock them the dairy and the supermarket down the road will.

Mortimer gets onto the offensive.

“The reason for the supersize difference in British and French children is simple: the French are better parents. They are stricter and more mature. They don’t see their children as friends; they are their offspring, to be educated, disciplined and controlled. The French aren’t afraid to say non.

Of course this is a complex set of issues – not least whether or not NZ schools could learn from French schools even if they had the will to. The immediate default position would that teachers already have too much to do and I agree with that. But… there is a solution to that too.

The Rosy Glow of Equity Continues to Evade New Zealand Schooling

Stuart Middleton


25 October 2018 

It started with my sitting down to my cornflakes, opening the NZ Herald yesterday and reading that the New Zealand schooling system has become slightly more equal[1]. That’s good news! As someone who has a deep professional interest in such matters, it seemed that the tide of inequity was turning. However the pleasure of this disappeared as quickly as the milk in the bowl as the article revealed that this was the result of the richer students slipping downwards while the poorer students raised their achievement a little. The improvement you get when you don’t get an improvement!

Simon Collins had distilled from the report the essential nub of the equity issue in education. The current schooling system cannot and has never led to equitable outcomes for all students. The lift for poorer students was recent and slight. The downward drift of the richer students has been shown steadily in the past nearly twenty years of data.

There are those who take solace in the fact that we are not the only country in this position – Australia is one. I bet the other English-speaking schooling systems are in this all together. It is a systemic feature of such systems but since this is an OECD Report, their long-held and oft-stated view continues to shine through – “while no country in the world can claim to have eliminated socio—economic inequalities in education………it does not have to be a ‘fixed feature of education systems.”

The NZ Herald article goes on to describe the gap as “huge” and as previous reports have noted it is “the equivalent to about three full years of schooling.” New Zealand is worse because it has a very low score compared to the average.

The article held interest for me in another piece of information:

“On some measures, the socio-economic gap in New Zealand has continued to widen. For example, the proportion of poorer NZ 15-year-olds  feeling that they ‘belong’ in school           slipped from 85 per cent in 2003 to 66 per cent in 2015.”[2]

I have over many years drawn attention to the inability of schooling to hold the attention of a significant number of students in the Year 10 to Year 13 age group. It is where disengagement has become a feature, where a number of students are yet to find purpose in the schooling and is a time for many when a pathway to a future is no longer apparent. Again New Zealand is simply weak in this area, it is as weak as Australia and 29 (out of 35) OECD Countries.

This is the very statistic the drove me towards seeking a different way of working which led to the development of the Tertiary High School. Has this development and the pathways that followed – trades academies, dual pathway programmes, Youth Guarantee fees free – had an impact? Since 2010, a total of approximately 84,000 students have been shown new pathways through these developments.  It might be helping but it is far too early to declare victory for equity in all this.

[1] Simon Collins, 24 October 2018, NZ Herald,

[2] Simon Collins op.cit. accessed at

Getting Teachers – It’s Not Simply a Matter of looking on Trade Me

Stuart Middleton


23 October 2018


We are short of teachers! So is most of the western world and answers to this situation do not come easily.

Increasing the supply of New Zealand Graduates who wish to teach should be the first consideration. I personally do not subscribe to the theory that more money is the answer (see below) because current entry level wages are competitive with the entry levels for all but a few university graduates entering other professions at first degree level. Graduating students with higher degrees and in a few selective occupations and the high fliers will need higher entry levels of payment to be attracted across to teaching.

But, having said that, levels of salary are critical to the retention of teachers and the salary structure of teachers salaries needs to be addressed to provide for an appropriate level when young graduates hit say five or six years of service.

I am not aware that the review of Tomorrow’s Schools will address the issue but perhaps there is a clear role for Boards of Trustees to have access to funding to reward young teachers who are making an energetic contribution to the school. It is often the case that young teachers arrive and get into the activities of the school with energy and youthful enthusiasm but this seems not to impact on the rewards.

I am not going to raise the issue of performance pay because there is simply no appetite among the leadership of the profession for any move in this direction.

But the preferred response to teaching shortages seems to be to import them from other countries. Bernard Salt, Australia’s highly respected demographer, has previously prediced that it will be around this period of time that a demographic faultine would develop and lead to severe shortages of skills in most western countries matched by a determination to address this through the importation of skilled labour from both countries similar to us and the those developing countries that will by then be wanting to retain their trained and skilled workers in order to support their developing economies. In short, we will need to dig deep in our own garden and find new supplies of teachers from among the people we already have.

So it is not simply that teaching is a profession that seems less attractive these days but rather that the supply of suitable labour is subject to the forces that Salt outlines. In Australia, for instance, Education ranks up amongst the group of careers that is generating most job growth ( Health, Social Assistance, Professional Sertvices and Construction are its competors).

The old theme of “let’s go to the United Kingdom and get some teachers” has been done before. In the late 60’s and early 70’s selected senior Principals would be sent over to interview the prospective applicants armed with lists of schools, subjects and vacancies. No doubt this approach worked. I know of one teacher who was offered a job in a South Waikato school and accepted on the basis that it looked quite close to Auckland (his preferred location) on his daughter’s school atlas. But he made a huge contribution at several schools as he continued his lifetime commitment to his career (in Auckland!).

Over the past decade New Zealand has had numbers of teachers from South Africa and India. Similarly they have added greatly to the diversity and quality of the New Zealand schooling system. Getting an experienced teacher entering the profession should be an advantage but getting young New Zealanders and New Zealanders of all ages interested in seeing teaching as a an enriching and rewarding first or second career is the challenges. And that won’t happen until teachers in the profession themselves believe that it is.

There’s Nothing as Practical as a Good Theory

Stuart Middleton


15 October 2018

Conferences often have great appeal especially when they are characterised as a “world congress.’ And while the programme basks in the glory of X plenary sessions, Y presenters and Z delegates, the highlights generally originate from the casual conversations with some of the folk who are there, the ideas you scoop up and note in notebooks or on scraps of papers and the  general enthusiasm generated by the conference/congress theme.

The World Congress of Colleges and Polytechnics held just an such event in Melbourne last week. The title of this post was in fact a sub-heading in a pamphlet published by the Victorian  Curriculum and Assessment Authority on “Applied Learning”. It outlined four key underpinning principles which were:

  1. applied learning is an approach that emphasises the relevance to the “real world outside the classroom;
  2. applied learning will involve students and teachers with partnerships and connections with organisations and individuals outside the school;
  3. applied learning is concerned wirth nurturing the student in a holistic manner to take account of personal strengths, interests, goals and previous experiences;
  4. applied learning plays a part in the transition from school to work.


Inevitable in these kinds of summary advice lead to some simple (simplistic?) pieces of advice.

  1. Start where students are at.
  2. Negotiate the curriculum. Engage in a dialogue with students about their curriculum.
  3. Share knowledge. Recognise the knowledge students bring to the learning environment.
  4. Connect with communities and real-life experiences.
  5. Build resilience, confidence and self-worth – consider the whole person.
  6. Integrate learning – the whole task and the whole person. In life we use a range of skills and knowledge. Learning should reflect the integration that occurs in real-life tasks.
  7. Promote diversity of learning styles and methods. Everyone learns differently. Accept that different learning styles require different learning or teaching methods, but value experiential, practical and ‘hands on’ ways of learning.
  8. Assess appropriately. Use the assessment method that best ‘fits’ the learning content and context.

Furthermore the pamphlet points to advantages of applied learning:

  • improved student motivation and commitment
  • providing a context for learning the generic skills that are valued in the workplace, e.g. problem solving, working effectively with others and in teams, leadership and personal responsibility
  • learning engages students
  • improved self-esteem and confidence for those involved
  • improved transition for students from school to work and/or further education
  • a way of catering effectively for students with different preferred learning styles
  • providing a meaningful context for learning both theoretical concepts and practical skills.

The point of regaling all this to you is to emphasise that there is developing some level of international agreement which was clear at the Congress about the value of applied learning, about its importance in moving education systems closer to the key purpose and role of education in supporting economic development through expanding the size and competence of the skill base on which the future of economies rely.

I used to think that the failure to do this was quintessentially a feature of English-speaking education systems but it was heartening to see the progress being made in this regard in many countries. Of course the principles outlined above seem a little commonplace – they are but they are crucial.

The Sad Case of NCEA and Nostalgia

The Sad Case of NCEA and Nostalgia

Stuart Middleton


4 October 2018

There are people who think strategically with their gaze fixed firmly on the rear view mirror.

Others base their views of the future on nostalgia. This is, of course, served up with huge dollops of sentiments around “keeping that which we cannot afford to lose.” These thoughts are usually recollected through a haze by people who believe that they are the privileged ones (they usually are in fact) ordained to protect those who don’t know what’s good for them (they usually do but no-one asks them).

NCEA was comprised during its difficult birth by the introduction of features that have their origins in a hankering for elements in the assessment systems of the past that were being replaced. I remember the delight of the NZQA staffer who announced to the assembled Ministers Principals Lead Group in the early 1990s that he had an answer to the charge that NZEA does not reward those who are, for one reason or another, simply better than others.

“Let’s have different levels of ‘Achievement’ rather than the then proposed ‘Achieved /Not Achieved’ that students were to receive depending on whether they had or had not demonstrated that they had met the standard”. And so the triplets ‘Achieved’, ‘Merit’ and ‘Excellence’ were born to the delight of some and the unease of others. It was to be a staged bell curve that preserved the elements of the old examination system – “scholarship” later added weight to the impact of this.

Never mind that it was an abrogation of the notion of standards based assessment. Forget that there were other more profitable ways to take account of the levels at which students could achieve – tackling higher levels and moving more quickly are two that spring to mind.

That reminds me that another genuflection to received practice is the packaging of NCEA into organisational bits separated by Christmas. Schools were used to marshalling students and delivering curriculum in age-related batches called “Forms” and more latterly “Years” and it seemed necessary to deliver NCEA as if it was a programme rather than a set of assessment standards to be applied to a programme. Immediately we had the slavish pattern of Year 11 = Level 1, Year 12 = Year 12 and Year 13 = Level 3. Students who could move more quickly were denied an opportunity to do so. While there has been some loosening up this rigidity remains. The gear was geared to retaining students for 13 years despite evidence that this is not bringing benefit to perhaps 60% of students.

That is not the case everywhere. At the MIT Tertiary High School students, from the time they arrive, are able to get credit at all levels with an outcome that sees them “getting level x, y and z” as something that happens when they get there rather than at the end of a year. The stages emerge as they accrue the assessments within the programmes they study.

Again, nostalgia seems to rule NCEA.  In fairness this might also have been encouraged by the manner of its introduction. The current Hon Speaker of the House, Min of Ed at the time, determined that the three year set of qualifications would be introduced incrementally avoiding some significant disruption to the schools.

But disruptive change is not a bad thing. There is evidence that effective change requires some degree of disruption and without it the status quo often wins. That is reflected in the persistent theme in the USA of “so much reform, so little change” (c.f. Charles Payne).  It’s is also why the statistics are stubbornly refusing to budge despite the successive wave of reform. As one commentator lamented: “it’s not what reforms do to education  – it’s what education does to reforms!”

The relatively low number of students gaining a Vocational Pathway designation highlights the extent to which it is not being used as a curriculum organizer. Students are not getting on to pathways that take them beyond secondary school and into employment.

Imagine if that longstanding example of standards-based assessment, the New Zealand Drivers Licence, was to be conducted in the tradition of the norm-referenced examination system that NCEA replaced.

  • All of the prospective drivers would turn up at the testing station at  the same time on the same day.
  • As the group was too large to cope with a test involving driving a car they would settle down to answer a written test about the practical elements of driving.
  • They would complete a multi-choice test on the rules.
  • They would of course have been told not what specific knowledge and skills were to be tested on but rather given a huge amount information some of which was important for the test.

More importantly half of the students would fail regardless of the level of their knowledge. Before you rush to say that would be a good thing remember that half would also pass regardless of the level of their knowledge. All we would not have any clear evidence for any of the students of what they can do or perhaps cannot do when they sit behind the steering wheel and start the engine.

NCEA is a mechanism whereby students and their parents and caregivers can steer their way onto productive pathways. It is time that students and their parents/caregivers were put into the drivers seat.