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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.


The NCEA Season

First, I welcome you back after something of a long period during which the EdTalkNZ voice has been quiet. Troubles with the site led to a somewhat lengthy delay but the site has been rebuilt and EdTalkNZ is back in business!

Now, as I was saying……

When ideology comes through the door, ideas fly out the window.

I have often said that the danger in the current review of NCEA is that the enthusiasm of these kinds of moments could lead to a conclusion that rather than seeing the baby being thrown out with the bathwater we see the bath being thrown out.

It was therefore heartening to see the Principal of Diocesan School for Girls in Auckland, Heather McRae, making a strong plea and case for the retention of NCEA substantially in the form that it is.

“As a private school some of these issues [i.e. a wide range of other concerns expressed by Auckland Principals related to issues other than NCEA] are less impactful….. We do, however, want to see NCEA continue to be an outstanding qualification and one that has international credibility. WE believe that small adjustments may well make improvements, but wholesale restructuring of a number of systems simultaneously over a short time is perilous and uninformed.[1]

This is strong support for a calmer response to the NCEA Review which seems to have in it an assumption that it must change. What happened to Voltaire’s wise caution that “When it’s not necessary to change, it is necessary not to change.” The case for change has simply not yet been put and the carefully managed consultation processes are unlikely to emerge with it.

The full-page paid advertisement in the national press from a subset of school principals in Auckland included the group pf principals who have tried to kill NCEA from as along ago as the consultation processes pre-dating its introduction in the early 1990s. They simply didn’t want it for their schools so they set about introducing an overseas examination and as appropriate engaged more with the International Baccalaureate programme. Good on them. They have a right to manage their schools as they see fit. But that does not confer a right for them to suggest nor even to know what is best for other schools.

Take one simple example. Few of the signatories would have foreseen that the introduction in 2010 of secondary / tertiary programmes into the options for schools to consider would become a resounding success. These opportunities to study subjects more typically thought of as tertiary study has been taken up by hundreds of students not at the expense of the secondary school programme but as an embellishment to it that often re-engages with education, creates lines of sight to possible career options and, above all, through applied learning admits them to ways of learning that are more accessible than those the conventional academic track has been able to open up to them. This could not have been possible without the NCEA credit approach and structure. And over 70,000 students have benefitted from the introduction of secondary / tertiary programmes since 2009.

Yes, there are areas where some attention would produce change – the record of learning could be both enlarged in scope to include soft skills, reduced in bulk in its reporting of achievements and reordered to highlight areas of strength rather than the chronological accrual of credit that currently is overwhelming to many in the community including employers.

But! NCEA is a critical tool in restoring the capability of the NZ education system to fulfil the promise of opportunity and pathways for young New Zealanders.

This is the first of a series of blogs related to NCEA. Others in this series will include:

  • The distortion of the standards based approach.
  • How slavishly following the school calendar has distorted NCEA
  • What happened to Vocational Pathways?
  • What are pathways and how are they achieved?
  • Managed transitions or fall through the gaps?
  • Seamlessness and Dr Smith

….. and perhaps more, after all the NCEA conversation is really only starting!

[1] McRae, Heather (2018) DIO Today 2018 Diocesan School for Girls, Auckland, p.7

Lost Information – the battle with data


Stuart Middleton


3 April 2018


T S Eliot, writing a long time ago, posed some questions. This was long before we were swamped with knowledge and I could ask Alexa, my little Amazon helper who sits on my study desk, almost anything I wished to know. He asked:

Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?
Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?[1]

I suggest that were he developing this line of thinking now, he might well have written a third question:

Where is the information we have lost in data?

I have long believed and many times written that there are probably three metrics that you need to understand most of the educational issues we face.

I have promoted three metrics that inform our success in a tertiary education institution: Get then in! Keep them on track! Get the through! Or, participation, retention and success. Of course this is very simple and risks being a little simplistic. But when the myriad studies, theses, publications, conferences and theories about just those three words is considered, you have to conclude that education systems have been remarkably unsuccessful in understanding what those three words actually mean, developing responses that lead to actions that are required to give purposeful effect to each of them let alone understand outcomes such as access and equity.

I once started to learn to play bridge which quickly turned into a weekly encounter with frustration. I asked the tutor to stop overloading us with information (thanks be to Alvin Toffler) and simply tell us the three things that we needed to know. This was greeted with much laughter but at the end of the session there came an admission that there just might be three, perhaps four, such critical understandings and that these would be delivered in due course. They never were! I was awash with data – rules, moves, protocols, customs, behaviours remained uninformed of the very things that I needed to nail if I was to make progress.

So what a joy it was to start reading a book that has emerged from the growing interest in the use of data in community colleges in the USA.[2] This book starts by setting out what the current data environment is and, in a nutshell, describes it as too much detail and too little action. They see educators “awash in data but not informed,” with “mindsets that seem to confirm views that “more data, more tables, more charts, more reports, more sophisticated analysis will do the trick”. They do not see a reflection in the material available that recognizes that “different users and audiences… which equire different types of reports and displays.”

In opening their discussion about a new model they challenge six assumptions:

  1. Community college faculty and staff are eager to engage in discussions about student performance.
  2. Just knowing there is a problem is enough to make a change.
  3. We know how to fix a certain type of problem.
  4. Administrators, faculty and staff are willing and eager to make improvements in student success.
  5. Organisations can change practices and policies when necessary.
  6. Studying everything leads to better decisions.

Their conclusions about these assumptions might not be an accurate reflection of the NZ setting but they see data as not yet serving well the needs of educators who have yet to embrace willingly the thrust to improve outcomes but there are encouraging developments, and they caution about the use of ‘big data’ and the huge number of tools being made available for manipulation. Theirs is a message of simplicity, accuracy and focus.

They also provide a useful template for that focus:

  • Is the information accurate?
  • What jumps out and why?
  • What are the themes?
  • Is comparison data available?
  • Does this information challenge current assumptions about this population?
  • What might be contributing to their success?
  • What might be detracting from their success?
  • Is this the data we need to make a decision?
  • What is the most important information?
  • What is missing?

A lot of this reflects the developments in Georgia, Tennessee, Florida, and California, all states which have pursued the pathways on which data leads to a crystallisation of the key pressure points and some relatively simple responses.

Must move on to Chapter 2 now – I face the rest of the book with enthusiasm.


[1] T S Eliot “Choruses from ‘The Rock’ – 1934, 1.The Eagle soars in the summit of Heaven

[2] Phillips, Brad C. and Horowitz, Jordan E. (2017) Creating a Data-Informed Culture in Community Colleges: A New Model for Educations, Harvard Education Press, Cambridge, MA.

Ask Peter Snell! It’s not how you start, it’s how you finish!

Stuart Middleton


22 April 2018

It is true that Education at all levels is a complex business. But that is not a reason for us to head towards complexity when we try to explain what we do or, more importantly, when we measure what we do?

There are significant attempts being made in the US to development and implement programmes aimed at attending to the continuing depressed levels of outcomes for what is sometimes called “subgroups of interest” but more likely to be known as “priority learners in New Zealand. These are the groups of students who are first-in-family / first generation students, younger students (NZ Under-25s), racial / ethnic subgroups (NZ Māori and Pasifika) and, in the US largely, because of the structure of the student financial assistance programmes, students of low income.

Quite rightly all these programmes require measures of effectiveness. Emerging strongly from all this discussion is a view that qualification completion is the the best measure. This does not mean completion eventually but completion in a timely period. In turn, this means that a three year programme is completed by a full-time student in three years. Of course the length of time for part-time students to complete is proportionate to the extend of the time commitment to study – a student studying for 50% of the time would be expected to complete in double the time.

This requires a little more sophistication in measuring completion than is currently the case. The process of reporting completion based on “completing within X years” in not an adequate measure because it ignores that students could meet the softer measure (i.e. completion of a three year programme within six years could conceal a student’s journey characterised by failure, repetition of courses, difficulties faced but conquered in time, disruptive breaks in study, slow starts to the programme, a lack of targetted, timely responses in the provision of support, and so on.

Whereas a student measured by a simple “completion in a timely mannerz’ (i.e. a 1 year programme completed in one year, a 2 year programme in two, a 3 year ….. etc) provides a proxy assurance that all or most of the programme has been delivered appropriately, that support requested has been provided, that support needed has been identified and responsed to and that the student has manged to attend diligently, made good use of alternate learning experiences (e.g. on-line support and instruction, has felt that they have been in a community of learners and family support has been forthcoming when required.

Now, to head towards this simple and clear measure of success, free of abivalence and ambiguity, understood by both student and teachers, is no simple matter. There has to be a raft of support services, onboarding procedures, targetted interventions at both an individual and group level, involvement of support professionals and teaching professionals working in tandem to support students and the areas such a health care, counselling services, IT help and support, transport advice and support.

And if the measure is to focus on “timely” completion, the importance of Academic Mapping and Career Planning which plans the student journey from start to finish is an imperative. Much better than the prevailing approach of “let’s start and we will see what happens…”. Such initial plans of course are open to amendment but New Zealand, particularly the ITP Sector, has many fewer opportunities for optional courses so this would not be as big an issue or task.

In the US students starting a programme need to factor in required supplemental courses, a general education programme and a number of prerequisites for their eventual major. We have the same issues but expressed differently. Are students prepared academically for the studies ahead? Are there opportunities for them to access means opportunities to attend to perceived and real academic issues before they start?

A commitment to the goal – Timely Completion – would position institutions to much greater levels of focus than is typically the case now.

Students who complete are students who continue. Students who succeed commend the experience to others. Students with qualifications get a chance at entering employment that is denied to those who don’t. Who wouldn’t want to see institutions getting the benefit of this?

Peter Blake had a question that he used to test any suggestion of something the programme should do: Will it make the boat go faster? Those who sail in the education waka might ask of ourselves when considering what we would like to do and how we would like to spend the revenue: “Will it help the students succeed?”

NCEA and the Performing Seal of Approval


Stuart Middleton

14 March 2018


Teachers are reported (NZ Herald, 13 March 2018) to be “gobsmacked” by revelations that in NCEA some subjects have higher levels of performance than others. This utterly astonishing information shows that 69% of students in Home and Life Studies pass while in Languages 93% pass. The story gets worse! In Languages 43% achieve “excellence” but only 9% in Home and Life Sciences get “excellence”.

It should not be news at all to teachers that students who study some subjects are better at their school work than students in some other subjects. Teachers know only too well that some students bring into the secondary school a higher level of academic preparation and perhaps aptitude and disposition than others. And the process of moving through the school system sees this reflected in subject choice and perhaps even the advice given to students. While schools would advance the view that the old approach of streaming / tracking students has well and truly gone, it could be that it is as clearly defined now informally in the practices in school as it has ever been.

But other things puzzle me. I thought that some of the issues teachers had with NCEA was that it failed to discriminate between different levels of ability in students and ignored the differences between “hard” subjects and “soft options” as they are frequently described. Well here is evidence that it does discriminate.

The suggestion advanced in the recent The NZ Initiative report “Spoiled by Choice”[1] that we introduce a “weighted relative performance index” which would even out the differences or, at least, reorganise them into a more acceptable pattern.

This would take us back into one of the worst features of the old School Certificate approach with its “hierarchy of means”. It worked like this. Student’s performance in a set of “gold standard” subjects (English, Maths, Science and Biology if my memory is right) would establish their true ability. The performance of a set of students in another subject, let’s call it Medieval War Machines, would be referenced back to the performance of that group of students in the gold standard set. This would establish with “scientific accuracy” the mean for Medieval War Machines and would be the basis on which the students were scaled.

One of the factors that blew the whistle on this was the scaling down, to low levels, of Māori students with high levels of fluency in Maori but less impressive performance in the gold standard set of subjects – it was all highly open to challenge and quite hidden – the boffins in the back rook controlled the future lives of so many people.

Actually the replacing of “not achieved / achieved” with “not achieved / achieved / merit and excellence” was the most significant compromise made to NCEA and The NZ Initiative Report rightly notes this in the excellent section on compromises. However my recollection is that it was not as tied to the introduction of Achievement Standards as the report records. I remember the day when the notion of some passes being formally recognised as being better than other passes.

Dr Lockwood Smith, Minister of Education, at the time, established a Principals Lead Group to assist with the final development and introduction and I was fortunate to be able to serve on it. It was a group of two caucuses – the more liberal and the more conservative. One day, at a meeting in Wellington, an NZQA official came into the meeting and proposed the “achieved, merit and excellence” categories for recording success. I and several others saw this as a fundamental abrogation of the principles of standards-based assessment. The conservative wing were joyous, at last their students would receive the recognition they so deserved and it would be clear that they were better students than those in the schools represented by those of us who had reservations.

A grand irony of this is that very soon, those who had supported the differentiation of recognition of performance by and large turned their backs on NCEA and imported an examination into their schools that would allow them to carry on without change. That is their right and I have always respected it. But a key issue in the development of NCEA is that it was a development that would benefit markedly the students who were not in the university-headed group which current stands at 28% of the school cohort but great weight was placed on the views of those who led schools full of students for whom NCEA did not have the relevance it had for other students.

NCEA has a capacity to allow the other 72% to proceed along pathways that will help them become well-qualified and employed. It is not an accident that the recent figures released show that the institution that leads the tertiary sector in terms of earning power of students measured five years after completion, is a polytechnics strongly committed to standards-based learning and to seeing NCEA as a most powerful pathway across the divide between secondary school and tertiary providers. It works!


[1] Lipson, B (2018) Spoiled by Choice, The New Zealand Initiative, Wellington

The Balloon goes up for the NCEA Discussion

Stuart Middleton


5 March 2018


The hasty and ideological call for a review of NCEA was certain to achieve one thing – all the tired old arguments carefully assembled to stop NCEA being introduced 15 years ago and trotted out for an airing each December when the media feasts on stories related to the NCEA examinations and again in January when students receive results, would be certain to be dusted off.

The first shot at this is the report coming from the NZ Initiative which on its release was given wide coverage by the weekend newspapers. One story begins with the assertion that “We have been deluded ourselves into thinking that we are doing well, the NZ Initiative report argues.” No-one would refute this, New Zealand has for some decades and long-before NCEA came on the scene dined out on the belief that we had the best education system in the world.

But some educators knew otherwise as the system continued to fail to deliver equitable results for all students – the university-bound were doing well and this was in fact the only group that was. The other 70% were either simply not succeeding in the conventional school curriculum to an acceptable standard or were receiving a diet of teaching and learning that was disconnected from their life and devoid of any clear connection to the world of work.

It took a government official who was leading a major education agency, in an Emperor’s New Clothes moment, to declare that just as the new clothes were invisible so too was the notion that the education system was meeting the needs of all students.

Indeed the coverage of the NZ Initiative notes the improvements for NCEA completion among Maori and Pasifika and the increase in the proportion of those groups getting University Entrance. Something’s working. But the reported aspersion cast on that performance by the dark suggestion that the improvement might have been based on “learning that is of dubious value” reveals another set of beliefs about the curriculum. The value of learning is invested with value by the purposes for which it is both intended and applied. Clearly the learning required of those intent on becoming doctors of medicine is different from those wanting to work in building and construction and the anatomy of a motor vehicle is very different from that of a human being.

The remains a belief that the curriculum required for entry into university sets the standard to which should aspire.

“Harder” is not a very valuable description of learning – and even a cursory reading of the descriptors of learning on the NZ Qualifications Framework would reveal a carefully crafted set of outcome statements that progressively require a high level of performance by students as they travel through Levels 1-3 in the secondary school, then through certificates, diplomas and first degrees (levels 4-7) and, if their pathway requires it, postgraduate work up to Level 10. Now 5 is higher than 2 and 10 higher than both of them. It is the level that describes the extent to which learning is “harder” to use the vernacular and as students progress through the levels they are being prepared for the level of work required of them at each step.


The call for a core curriculum is puzzling. A look at the NZ Curriculum document would ease people’s minds. New Zealand has always had a core curriculum and continues to have a core curriculum. It is hard not to think that what people are seeking is to ask for that core curriculum to be extended well into the senior secondary school. That is an entirely different discussion. Prolonging a student’s exposure to a set of curriculum areas that they have engaged with for 10, 11, or 12 years is unlikely to achieve much. Raising the school leaving age has a poor reputation internationally as a means of raising performance and, indeed, the notion of a school leaving age is in tatters as 20% of students have disappeared from the school system by the age of 16 years.

What is greatly to be desired is a curriculum in the senior secondary school that will engage students and take then on to pathways that excite them, offer them a sight of the future and start the process of equipping them for employment. In short, the differentiated senior school curriculum rather than a diet of the stuff you need for university study will be the way forward.

Indeed, many secondary schools are doing this and the growth of secondary / tertiary programmes (which is another story) has been made possible by a system of credit that is flexible in terms of both subjects to be studied and the site where that is done. NCEA has been a central instrument in allow this to happen.

I look now to read at leisure the NZ Initiative Report rather than the press treatments of it. With the impending review of NCEA starting, there will be much to engage our minds in the near future.