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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.



We are all in this Bird Cage Together


Stuart Middleton


1 March 2018

It seems appropriate given its location on the West Coast of New Zealand with its many coal mines, that the Tai Poutini Polytechnic should be something of a canary caged in the labyrinth of funding and operational constraints that is the ITP and Polytechnic world.

Yes, the institution has pretty serious issues that cannot be ignored or denied and these have been well publicised – the lowest rating possible from NZQA in terms of quality a declining student enrolment, the tyranny of distance (the West Coast is the equivalent of Auckland to Wellington in length) and a horrific financial position. The Government will “inject” a further $8.5m to sit alongside the almost $25m previously written off because the institution could not afford to pay back the debt owed to the Crown resulting from the under-delivery of its programmes.

But while the canary might be close to croaking rather than singing, none of this a justification for lumping all polytechnics into the same basket. The sector does face issues but they are not the issues of management, or of governance, or of the difficulties of location. The major element the sector shares with Tai Poutini is that of declining numbers which in large measure this must be managed through manipulating its portfolio and staffing – it is not easy.

The TEC got it wrong when it characterised the issues as being “outside the metropolitan centres” with the assertion that the impact of “increase in costs, and little or no money to invest in capital works or operational improvements” left those institutions with little or no money to act as a “buffer against a downturn in revenue”, (this in the TEC briefing to the incoming Minister). For different reasons this could equally be said of the metropolitan ITPs.

The warning signs are right across the sector but the way in which issues impact on different institutions is in itself different. Tai Poutini is not typical. To attempt to address the issues of the sector in a single way is about as useful as a doctor going into the crowded waiting room and announcing that “Today I am going to treat everyone for urinary infection!”

For instance, the issues faced in Auckland are different and are caused somewhat by the sector itself. There is decline in enrolments but this is exacerbated by competition from ITPs whose home regions are outside of the Auckland region. By my reckoning, nine of the 14 ITPs who are not domiciled in Auckland are operating campuses in Auckland targeting international students and offering a small number of other popular programmes. The TEC is complicit in this situation in as much as it has at some time and one way or another, approved this. The two ITPs that are of Auckland, rather than simply being in Auckland, are in essence competing with the sector. The net result is that the performance of both groups is distorted.

I welcome the Minister’s promised review especially if it addresses the measures required to return ITPs to their regional mission and to enact the intention of the TEAC reforms (early 1990s?) in spelling out the “distinctive contributions “of the tertiary sector.

An early view of the polytechnic sector resulted in the establishment of the “Hawkes Bay Community College” in 1974 which would provide technical and vocational programmes alongside a mixture of ACE-style programming aimed at the social and intellectual needs of the community. It became a one-off and morphed into EIT- the Eastern Institute of Technology. Returning ITPs to the commitment to community would allow Investment Plans and special funding to reflect the particular and demonstrated needs of communities.

TEAC was quite an influential set of reforms (indeed it established TEC). One of its themes was “distinctive contributions” – the idea that Universities, ITPs, Wānanga, ITOs and PTEs would each contribute to the needs of the community is ways that were different, a sound and worthy goal. But just as once the road to hell was paved with good intentions, in the future at some point the road to hell will be packed with sign-written SUVs of education providers, windows down, all playing ABBA’s “Money, Money Money!”. The Minister would be well advised to read those TEAC Reports (I think there were four of them).

In a recent release (22/02/2018) the Minister started that what was needed for a “better and fairer tertiary sector” was one in which differences between public, private and community providers are clearer and more consistent.” So what is the response to this wish? “To set up CTEP (Community Tertiary Education Providers that are not-for-profit community groups providing tertiary education for the public good. This change will allow the public to distinguish them from for-profit providers.”

Responses such as this do not bode well for a review that addresses the real issues and arrives at serious and appropriate responses to them!

Paying the Price for Daring to be Different


Stuart Middleton


13 February 2018


The Government’s 100 day gallop is over and education got the trifecta.

First, tertiary free fees for the first year of tertiary study introduced at speed and free of any targeting.

Secondly, National Standards go out the door replaced by nothing at all, leaving parents to wonder if their children are on track.

Thirdly, and this was no surprise, Partnership Schools will go or perhaps remain in some other form, or perhaps…… Whatever they will be wrapped back into the very system to which they offered an alternative.

These changes were each signaled in the election campaign, an event that inevitably sees a scramble of ideas is tossed into the fray by all and sundry, underpinned by little policy and even less consultation other, perhaps than with a chosen few people and organisations.

The Government’s reported reasons for dealing to the Partnership Schools are somewhat puzzling; while claiming that they were abolishing them because they were introduced for ideological reasons, they now appear to be taking these steps for their own purely ideological reasons. Let’s see a robust argument that will counter the considerable evidence internationally that would support the view that they are well worth supporting – the best of them are superb. In fact, just as there are excellent, struggling and indifferent public schools, there are excellent, struggling and indifferent charter schools. To characterize them all as unworthy is misleading and unfair.

Right across the English-speaking world, Partnership Schools were seen as a different way of working which could bring success to students who were not catered for in the mainstream system. In New Zealand this included significantly, Māori and Pasifika students. New Zealand has a variety of school types; State, State Integrated, Independent, Special Character, Kura Kaupapa, Special Needs, Alternative Schools, each cater for different sets of students in different kinds of communities.

Partnership Schools with their capability of working differently, offering a changed curriculum, using different organizational approaches, offering students different ranges of teachers, and so on. The different business model that Partnership Schools were able to use might have informed the mainstream system had it been allowed to flourish but it now seems likely to be dampened by the conventional and outdated resourcing structures that hold schools back.

And what is so frightening about this tiny number of schools prepared to be different?

The mainstream schooling system in New Zealand might no longer be fit for purpose into the 21st Century. It does the conventional well for the 33% who go on to university or into degree programmes at Institutes of Technology and Polytechnics. But it serves the rest in a very patchy manner. It has taken the development of Secondary / Tertiary Programmes to show that with motivation, different programmes, using NCEA to its full capability all based on sound working relationships between secondary schools and tertiary institutions which results in a very significant number of students succeeding where once they had mixed results.

The conventional secondary schools of the English-speaking education systems will always face difficulties in trying to achieve equitable results simply because they have for the past 60 years never had to. Current secondary schools are simply not equipped to do so. The scale of disengagement from the school system escalated when schools saw the industrial arts go into postsecondary settings blocking off the valuable pathways to employment that schools had once provided for so many.

A Totara Falls, Many Mourn and a New Day Dawns


Stuart Middleton


9 February 2018


Kua hinga te totara o te wao nui o Tane

The death of a chief is described by Maori as the falling of the totara tree in the great forest of Tane. The totara tree at Manukau Institute of Technology has fallen in this little part of the great forest. MIT has been mourning the death of Kukupa Tirakatene, our long serving Kaumatua, Kaiako o te Reo Maori, Kaiākau, Rangatira, Matua, Papa and friend to so many both at MIT and across Aotearoa.

Such a period of time is cause for reflection and as the tangi held at MIT ran its course, I thought often of my twin brother, Ewen, who passed away two years ago and who had worked with Kū at Rosehill College over a decade or so when Kū introduced Te Reo Māori into that school and was the only Maori teacher on the staff. As was the case in those times when this was common, the teacher of Te Reo was the go-to person for all matters Maori and all issues facing Maori students.

Such a role was demanding and my brother often mentioned the remarkable work being done by Kū in that setting, the assistance given to teachers and the huge contribution made to the school.

It was not to be the only time that Kū was to take an education institution and hold its hand as it took first steps and then increasingly bolder steps along the path towards a place where equity, parity, tino rangatiratanga, Te Tiriti, and manaakitanga started to impact on the minds, awareness and eventually the practices of those who work in it. It is quite a journey as this tapestry is woven.

Kū’s trademark kaikōrero at powhiri was “E kore e taea e te whenu kotahi ki te raranga I te whariki kia mohio ai tatou ki a tatou mā te mahi tahi o ngā whenu” – “The tapestry of understanding cannot be woven by one strand alone”.  The extended metaphor of weavers working together to achieve the fabric was how he exhorted people to behave, to work with others to achieve results but to also take note of the mistakes made (the “dropped stitches”) because there are learnings in them.

At MIT Kū lived these principles over a long time, working with some remarkable people – Tupae Pepe, Hapimana Rikihana, Dr Ranginui Walker, Sonny Rauwhero, Blackie Pohatu, and Maurice Wilson are names that spring to mind – to achieve things that were then new to MIT; teaching te Reo Māori, courses on Treaty Awareness, processes for ensuring that programmes took up opportunities they presented to reflect ako Maori and in the late 1990s the establishment of the Nga Kete Wananga Marae. All of these developments ebbed and flowed over time but increasingly such concerns were coming on to centre stage locally, regionally and nationally throughout Aotearoa.

In the early 2000s MIT instituted a project called Target 2010. Its goals were appropriate for then and focused on professional knowledge of staff and increased participation of Maori and Pacific communities in polytechnic education at MIT. A key element of this work was that the focus was on both Maori and Pacific and Kū’s contribution to bringing Pacific communities and students into a closer focus should not be underestimated. He celebrated both strands of the project and supported initiatives that established the key principles which saw the Pacific focus flourish but alongside a context where the kawa and tikanga of tangata whenua was respected and perhaps even strengthened.

MIT is embarking on a new wave of activity to achieve parity between priority learner groups and the overall performance of the institute. And as it pushes it boats out on this one, it will be without Kū Tirikātene, we will not have our Kaiākau, Papa Kū, to steer the canoe but we do have the learnings we have taken from his whakatauki, his karakia and and his example.

After a great tree has fallen in the forest there is a time of silence – the forest is grieving. Then over time the birdsong returns, other trees start to fill the gap and the forest seems to return to normal. But it is never the same.

Kua hinga te totara o te wao nui o Tane

Haere ra e te rangatira, haere, haere, haere atu ra.




Hitting the target of poverty or firing blanks?


Stuart Middleton


31 January 2017

Today our still fresh Government will release its first major statement about poverty. It already has had mixed responses but an open mind might wait until we see what it says then we can wait a little to see if anyone does what it says. One hopes that the approach doesn’t set to establish poverty as a unique and new condition that requires a raft of quangos, new trusts, and significant expenditure on response infrastructure. Some of the answers to the questions are blindingly obvious.

There is in every community within walking distance a capability to address poverty, and with a bit of assistance it could see that capability contribute significantly to the eradication of poverty. They are called schools and they are networked and with a change of attitude could well be the pathways from poverty into the space where there is equality.

For there is general agreement that poverty and literacy go hand in hand to attacking the shameful levels of poverty in this blessed and rich country. To call it “child poverty” is cute but somewhat dangerous. There are adults living in the condition that results in child poverty – it is poverty, full stop! Furthermore, the issues are not totally age-related but are embedded across the society in which we all live and for which we have responsibilities for all those who make that society what it is – the good, the bad, and the ugly. When it comes to those large societal issues there is no them, only facets of us. Someone else said that but it rings true to me.

I started school in 1951 and the shadow of World War II still hung heavily over the country. But were children in schools ignored? Our health was constantly monitored by health professionals who prodded and seemed always to poke needles into us, and weighed us and generally got hold of parents with support and advice when necessary. A half a pint of milk, often warmed by the sun I recall, was our compulsory morning tea. Dental nurses followed with interest the growth of our teeth and exhibited interest in what we ate. There were health camps for young ones who would benefit from fresh air, a change, and perhaps better habits.

In the standards we were taught by an older fellow from the Department of Agriculture how to have a garden. Seeds were given to us and demonstrations given, before we planted them at home. I recall that several visits were made by the “Ag. Guy” before a final inspection at time of harvest and, if we had done well, a Dept. of Agriculture Certificate was issued. It instilled knowledge and habits that have lasted a lifetime


My point is that there is a lot that schools can do and some are doing already to provide the tools that have some potential to beat poverty. The basic and essential skills of literacy and numeracy are central – schools need to have a much more greatly developed focus on these skills – they are central to developing a level of equality between members of a community. A child who reaches the end of primary education without the basic skills has been disabled by the educative experience because they most surely arrived with the capability of learning in them.

Well, perhaps all do not! This emphasises the critical importance of early childhood education. If 94.1% of under-fives have access to pre-school then I worry about 5.9% who do not. This is quite a number and they will be concentrated in particular communities. Each and every school should have a pre-school department. And this begs the question of whether the ECE provision currently available is of an evenly high standard across the sector. Quality measures have to be applied to centres to call out the centres that are simply there making money for the shareholders (and making plenty thanks to ill-targeted government resources). This should be easy but in itself will not be enough.

Schools are a critical weapon in fighting poverty. Primary, secondary and tertiary education institutions should have goals that must be reached. But there is only a faint chance of this when we see the education system seemingly moving away from measures at the primary level (ref. National Standards) and from targets for achievement in the secondary school (ref. PBS Goals). Will tertiary follow suit to soften the demands being made? I think not as greater focus is placed on qualification completion, parity of outcomes for Maori and Pasifika and a developing awareness of first-in-family students (as high as 40% of students in some institutions). Does an untargeted fees free environment in Tertiary guarantee that these issues will be addressed? Targets, expectations, performance measures are all weapons in the fight against poverty. Without the targeting of state resources poverty will continue unchallenged.

Finally, education has to be accompanied by employment. Working from a base of 22% youth unemployment without clear initiatives that will result in the opportunity to earn and family sustaining wage, will only continue to perpetrate poverty and the ugly social behaviours that can accompany it.

So the Government knows where the target is, now it needs a full quiver of sharp arrows.


Paying Lip-service to Learning and Teaching Languages

Stuart Middleton


16 January 2018

One might have thought that New Zealand had by now understood the critical importance of teaching languages other than English.

The shameful shepherding of Te Reo Māori towards a point where there was a possibility that it might be lost as a language that was used, just as the languages of Wales and Hawai’I had become was probably closer than the public understood. Reaching that point is one of potential social devastation. The performance of the NZ Education system and its poor, even lamentable results for Māori over many decades, can be seen in some part as a consequence of an education system that used the first language of the colonising community while demanding that the indigenous and all new-comers learn in a second language.

More importantly, the road back from that point where the existence of a language is under threat is has been difficult, expensive and a burden borne disproportionately by the respective communities. But attitudes are changing, actions are being taken, and status to Te Reo Māori is being accorded. Over a long period of time the language will survive and even flourish. Is New Zealand going to sit around and see successive generation of children from the Pacific go down that same route? New Zealand as a South Pacific Island nation has special responsibilities in this!

As a country we have only nibbled at recognising other languages publicly – but it is only a start in comparison to the efforts in Ireland and Wales. We have only nibbled at the notion of bilingual signage, simultaneous translation, and use of other languages on public occasions. Progress is seen mostly with the official languages. Canada has found that it comes easily when you want to do it!

As a country we still suppress the first / community / home languages of many children in schools –thousands of them. Each day children leave the security of their homes where they understand the language being used to walk into a foreign land where a new and different language is used. At the end of the day they walk home to India, to Samoa, to Somalia, to….

We have shown little commitment to supporting (including teaching) Pasifika languages in schools. This is reprehensible in light of the responsibilities New Zealand has as a South Pacific Island nation.

It is not that nothing is being done. But the scale is inadequate, the speed with initiatives too slow and the resources too scarce.

“We have a shortage of teachers, let’s make that a priority” is the cry. When it comes to the teaching of community languages this is simply untrue. The different communities that reflect the array of languages has within its ranks large numbers of members of the community who with resources and with relatively light support could teach these languages to children. But of course, teaching remains the closed shop and that has in part been a contributory feature that has exacerbated our slow progress with languages. The conventional programmes taught by the conventional (and talented) supply of teachers has not yet addressed the language issue. So we need to work differently. Scandinavia sets the standard for utilising the community resources in languages to see that those entering its school without the language of the school are supported. The way is there but we now need to find a will!

Quite simply, bilingual brains are better brains. A student’s strength in a new, second, or third language is dependent on the strength of the student’s first language. Suppress that language, the language of the home, and you suppress cognitive growth and the capacity to learn.

Google Joshua Fishman to find out how the pattern of language loss for communities takes only 2-3 generations to have become an obdurate problem for communities. We know what will happen. We know what needs to be done. But we yet have little appetite to get on with the job of reflecting the pluralist society we have become. Let’s do it in a manner that celebrates our diversity and acknowledges the important role and place in our community of difference.

The lucky ones who never “left school”

Stuart Middleton


15 December 2017

I went to a prize-giving last Thursday. In itself that is not an uncommon thing to do at this time of the year. But this one had some unique differences.

  • Without exception it was a set of stories about students who had failed in school.
  • But none of the students present would ever “leave school”.
  • Many had studied for NCEA at multiple levels.
  • All had started this journey to success from a dark place.

It was the Prize-Giving for the Manukau Institute of Technology School of Secondary Tertiary Studies (popularly known in wider circles as the MIT Tertiary High School). It is a “school” that accepts students who are facing the wall at school, the ones who are left behind, even discarded. They come to the school and simultaneously study for secondary qualifications and tertiary qualifications.

What was beyond their reach in a secondary school was within their grasp in a programme that focuses on essential skills, on pride and a belief in self and on a burning purpose for learning. The students are motivated to meet expectations placed on them. The journey can only be undertaken with the guidance and teaching from first-rate teachers not only from the ranks of the secondary profession but also from a wide range of tertiary teachers and the support staff that a large post-secondary institution is able to muster. Exceptional leadership is a sine qua non.

Failure was staring them in the face at the age of 14–15-years and seemed inevitable for many. But with the benefit of a wide variety of insights from schools, parents and caregivers, grandparents and those other influencers that young people are exposed to, a different path wass chosen. And there we were, celebrating the progress and success of those on this journey.

So, what was special about this day?

There was a clear focus on high level academic success, NCEA, postsecondary qualifications, further education and training, and employment.

There was never a point when they left school, an act celebrated in conventional settings as an achievement in itself. The students has made the transition from secondary to tertiary in a totally managed way. They came in as early secondary students and leave as qualified tertiary students – there no single point in time at which this happens – it’s called managed transitions.

A number of students were receiving recognition of having achieved two different levels of NCEA in the year. Not for them the tedious progression through the levels, 1 to 2 to 3, not for them the old time- served approach. Their progress was at a pace set by them. Their programme allowed for this by understanding the flexibility of the assessment structure that is NCEA in which credit is awarded across subject and sector boundaries when the requisite skills and understanding and learning was demonstrated.

One of the students, let’s call her Agnes, summed up the potential of the Tertiary High School when she addressed the audience. She spoke honestly about the difficult and dark place she found herself in at age 15-years. Facing no prospect of success or perhaps even of staying in her school, she enquired about the THS, went through the enrolment procedures which involved her school, her caregivers, MIT and , most importantly, herself, agreement all round declared that it was worth a try.

Agnes cut her long story short by modestly glossing over the great efforts she had put in to developing wide skills of learning, achieving the secondary qualifications up to NCEA Level 3 as well as the tertiary qualifications associated with the programme, to the point where she was able to enroll in a degree programme. Almost as an aside she mentioned that in amongst this progress she also became a teen Mum. There was spontaneous and enthusiastic clapping and cheering when she concluded by telling the audience that she had completed her degree programme, was now employed and would start work the next day putting her Bachelor of Applied Sport and Exercise Science to good use.

Agnes is not the first student to gain a degree through the THS, quite a number have over the eight years the programme has existed. Many more have achieved high level technical qualifications across the wide spectrum of courses available at MIT, most have achieved NCEA to Level 2 and 3.

This is not an advertisement for Manukau Institute of Technology. but it is a testimony that there is no need for students to fail. That the education system must never give up on each and every student that it has responsibility for. Students fail because of the intractability of education’s processes, programmes and progression patterns. When different pathways are offered, purpose develops and success is possible. When care is taken to treat each student’s journey individually, solutions and engagement follow.

EdTalkNZ has tracked the issues of truancy, failure, poor educational outcomes, disengagement, and NEETs consistently over the years but seen little movement in the tragic statistics of failure. Yesterday showed that there is hope, there are better ways of working, and that there is success for all students when pathways to it open up for them.

It is not impossibly hard (there are challenges), it is not expensive (certainly no more expensive than conventional schools), and it can happen. But first we have to want success for all students.


A Primary Education without Standards?

Stuart Middleton


13 December 2017

At this time of the year in days gone past students would carry home a school report and parents would read them with great interest in one key thing – was their child going “up” to the next standard. Would that pathway from Standard 1 to Standard 2 and so on up to Standard 6 continue? And great pleasure was expressed when this was the result – usually a grunted “Well done” rather than bestowing of presents which seems now to greet any perceived achievement!

But as we approach Christmas this year, something just doesn’t make sense!

In an act that might be one of bravado or perhaps one of inspiration, the Coalition Government has abolished National Standards for the primary sector without any idea of what can or will replace it.

This has apparently been based on a call from primary teachers and principals to be allowed to “stop all this testing and reporting” so as to be able to “get on with teaching” and on a view that parents didn’t want the information that was being given to them

Let’s look at these positions and remember that this is happening at a time when it is becoming increasingly clear that student achievement is declining as they progress through primary schooling and, without being churlish in mentioning it, when confirmation has been made that on average 76,000 students are not at school on any given day (of course secondary schooling also contributes to this statistic).

If primary in responding to National Standards have indeed been focusing on literacy and numeracy at the expense of other things, it just doesn’t seem to be working nor does it show. And this might be for a very obvious reason.

You cannot simply focus on literacy and numeracy as if they were subjects in their own write. In the panoply of “school subjects”, they do not exist. “Literacy” and “numeracy” are descriptions of the application of skill-sets to learning, to the growth of skills and knowledge, to the increase in social skills and so on. In other words, they are the descriptions of progress in just about everything that primary schools should be doing and would claim to be doing.

You cannot study literacy and numeracy for no obvious reason. You cannot become literate and numerate without demonstrating the application of the skills of literacy and numeracy to learning about other things and developing other skills. You cannot report on literacy and numeracy without having observed all this.

And there is a growing body of evidence to support this view.  At Manukau institute of Technology pathways are made available to students to study, in an applied manner, many different technical areas and, in the case of the MIT Tertiary High School, undertake all their schooling in such a setting.

Typically, many of these students, after 10 years of schooling, have struggled to get the credits they need in literacy and numeracy while in the school programme. But given settings where they are required to practise the skills of literacy and numeracy for real applications and uses, they have little difficulty at all reaching the standards that are sought.

The second issue, do parents want to know what National Standards deliver to them? The TVNZ vox pop. would have you believe that they really aren’t too fussed about it. But that was when asked about National Standards which was criticised and pilloried by the primary teaching community and its leadership from their very introduction until their demise. So, who blames parents for have such views? It could even be a sign that teachers are respected in a way that is not simply rational but more a passionate grasp of the importance to schooling to later life.

It would be tragic if schools and teachers were to abuse that trust. I have never met a parent or caregiver that did not believe in the value of schooling and who did not grasp the critical importance of the work of teachers. I have, however, also met parents who asked the question “What went wrong? We sent [son/daughter] to school and [he/she] has failed.” A recent leader in education was want to say “Parents send their best children to us.”

In abandoning National Standards, the government has made a commitment to parents that increases in student achievement will be follow. In greeting their demise with pleasure, the teaching profession has declared that they can deliver higher and more equitable outcomes with a curriculum free from distortion that will take students along a pathway upwards to great things.

What a Christmas Present to parents and caregivers it would be if both the Government and the teaching profession were able to deliver great improvements and benefits this a result of this announcement and all that it leads to.