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Facing the New World Cautiously: Hobsonville and NCEA

Stuart Middleton


1 December 2015

There was a rather troubling article in the weekend papers. It was about the “bold” move of Hobsonville Point Secondary School to do away with NCEA Level 1.

Now let’s be clear, this school is clearly setting a high standard in its commitment to the new pedagogy and in its comfort in giving to students a higher degree of responsibility for their learning. It is innovative in its use of space and in all respects seems to be pushing the direction of secondary education towards a much more positive set of outcomes than is typical. So, all power to their bow for this.

If I could be a little more mischievous. I read reports are that a group of parents have removed their children from this school to send then to such schools Conventional College and the Examination Excellence Academy. This encourages me to think that the HPSS is headed in a positive direction. When you see who is against them you have to want to support them!

But I believe that their desire to jettison NCEA Level 1 is based on some misunderstandings about NCEA and is to misjudge its usefulness in supporting the very things that HPSS wishes to emphasise.

For a start, NCEA is not about examinations. This could have been the journalist speaking but the article claimed in support of the move that this would free students from the pressure of examinations. The tragedy of NCEA is that schools have had great difficulty in understanding the freedom that NCEA offers, assessment by examination is not essential and a whole array of assessment techniques can be brought into play – especially at Level 1.

Secondly, NCEA is not in any shape or form related to either time served or age reached. There is no connection in regulation or law between Year 11 and NCEA Level 1, Year 12 and NCEA Level 2, or Year 13 and NCEA Level 3. Furthermore, there is no requirement that assessments be restricted to one level at a time. For a school aiming to liberate the curriculum I cannot think of a more ideal assessment framework. For a school aiming to devolve power to students I cannot see a more motivating assessment framework that allows for assessment at any time and at multiple levels.


Could the school not have chosen simply to free up the curriculum with NCEA being available for students to nominate the points and levels at which they wish their progress to be assessed? This could start in Year 8 with no problems.

Well, the argument might run, what would you do in the more senior years if the students have attained earlier than Year 13 their New Zealand “school qualification”? The answer to that is: do what a school qualification intends, use it as a staging post for getting on with non-school / postsecondary qualifications. This would allow students to lay a sound basis for future careers while they can still access education at no cost to the parents.

Each level of the education has a role to play – primary lays down the base of essential foundation skills, secondary hones those skills into sets of discipline related pathways into careers and employment while tertiary delivers the technical skills required to start and continue in those careers.

Nobody in education plays the role of being the be-all-and-end-all to a young person’s journey through the system – we all play only a part. Using the flexibility that NCEA was designed to bring into the system is a key.

One day NZQA will deliver (and it will!) on its promise (as outlined by CE Karen Poutasi in her SPANZ 2013 speech) to make available “assessment to anyone, anywhere, anytime, online and on demand.” We need schools such as Hobsonville Point Secondary School to start showing us the way forward towards this new world.

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Serving time

A school term starts. Back to the traffic issues created by schools (in Auckland anyway) and to the long period of fine weather that the gods seem to hold back until the school holidays are over!

And back to the rigours of assessment – the traditional end to the year.

Back in the late early 1990s after the the Education Act in 1989 had established the New Zealand Qualifications Authority, the education system moved towards a standards-based assessment regime to replace the norm-referenced examination system that had been premised on a deep-seated belief that success should be rationed. The new system would finally allow students to be acknowledged for achievement and this would be able to be accrued at time other than the end of year assessment season.

Twenty years later we still struggle to give full effect to this huge change and we have become stranded in mid-stream so to speak.

Now, the other great promise was that “time served would be dead!” No longer would students have to complete set lengths of time to enter an assessment. This would allow assessments to be flexible and be able to be made at appropriate times when student could demonstrate learning. Those demonstrations could be at different levels and simultaneously so.

And what have we got?

First you must serve 10 years of education before you can have a crack at the assessments. Then you can only dip into Level 1 in the next 12 months, Level 2 in the year after that and Level 3 in the final year. And there is a focus on the external assessment. Wait a minute. Isn’t that the same as we used to have?

Well, yes and no. In terms of the rigidity of the way in which standards-based assessment is made available to students (Year 11 = Level 1, Year 12 = Level 2, Year 3 = Level 3) it is not dissimilar to the old SC / 6th Form Certificate / Bursary routine. We had managed to socialise the new so that it resembled the old. In having to wait until Year 11 to start the qualifications trail it is the same.

But there are also some differences – the focus on assessment throughout the year and the engagement of students in how their work is assessed and what it is worth are different from the old mystery envelope approach.

NZQA is on a journey to provide assessment on line, anywhere and anytime. This is a bold initiative because it will at some point have to confront the practices in school which are not flexible and in their current state probably could not cope with the individual emphasis and freedoms that this development implies.

Making assessment available in the way that NZQA aspires will open the door to some potential developments such as:

·         increased responsibility on the part of students to manage their education journey in terms of accruing the evidence of achievement;

 ·         greater availability of multilevel assessment which avoids making students undertake Level 1 then Level 2 when they can already demonstrate Level 3 competencies;

 ·         offering courses in the senior school that are more modular and shorter in length rather than only a set of year-long subjects;

 ·         allowing students to start earlier and move more quickly in areas of greater aptitude.

There was recently a statement that there could be merit in looking at a national assessment in Year 10. Certainly, it has long been a need for greater focus in that year and even my old school introduced a Form 4 Certificate in 1960! But is there a need for something new? Could not NCEA Level 1 start in Year 10? Many students would relish the opportunity to get on with their qualifications. Of course it has implications for the length of schooling and perhaps many would be moving on to the next stage in their educational pathway earlier than is the current practice.

We need to challenge the use of time in education. I know of only one other institution in our society where you serve time, and even there you get time off for good behaviour!


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One of the promises made all those years ago when then Minister of Education Hon Dr Lockwood Smith initiated a review of qualifications in New Zealand was that “time served would be dead.”  In other words there would be flexibility in the pathways that students could travel towards better futures.

 Finally, twenty years later, the small shot has been fired.

You see, as I have said on many occasions, it is not what changes do to schools but rather what schools do to those changes.  Ways are found of socialising them into the old ways of working.  New approaches end up as the old approaches but described with new words.  Thomas Kuhn wrote of the difficulty of avoiding this as he described the nature of a paradigm shift for that is what the proposed changes to the qualifications system was.

First the system has to move away from the old system. The move to competency based assessment is announced and unit standards leading to credit outlined, the move had started.

Secondly, you move into a period of uncertainty in which the final shape of the changes is not yet clear or fixed.  This is an unsettling period.  In an ideal world where change is easy you then emerge into the third stage where the new world flourishes and we celebrate the improvements that are apparent.

If T S Eliot is right to say that human kind cannot bear very much reality then I say that education cannot bear very much uncertainty.  Of course the two are related, to accept the uncertainty of a paradigm shift you have first to accept that the change necessary – in other words accept the reality.  In that case the reality was that the examination system was spitting out half the students each year as failures when demonstrably those students often knew quite a lot and had many skills.  Being assigned to failure at such an early age is not the best foundation for later success.  It is not good for them and it is not good for us!

As a result the education system started to turn the new system into one that fitted the paradigm of the old.  Merely demonstrating competence would not do – “achieved” was not enough and “merit” and “excellence” were introduced.  Then the unit standards were developed as quasi- curriculum so that they could be taught as courses called NCEA Level 1, NCEA Level 2 and NCEA Level 3.  This fitted neatly into the framework of Year 11, replacing School C, Year 12, replacing Sixth Form Cert., and Level 3 replacing Bursary – Scholarship was of course retained for 3% of those studying a subject at Year 13 (there is quite a lot of structure in that statement).  What was never understood was that it was the old norm-referenced external assessment lock-step-by-year, lock-step-by-level paradigm that was being replaced.

So the address to the recent SPANZ Conference from NZQA CE Karen Poutasi was exciting in its promise that “….. NZQA intends to change the current paradigm and to discuss with you some of the thinking we have done around digital assessment…..” This was described at length in the speech but in a later radio news report Karen Poutasi described it crisply saying that she expects that NZQA would deliver assessments to anyone, anywhere, anytime, online and on demand.”

This is the first move in fulfilling the early promise that “time served would be dead.”  If the assessments are freed with regard to time, form and place then the structures which currently restrain any move away from the old paradigm no longer apply.  Nor need the requirement that students move in room-sized groups through Level 1 then Level 2 then Level 3 apply.

Programmes such as the MIT Tertiary High School are showing that assessment using unit standards and achievements standards across sector boundaries and at multi-levels is not only possible but proving to be in the best interests of students.  Add to that the flexibility of web-based assessment and the system can be liberated from the structures that are currently crippling any significant attack on failure, disengagement and low educational outcomes.

I am glad that Karen Poutasi used the word “paradigm”.  The changes started twenty years ago are certainly of that order and might now even be achieved.  I can already hear the issues that will be raised by the web-based assessment proposal but they will be nothing that cannot be solved.  I can imagine that the real crunch will be that teachers who wish change to exploit the opportunities in the interests of their students will be constrained by the command structures of schools and of the wider system.

Thomas Kuhn also made clear the renewed energy that comes with a new paradigm – we could all do with a bit of that!



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Talk-ED: Examinations and the Rugby World Cup Final

Stuart Middleton
25 October 2011


Just seconds after the referee blew full time in the final of the Rugby World Cup, television showed a brief glimpse of the engraver setting to work on putting the name of the winning team on the William Webb Ellis Trophy – “2011 New Zealand”.

He didn’t engrave “New Zealand (just)” or “New Zealand (by the skin of their teeth)”.  Winning or losing this game of Rugby was a binary matter. Regardless of the winning margin, the team on top was the winner.

There is a long tradition of this binary distinction in education as most awards were either “passed” or “failed”. The size of the winning margin seemed less important than simply passing. Those of us who squeaked through School Certificate back in the pass/fail days were happy with the arrangement. Unknown to us there were of course plenty of people to whom the size of the margin mattered but those were the ones for whom winning in terms of pass/fail was less important than beating others.

Of course there was a downside to this binary business and many a young student had the course of their careers and possibly even lives changed by the odd mark or two assigned by an anonymous examiner. That changed in the mid-1970s when students were given the right to request that they get their marked examination scripts back. This made explicit the odd mistake in marking and, more importantly, brought out into the open the whole business of scaling of results according to a “hierarchy of means” based on a hierarchy of subjects.

This is also reflected in the Rugby World Cup where some teams have to play every 4 or so days while others have longer breaks. It is of course simply a hierarchy of countries based on the seeding process. But unlike other sports that apply a seeding, to base more favourable conditions on those in the top group is a tough ask. In tennis all the seeds play with about the same frequency. Sport is after all meant to be a level playing field as they say.

A less satisfactory sequel coming from the pass/fail mentality of previous examination systems has been the carrying into new ways of working, those old attitudes. New Zealand has in its NCEA school leaving examinations a credit based system in which students accumulate credits at three different levels and with three kinds of award (credit, merit and excellence – the old hierarchical habits linger on).

It is less than helpful to have young people believing that they have “passed” Level 1 or Level 2 when in fact what they have done is to break  through the minimum total of credits required to be awarded recognition at that level. The best students should simply power on to higher and better things.

Worse is the habit of credit harvesting that sees students fixated on the minimum total and without pattern or purpose gathering credits from wherever they can. This leads to sets of “achievement” that lack coherence and integrity and which forms a shaky basis on which to plan for further study. But never mind, they passed!

Of course it takes a long time for myths to be replaced. The old pass/fail system suggested that there were standards, golden standards set for all time. There never was. There was simply a set of mathematical sleight-of-hand procedures that established how many passed.

To think again about the “fails”. I wonder if a trophy like that of the Rugby World Cup should also record the runners-up and the score which might have appeal to some educators who are sometimes shy of a harsh truth. Or perhaps to take a lesson from education where a group of invigilators could meet at the end of the final and announce which was the better team – there’s a novel idea!

Let’s stick with the pass/fail, forget the margins, forget the quality of the play. We scored one more point and we are World Champions.

And just like my School Certificate from 50 years ago, who is going to care about the score!



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Little boxes

Stuart Middleton
New Zealand Education Review
Vol. 14 No.25, 3 July 2009, p.16
APN Educational Media (NZ) Ltd.

Containers have a fascination for us from a very young age. There is no need for Fisher Price toys when you have the pot cupboard handy. Put a little one in a sand pit with a few containers and they will immediately fill them.

It seems to meet some urge in us to be tidy.

I have sometimes in an idle moment wondered if there were not some parallels between the way we organise education and the way we run a container port.

If you think of the age cohort basis on which we assign students to classes and then the inexorable application of age-based promotion there are some similarities. Ah, here is a container full of Year X children delivered on schedule at the port and the straddle carrier will be back to shift them around the port at the end of the year. There is little qualitative assessment made of what is in the container at the end of that year when, sure enough, the straddle carrier arrives to whisk them all off to another part of the complex.

After a few shifts around the place the container is shipped off to another port somewhere else. I wonder if when the students who leave to go to secondary school they are primary exports? Of course the containers are sorted with increasing frequency as the years roll by.

It might be a tidy way of running education systems, but in terms of individual students there is an element of hit and miss about it.

If a student has not achieved at one level, to ship them off to another level is simply an arbitrary decision. They take with them gaps in knowledge and skills which start to place extraordinary pressure on teachers as those gaps accumulate into significant unpreparedness for learning at that next level.

As pathways have got narrower and fewer for young people, it is not surprising that, like the Telecom woman, they are perched on the outside of the container rather than inside where all the action is. And as the seas of economic pressures, of employment, of further education and training get choppier the risk of falling off completely becomes very real.

Change requires us to be less tidy, to be less concerned about the containers of our thinking to this point and to learn to live with some spills for a time. The whole notion of paradigm shifts advanced by Thomas Kuhn requires us to periodically live with untidiness as one container of our world view is replaced by another. However it is not a tidy process. We have to move away from one container with which we have developed some comfort before the new container starts to take shape. So periods of great uncertainty are critical to any significant change.

And where have this occurred in education? Well perhaps not very often. The shift from norm-referenced assessment to one more aligned to achievement / performance based assessment might be a key one and we are having great difficulty in coping with the uncertainty of that change.

I personally think that somewhere up ahead lies another significant paradigm shift in education as the model of education sectors adapts to new and different demands.

It could be that as we moved away from a heavy emphasis on workplace learning up until the 1980’s to see it replaced by institution-based learning across both the conventional academic and the conventional non-academic areas of learning we were in fact taking part in a paradigm shift of some significance. But we are certainly now struggling to fit what is happening into the containers of the education system’s containers. You see, if the greatest part of learning is now to take place in institutions, then perhaps such a shift requires us to consider the nature of those institutions. And certainly the nature of the relationship between industry, business and the wider world of work and educational settings is challenged.

We glibly use phrases like “think outside the square” to capture the process of questioning the containers. But it could be that the notion that there is a square to think outside of is in itself a false assumption.

But events of this week have entirely ripped the notion of containers away from my grasp as they are now to be firmly embedded in the thinking of the Department of Corrections. And why didn’t I see it coming? The issue is not that the image of schools I started out with was based on containers but that they were shipping containers.

The use of containers as cells for convicts returns incarceration back to its roots as the Australian relationship with the shipping of convicts receives its modern expression through this innovation. It is one small step, having decided to containerise prisoners to then actually load them onto ships.

Could not these containerised prisons be loaded on to super-large megastructure ships that could cruise around New Zealand giving all communities a chance to take their share of the burden of caring for those who transgress?

Actually once the ships are at sea it could be that Australia beckons?

You can just imagine the folk songs!

Farewell to New Zealand forever
Farewell to my old pals as well
Farewell to the well known High Court
Where I once used to be such a swell
Where I once used to be such a swell

Singing too-rall, li-oo-rall, li-ad-di-ty,
Singing too-rall, li-oo-rall, li-ay,
Singing too-rall, li-oo-rall, li-ad-di-ty
Oh we are bound for Botany Bay
Oh we are bound for Botany Bay.

Do we see a connection between the containerisation of young learners and the containerisation of criminals much later on? If we could get those young learners out of the container and onto a route that reflects their personal and individual needs then perhaps we could empty the prisons.

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