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Tag: change

Success most schools would die for!

There is a lovely story hidden in among the NCEA results and commentary (NZ Herald, April 9, 2015).

At first glance the appearance of Manukau Institute of Technology (MIT) seems to be a mistake – what role does a tertiary education institution have in a list of NCEA results? And the results themselves seem remarkable: Level 1 – 100%, Level 2 – 91.8% and Level 3 – 83.3%.

In 2010, MIT opened the School of Secondary Tertiary Studies (Faculty of Education and Social Sciences) , also known as the Tertiary High School, the first of its kind in New Zealand.  This programme provides a pathway to success and employment for students who in Year 10 (age 14, Form 4) faced the prospect of little or no success.

A focus on the essential skills required in education and training is placed in a context where students simultaneously undertake their schooling (NCEA) and tertiary education focusing on career and professional qualifications across a wide range of disciplines. The claim is that the MIT Tertiary High School “does not take students out of school, it keeps them in school but they will not be at school.”

The results speak for themselves. Students in their second year of secondary schooling who faced failure and the risk of dropping out have a future in this different pathway characterised by success academically, gaining industry-recognised vocational qualifications and leaving with a high prospect of employment.

The New Zealand education system has unacceptable levels of disengaged students bringing great disadvantage to individuals, families and communities, and with a compounding negative impact on economic development and growth. There are no winners in this scenario.

Getting different results requires school systems to work in different ways and programmes such as the MIT Tertiary High School lead the way.

Earlier access to vocational education and training has been shown in many studies to be an effective means of re-engaging the students heading towards the point of dropping-out.

The world has changed and with it the nature of economies, the capacity of employers to take on unformed novice workers, and the demands of employment. Where once doing not so well in school was able to be compensated for by early employment with sympathetic employers, failing in school now is highly dangerous.

The education system has to pick up a challenge now that, despite the rhetoric, it has never faced in the past. It must now prepare each and every student to make a meaningful contribution to their family, their community and the country and young people who are employable.

Currently we fall well short of this and will continue to do so while we resist the reality that in order to get different results, the education system will have to work in different ways.

Not all students will succeed in a school. There should therefore be multiple pathways that open up for them to continue their education as distinct from their schooling in different settings.

The MIT Tertiary High School is one example of a pathway that takes students who have little hope of reaching high levels of achievement in the school pathway. It is not a better pathway per se but it is a different pathway and for those who succeed because of it, a far better pathway.

Opening the Tertiary High School in 2010 required legislative changes for students to be enrolled at both a school and a tertiary institution, for funding from both sectors to be used, for the duty of care to be shared between providers, and for students under the age of 16 to be educated in a place that is not designated as a school.

There is now no impediment to creating new pathways for students who do not feature in the NCEA success rates.

The NCEA results of the MIT Tertiary High School form one piece of evidence that working differently can bring different results. Failure to accept this is simply to deny the opportunities and the results that come from working differently to young people who face becoming yet another grim statistic of failure.

Stuart Middleton is Director of the Centre for Studies in Multiple Pathways at Manukau Institute of Technology.




Pathways-ED: The Empty Schools of New Zealand

I spent a lovely holiday once across the idyllic Kennedys Bay on the Coromandel Peninsula. We camped under the trees in splendid isolation and away from all the madding and maddening crowds.

But it wasn’t always like this.  A little further around the bay there had been in the 1800’s a thriving little town – houses, hotel and a school.  It was there to exploit the kauri needed then for spars on ships.  But that all changed and the town dwindled until now there was in the early 1970s only one house there, occupied by an elderly couple from a family that went right back.  Some Chinese gooseberry bushes planted a hundred years earlier now owned the treetops in what once had been an orchard.

This is not a remarkable or even unusual story.  All around New Zealand there are examples of towns that no longer exist, of of railway stations that are no longer used, banks and post offices that are now put to different uses and empty schools.

There are a number of reasons why schools can be empty.  Small communities have drifted to other parts and the children served by the local school simply don’t exist.  It used to be a joke that Education Boards liked to appoint teachers to such generally isolated school who had large families because that would double the roll!  Changes in the nature of employment, a sawmill closing, a dairy factory (many of which are now empty) being amalgamated with another,  and changes in farm size and modus operandi were all reasons that led to the empty school.

I was told the other day in a casual conversation that there are close to forty schools in the central area of New Zealand that are likely to run out of students over the next few years.

The demographics will have a huge impact on the placement and viability of schools over the next 30 years.  It is claimed that over that time period, the increased demand for school places in Auckland will exceed the total provision of places in the rest of the country.  This seems remarkable and, put simply, we are clearly in for a shake up.

There are however some opportunities that arise from adversity.  Such an opportunity is currently playing out in Christchurch where efforts are under way to re-position resources to allow for schools that work in different ways and provide different pathways for young people.  That such reforms should be located into communities that are under pressure might be regrettable but the opportunity is compelling.  It would have been better perhaps to have these changes made as part of a national intention to review the provision of schooling.

The water-tightness (which is really water-looseness!) of many schools is an issue that is measured in billions of dollars.  What a tragedy it would be to see those buildings simply re-built to replicate traditional provision in the traditional place and in the traditional way.  And I am not fooled by much of what passes for much of modern school buildings.  It takes more than calling classrooms “learning spaces”, placing corridors on the outside of buildings and bringing the trees inside to change a school and the way that it works.

The real changes come from the changing needs of education and the growth of ideas around increasing success for more young children and the older ones too.  Schools need to become a more humane environment where there is more emphasis on what happens inside the spaces.  Perhaps we need to be less nostalgic about the importance of fields for the playing on.  In a community characterised by intensification the juxtaposition of schools and public spaces to maximise use of land will be inevitable.

There is also the changing ways of working.  The senior secondary school is experiencing one such change right now.  The development of alternative approaches under the Youth Guarantee policy umbrella is seeing increasing numbers of students seek to continue their schooling along different pathways.  Trades academies, secondary / tertiary programmes, developments such as secondary/tertiary programmes located in tertiary environments, fees-free places in tertiary for 16-17 year olds are all developments that provide places other than in a school completely or in part.  The scale is there – by 2015 there will be around 15,000 students undertaking all or part of their senior secondary schooling in these programmes.  This means for many, being in a place other than a school.  Smart schools will be positioning themselves for a future in 30 or 40 years that involves partnerships and collaborations and working in clusters, not to be competitive but in order to provide quality provision.

There will be empty schools, there always has been.  But it would be a great pity if this was something that simply happened to schools rather than being a matter of design, the outcome of pathways for education that were designed to increase educational success.

Schools shouldn’t simply die on the vine like the Chinese gooseberries at Kennedys Bay.


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Pathways-ED: Ranging across the jagged edge


It has long interested me that in education ideas come and go and some come and go again until the time is right or the soil is fertile and the context has become more compelling. This is the first in a series that will look such ideas that have come and gone and for which the time is now right to give serious consideration to those ideas.

Ranging across the jagged edge

In 1986, the late Phil Capper wrote a paper to the executive of the PPTA which he called The Jagged Edge. In this he surveyed a number of developments that had sought to respond to the changing conditions and demands of secondary education. He noted as important the then current curriculum and assessment reform, the development of transition education, the introduction of ACCESS (which he described as “the son of STEPS and the granddaughter of YPTP, parent of ……”), link programmes, education outside the classroom, the focus on bicultural education and lifelong learning.

Capper was making a simple point. Each of these developments constitutes a challenge to secondary education and there is a clear willingness to respond to those as they arise – usually by clipping something on to the system. But overall he sees these responses as ignoring a truth – that ”these developments make increasingly blurred (or jagged) the boundary between secondary education and things beyond secondary education.” He was to go on later in the paper to challenge the notion of secondary education as an entity.

He rightly characterised secondary schools as being in an invidious position – they fail to respond and in so doing miss the opportunities or they do respond then they have to make room “for a wide range of alternative methods of delivery, including such things as off-campus locations, courses with elements located partially in tertiary institutions, classes extending beyond the normal school day, increasing participation of adult students and units of instruction delivered by non-teacher specialists.”

Remember, this was written in 1986, 27 years ago.

He correctly linked the development of alternative approaches, usually shaped and funded as a special initiative such as ACCESS to “the disadvantaged and unemployed school leaver….. which is warning enough in itself.”

He got on the front foot on this issue and expressed a view that could find little support in 1986 and which is still resisted 27 years later.

“We can none of us be comfortable with the fact that there is no substantial training industry based on the raw material of alienated young people who hated and dete­sted their schooling.” (Capper’s emphases). “Even more disturbing, is that a good proportion of these respond positively to what is currently offered to them by tertiary providers.”

Capper painted a picture of the way forward as he saw it. In his future that included a jagged edge, the blurring of the boundaries between secondary and tertiary. He took an interesting tack – “It seems to me that the central assumption …of policies is that there is something called a seconday school in which people called secondary teachers impart something called secondary education to people called secondary pupils during a period known as the school day, term or year. When we encounter a person, activity, place or period of time which does not fit neatly into one of these packages, we spend a lot of time agonising, and then we may or may not develop a special case.” He argued that despite the willingness of schools to consider such “special cases”, he called for the need to consider a new policy setting that allows for working differently and concludes that such a setting would allow secondary education to “restate” their principles in ways that would make it possible to embrace special responses within these principles, rather than constantly making them [i.e. the responses] be seen as something beyond the norm and therefore rather dubious.”

Capper returned to these ideas in 1992 largely because other emphases had “swamped” the points he had raised in 1986 and he questioned the continued “validity of regarding the secondary service as a fixed and discrete entity.” He added another principle to his argument – the trends he was providing commentary on were “international trends.” He saw a consistent pattern in confusion that existed internationally and went on to put this into a context that sounds very much like a paradigm as outlined by Thomas Kuhn. He noted later that the “confusion is worst in the Anglo-Saxon countries.”

He spotted an important shift – age 16 years used to be the point of selection for further education and training but now, he asserted, “it is the point at which a diagnostic appraisal takes place to determine the most appropriate post-compulsory track.” He then outlined a future in which we could learn from the experience of others and spent time untangling further the central themes of his two papers – the secondary / tertiary divide.

His comments in this second paper which he described as an “issues-raising paper” was a discussion, that turned to thoughts of a future schooling delivered differently, in a new kind of space. He wondered with some optimism whether “the Picot reforms may prove to have been based on a disappearing model of what a school and its community actually is and therefore further administrative reform of a major nature may be required in 5-10 years’ time.”

The issues Capper raised are still there and the solutions and responses continue to be stubbornly elusive.



Capper P H, (1986)    Jagged Edge, NZPPTA, Wellington

Capper P H, (1992)    Jagged Edge Revisited: Part the First** – the Secondary Tertiary                                        Boundary, NZPPTA, Wellington.

** Capper wrote at the start of this paper that “Part the Second, to follow, will consider the primary-secondary boundary”


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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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Pathways-ED: Shaken and Stirred


There isn’t a person in New Zealand whose heart beats, who has a functioning brain, who understands the value of empathy and support in hard times who wouldn’t agree that the citizens of Christchurch have endured and will continue to face the most difficult situation experienced by New Zealand citizens in the modern history of New Zealand.

Harder than the Great Depression? Harder than the influenza epidemic in 1918? The Erebus disaster? The sinking of the Wahine? The Napier earthquake? The earthquakes and the ongoing aftermath in Christchurch seem somehow to eclipse all of this. That might be because time dulls pain and moves on and us with it. It might be because the media have an “in your face” presence in it all that wasn’t present in a less technological age.

But the re-organisation of schooling in Christchurch is playing out in the media in a fashion that raises many questions about the nature of professionalism and leadership in such times.

The use of school students, many very young, to man the barricades must have a huge question mark placed next to it. If the issue was the seashore, human rights, housing in New Zealand, the 1981 Tour we would have no difficulty in being hesitant in keeping the little ones out of it.

And the scale of the issues is not reflected in the coverage. The issue is the future of a relatively small number of schools in a city which has been badly knocked around, schools and school sites damaged and a quite understandable decline in student numbers. Not only does this represent an urgent need to respond to this situation but also an opportunity to do so in a manner that moves the education system forward. And this at a rare time – there is money to achieve it.

There would be little point in rebuilding the system exactly as it was in the manner that St Petersburg was restored after the 900 day siege during World War 2. Here is an opportunity to provide a group of children with new and better ways of working.

Most principals in New Zealand can attest to the difficulty of getting capital works underway – there are simply no resources for it. And yet I speak with many teachers and principals who have great ideas for working differently, many not a lot different from those being proposed in Christchurch. The MOE Report Directions for Education Renewal in Christchurch makes good reading when read at a distance not with the overlays of emotion and self-interest that we would all bring to it had we personally been affected. Other areas are thankful that they have not had that catastrophic impetus for such a report but might also be wondering if such a “renewal” approach would be a good thing in their area.

It therefore doesn’t surprise me that I am told that opposition to what is being proposed in Christchurch is balanced with a good deal of support. There are schools and principals and teachers who warm to the idea of working differently, in new structures and in facilities that simply do not replicate the old.

But support is not what the media seeks – John Campbell rides to new levels in the ratings on the back of the negative stories from Christchurch schools and Novopay (helped also to a large extent by the laughable but not funny television programme that the other crowd have started in his time slot).

The layers of emotion that the media have dished up in the discussions in the Christchurch education stories have also not been helpful. The community sees a lot of tears on television, what is needed in education stories is a bit more grunt about professional issues (consultation has possibly been one but you can’t rewind those films) and clear evidence about student achievement and learning. An inconsolable principal might be greatly sought out by the media but no argument is not advanced by it. The wearing of politicised apparel, the making of protest banners (some of which have simply been a lesson in rudeness and disrespect) and the access that the media has had to children all raise questions.

The key professional issue that has been buried by the media in all this is that the kinds of changes proposed are ones that might profitably be spread throughout the entire education system. Where are the plans for the development of a new system that groups students in more effective ways, provides teachers with the spaces and tools that would enable them to teach to the high levels to which they are capable? A legacy for Christchurch might be that it led the way – education for the 21st Century might be to Christchurch what Art Deco is to Napier.

One thing we can be certain of is that when the dust settles the media will have moved on to another story in another place with a different group of protesting people, teachers and students will still be there doing good work, unnoticed and looking back and wondering about it all.



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Pathways-ED: The Select Committee Bouquet


St Valentine’s Day – a day of romance, love, the joy of hope, the euphoria of positivity.

Just like yesterday when the Education and Science Select Committee started hearings on the Education Amendment Bill which among other things give the warrant for Charter Schools (now known as Partnership Schools Kura Houora).  As could be predicted the submissions did not require even the hearings for their content to be known.

Except for the Ombudsman who drew attention to what surely was a mistake in the drafting of the Bill – of course any sort of school should be subject to ombudsman scrutiny. Then I wondered – are independent schools subject to ombudsman inquiry? Must find out! Integrated schools? Surely!

The ombudsman’s reported comments simply said that in the education cases she dealt with, it seemed mostly to be about stand-downs and expulsions that schools had “cocked up”  and “cocked up big time”. This, I hope, was an exaggeration which flowed from the moment rather than a calm assessment of the workload.

But calm assessment seemed from the reports to have been something a little light on the ground at this first day of hearings.

I am amazed that education which ought to be identified with reason, with evidence and with scholarly discourse, prefers to present itself as something else.

No survey study of charter schools anywhere has found that they are without exception, a “bad thing”. Generally the evidence is that there are good charter schools, middling charter schools and poor charter schools. It is clear that there are good state schools, middling state schools and poor state schools – we aspire of course to have good state schools. An interesting piece of the charter school evidence is that the proportions of good to middling to poor reflects closely the proportions of good to middling to poor schools in the respective state system.

Would anyone set out to create a middling or a poor Partnership School Kura Houora? Of course not. Therefore blind opposition can only be ideological rather educational in origin.

It surprised me that there was so little reported commentary on the general issue of school success and failure or of disengagement and truancy as key education issues that any new development must address. If a new development does not engage in activity that will deliver higher levels of success and lower levels of disengagement it would be probably not worth doing. This might have formed part of the submissions. If it was, then it has failed to make an impact on the media.

In our peculiarly Anglo-Saxon education system (and in our peer systems of Australia, the UK, the US and parts of Canada) the key issues in education are the levels of success and  failure in the education system, levels of disengagement from it and professional support for teachers working in it.

It is therefore good to see that the Education Amendment Bill ties educational achievement to the responsibilities of the Board of Trustees. The key role of governance bodies such as Boards of schools is to provide returns to the shareholders and increase the value of the operation. In schools this is less about money but very significantly about the success that is brought into the homes of tax payers who support the schools through their investments of time and work.

Issues of health, housing, youth justice, for instance, have their solution in education. Not that schools should attempt to directly address health issues directly other than by playing a proper educative role and perhaps working closely with health providers, nor should they attempt to address hunger which is a role of central government – Finland feeds everyone in schools, the US and UK means test eligibility for lunch while we  struggle to put on a little breakfast in the odd place.

Getting the focus clearly and back on achievement is perhaps the matter in this Education Amendment Bill that has the potential to make the biggest difference.

As for Charter Schools – New Zealand, building on its long experience with charters for all schools, might be able to show others that with focus they can become another way of working. Of course working differently has never been very popular in New Zealand – that is a problem which often hides a solution.

We need lots of educational red roses!


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Talk-ED: Change in Auckland without the shake


There was a good response from the piece last week about the population changes facing New Zealand as the growth focuses on the Auckland Region. The fact that 38% of New Zealand’s population would be contained in the Auckland region quite clearly has implications for all other regions. I suggested that the changes proposed for Christchurch should be the start of a national discussion on the forms of education and training that are appropriate for the future.

One correspondent thoughtfully asked “And what are the implications for Auckland? Do you think that no changes are called for?” And so, on to Chapter 2…

Quite clearly Auckland will change quite dramatically and the large amount of green field development will see large areas requiring new schools, better transport and increased education provision right through the system. So here are some suggestions.

New early childhood education centres and schools will be required as new communities are developed particularly in the north and the south of the region. It is wishful thinking to believe that this can happen without changes to existing provision. Some schools will close; others will need to get larger; some will merge; and so on. It will be Christchurch come to Auckland albeit a much gentler shake-up.

As increased interest in the schooling sector starts to promote the notions of different ways of working, of a multiple pathways approach to senior secondary schooling, of increased growth of secondary / tertiary interface programmes and other new ways of working, the face of the secondary school system will inevitably alter. Auckland has recently seen the building of Junior and Senior High Schools without any overall view as to the role of such institutions and the impact of this development on the wider system.

So how will Auckland change in its education provision?

For a start, it is expensive to provide great increases in university places. I suggest that the Epsom and Tamaki campuses of the University of Auckland be converted into “community colleges” taking students from Year 13 and combining it with the first one or two years of an undergraduate degree. This would create space in secondary schools and at the university where the impact of such a move on undergraduate / postgraduate ratios would be advantageous. Equitable provision would probably demand that such a community college be established in the north of the city as well.

Polytechnic provision. Given the fact that Auckland already has less polytechnic provision than the population demands and the fact that participation in polytechnic education and training is at half the level of the national rates, this sector is one in which large growth can be expected. This should be planned growth rather than reactive provision which always runs after demand and never quite gets there. There is probably a good case for another large polytechnic to be created in Auckland or it could be a major new campus within a federal relationship with either or both of the two existing polytechnics.

A clear emphasis on growth of provision in Auckland must be on trades and technical areas (Disclosure: I work in a polytechnic) but this is essential for the skills levels of in both Auckland and the rest of New Zealand. The skill base needed to maintain industries and infrastructure and to cope with extraordinary demands such as is currently evident in the Christchurch Rebuild, the Leaky Building Response and the sheer size of the demand for new housing in Auckland. A significant portion of these new skills will have to come from Auckland. Therefore, look to see an increase in programmes such as those currently under the banner of the Youth Guarantee policy, look to see an increase in early access to vocational education and training, look to see young people get traction from Vocational Pathways and so on.

In short, we are facing a major repositioning of education especially in the senior secondary school and that will inevitably be the basis on which new secondary schools and other kinds of education and training provision that will be developed in response to the new demands.

You can be sure that Auckland will face changes that are dramatically more significant than those elsewhere which will be typified by a need to cope with declining demand across the education system.

Sensible management of the education system will seek to maintain universities at a viable and productive size throughout New Zealand so that will be one area where Auckland students might just have to travel to access university education if they fail to secure a place in an Auckland institution. And that is not such a bad thing.

We are talking about these major changes being required within 30 years. The discussion must start now.



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Pathways-ED: Accentuate the positive!


There is something a little misleading when arguments are conducted mostly in the negative. A recent educationalist from Finland visited the country and most of the media coverage appeared to be a list of things not to do. It was a catalogue of things that were familiar to us.

Don’t have a national testing regime, don’t consider differential pay for performance and so on. They constituted a list that fitted neatly into the predilection of those who argue for no change.

What would have been instructive would have been the challenges that the Finnish experience poses to the New Zealand current way of working. Here is a little list of things that Finland has done and which the same educationalist is enthusiastic about:

  1.     provide free lunches to every child in school;
  2.     unify the Year 1-10 into one sector with shades of difference rather than wholesale difference between the first 7 years and the last three years;
  3.     introduce a clearly differentiated set of pathways at the Year 10-13 level that includes access to technical and vocational pathways;
  4.     treat young adults like adults rather than the young – the upper secondary school allow for student choice, are not based on age related cohorts, students choose courses rather than subjects and so on;
  5.     make a Masters level degree the basic teaching qualification at all levels;
  6.     require regular upgrading of qualifications of teachers;
  7.     make teaching a high-appeal career – 10% of applicants are selected (compared to 42% in New Zealand) and teachers are held in higher esteem that doctors by the public;
  8.     cluster schools and allow a lot of local independence in each school;
  9.     all tuition right up to university qualification is free;
  10.    there is only one teachers organisation that covers the total spectrum from pre-school through to higher education.

All of this requires a vision and a level of professionalism that we have yet to achieve. Especially in the matter of social justice and equity. The Finns believe that learning about and within a mixed social environment is a key contributor to one of the major outcomes of education – a society that is just, fair and balanced in its respect between people and the way it treats special need and disadvantage. Schools therefore are planned to be mixed to something of the same degree.

The result of this appears to have been a key to producing the smallest difference between schools in the OECD without detracting from and perhaps actually being a key contributor to Finland’s high PISA ranking. Meanwhile we continue to wear decile ratings as either a mark of honour or a badge of shame greatly to the detriment of one end of the range and consequently we have one of the biggest gaps between schools. In dropping decile ranking in its reports, is ERO giving a message to us all?

To return to the nature of what we call the senior secondary school years – Years 11-13. In Finland the Years 11 -13 are based on courses that last about six weeks. Students choose the courses they want on the basis of their pathway plan (each student has a personal careers advice / information /guidance / education allowance). Systems of co-requisites and prerequisites give longitudinal coherence to study without compromising the choice element.

In this tertiary style approach, Finnish students are required to complete 70 courses in the three years. Most students study more than the minimum and many achieve around 90 courses successfully completed. Meanwhile we struggle to get many students up to the minimum.

While the teacher education results in the Masters level qualification required for teaching at all levels and while those courses have quite a degree of shared content, there is a slightly different emphasis in what appears to be three slices – the pre-school / early years, the middle years of the “community school” and the upper levels of that school. But the shared level of course content that all have allows for flexibility.

Finally,there is the question of hunger – does New Zealand have the hunger to do the things that need to be addressed to lift our world rating and to move our education system into the ranks of systems with equitable results? Finland clearly did but we need to take a good hard look at ourselves.

The public discourse is all about what NOT to do with very little focus on changes that need to be made. In this respect the discourse is timid and negative. Let’s get rid of the fear of ideas and have much more talk about what we might do. It has become a cliche that to continue to do the same things but expect different results is a clinical sign of madness. The evidence suggests that change is needed, big change, and fast.

When visitors come to New Zealand we should exhaust every last idea they have which might inform or excite us rather than simply seek support for digging our collective toes in.


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Talk-ED: Solutions for a Solution


The Christchurch earthquakes and all that has gone with it have placed demands on a community that are alongside the devastation that the two world wars wreaked on the communities of New Zealand.

But if you can put the events of the quakes to one side, there might be lessons in the proposed re-organisation of schooling in Christchurch that has recently been announced. Perhaps all communities in New Zealand should be taking stock of current provisions, places and procedures of schooling and ask whether they deserve close examination.

Take the placement of schools. The principles by which school were located were originally that a young person should be able to walk to school or be taken to school by a school bus ride that was not unforgivable often along unsealed and poor roads. Those criteria have been well and truly shot to pieces in many communities, especially in the cities and towns where the middle classes and the rich take their little ones to school in SUVs and suchlike. It is really only in what we identify as low decile communities that walking is the norm. The school walking buses are a commendable exception to this rule. In the space of a generation biking to school has all but disappeared. And in country communities there are now generally better and sealed roads and better buses and it is conceivable to consider longer distances. 

So what powerful arguments exist that schools should continue to exist in the exact locations that they have in the past?

Well, tradition might be one reason and I can see the old secondary school sites being retained. But many of the old primary schools were located in parts of towns that might no longer have the communities of little ones to sustain them. A huge number of our schools were built in the 1950s and 1960s to cope with the baby boom and so the “traditional” argument might not be all that strong. It could simply be that we have too many schools, and some in the wrong places.

Then there is the matter of school size. I hear from many teachers that where schools use size to advantage then bigger is better. Just how much bigger might well be a moot point but where the resource base is able to provide choice and support across the entire diversity of a school population then it is a good thing. Where it is not then it is a pointless argument.

But perhaps the largest question I have about the “Christchurch Solution” is that it fails to address the sectors and their current structure, the place of senior secondary schooling and the development of choice through multiple pathways for students. It is in essence a housekeeping exercise with the existing ways of working which rearranges the furniture.

The results of schooling in New Zealand suggest that a more radical set of reforms is needed. If we were to look at the Finnish reforms that have taken the education system in that country to the top of the world three might be an argument for considering:

  •          changes to the sectors where a comprehensive “primary” sector would have responsibility for ages 5 to 16 with the eldest three years of this group (“lower secondary schools) starting the process of preparing students for the next step but doing this within the sector;
  •          the introduction of three year upper secondary schools that offer choices to students through academic tracks to university and vocational pathways into the trades and professions;
  •           rethinking the nature of a “local” school.

This last point is the most challenging. The Finnish put together teachers who previously worked in different kinds of schools and working to the view that understanding and working through human diversity was in itself an important educational goal, brought together students from different backgrounds, ethnicities, aspirations and circumstances. At the same time they eased the central controls on schools so that each school could introduce practices of a small-scale democracy (vivat Dewey). Teachers managed difference in the classroom through differentiated approaches often supported by assistant teachers.

This of course implies a more controlled system of allocating school places to produce the balance – the Finnish did it, such courage. Could we accept that parish pump and self-interest needs to be replaced by diversity and national goals? Do we really want to perform like Finland?

A system based on the principle of equal opportunity is one we aspire to but while we continue to work in a system that is structurally in opposition to such a goal, equitable outcomes will remain elusive. The cities and town of New Zealand should all be addressing these issues and starting to exhibit a willingness to consider new structures and ways of working or do we simply continue to do the same thing and get the same results?

In many respects the Christchurch proposals don’t go far enough – disruption on that scale that will lead simply to a perpetuation of the same way of working which is a disappointment. On the other hand it is a little unfair to expect Christchurch in these stretched times to alone make changes that should be permeating through the entire country.


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Talk-ED: A new year, a new response?


Stuart Middleton
23 January 2012

It’s that time again when all over the country students set off to start another calendar year of schooling, education and training. Some of those students will be the first batch of the 30,000 or so who will start school for the first time having reached that magic day, their fifth birthday. What a wonderful thing it is that we retain this tradition rather than do the bulk lot thing that they do in other systems (the Feb or Sept start).

The social contract is clear. Students are required to attend school regularly starting at the appropriate age, do what is asked of them, develop appropriate social behaviours and wear correct uniform. For their part, schools are required to teach a specific curriculum to a set of specific standards. If each party meets its obligations a young person should be able to face a secure future with knowledge, skills and aspirations that will take them into adulthood and able to earn a family sustaining age.

Well, that is all very well and good in theory. Increasingly schooling in schools is not enough and a postsecondary qualification is essential. So that brings into play another set of complexities – tertiary education. The young one’s starting school do not realise the extent to which that will present challenges that they are not often able to control.

So all of these little ones and their bigger brothers and sisters setting off to school at the moment in their new polo shirts of primary colours and sun hats big enough to camp under, face a treacherous pathway ahead. Actually they would have walked to school once upon a time but now an armoured division of SUVs will see them safely to school in many suburbs while in others parents will walk to school with them.

Do they know what their chances are?

I did a little study – what a real statistician would call a quick and dirty job – of a cohort of 100 New Zealand babies, right numbers of different ethnicities and so on, and applied what we know to be the success/failure trajectories of each group. I concluded that of those 100 babies born last year, only 29 would achieve a postsecondary qualification on the current performance of the education system, 71 would not. And I do not mean a degree qualification. I mean anything from a postsecondary certificate up. So about one in three will reach the minimum level of qualifications required.

That aligns with what we know to be the picture of disengagement and I do not see evidence that suggests that there is a trend of improvement. The increase in disengagement is stubbornly resistant to the efforts of educators.

One reason is that the demographics are working against us – the groups of students we teach well and to internationally stunning levels are getting smaller while the groups that struggle (and have for longer than we care to admit) are getting bigger.

Add to that the steady placement of vocational education options at increasingly older entry levels along with a blind belief that the comprehensive secondary school might meet the needs of all students (it never has in the past why should it now?) and that figure of 29% successfully competing a postsecondary qualification looks to be a stretch in 30 or 40 years.

Change in the education system is urgently needed and that is up to the grown ups not the little ones. So here is an agenda for professional concerns in 2012:

First, all jurisdictions want accountability one way or another so get over it and move on. If National Standards are right then change them but work constructively in the system rather than continue to bamboozle the community by staunchly rejecting standards – well that is how it seems to an outsider.

Secondly, seriously question whether we have been pulling the wool over the community’s eyes on the question of what schools can actually do. Less is more in curriculum design so sorting out what matters and doing that will make all the other stuff easy to do. If someone can read well they can do anything. Equitable access to technology is more important than more programmes (admit it, you got a gadget for Xmas and gave it to your grandchild to show you how to get it going).

Let’s be adamant about what schools can do and then ensure that we do that stuff so well that each and every student will receive a brilliant start in life through education.

Thirdly, get purpose into the lives of young people at school. Why they are there is the most important factor – if I ask a child in school the question “Why are you doing that?” and they cannot answer I seriously question the quality of the teaching.

Related to this is that focus on the end game of education. Forty years ago when everything seemed to be working and most people were in fact working, a central goal of education was to equip people to work. Is that such a bad thing? Sanitising education so that it is not tainted by vocational goals is crazy. Actually the universities know this and are blatantly vocational under the guise of being the critics and conscious of other people.

Having a strong focus on employability in real jobs need not in any way jeopardise the attainment of a liberal education which is in fact one which liberates and what could be more liberating to those imprisoned by educational failure to have such a quality education?

None of this seems very difficult really. It is just that it is urgent! Those little fellows starting the journey over the next 10 days or so need to be assured that it is worthwhile. The results in the school success statistics in 2025 will not be some disembodied set of figures, they will in fact be each and every one of these little ones.


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